The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 — Four laws that led to the downfall of the Federalist Party

1798

The Alien and Sedition Acts were four laws passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress and signed by President John Adams intended to reduce foreign influence in the United States and public criticism of the government. However, the laws were controversial and contributed to the rise of the Democratic-Republican Party to power in 1800.

John Adams, Portrait, Stuart

John Adams was President when the Alien & Sedition Acts were enacted. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Alien and Sedition Acts Summary

The Alien and Sedition Acts were four laws passed by the United States Congress in 1798 during the Presidency of John Adams. At the time, the Federalist Party controlled Congress, and Adams was a member of the party. Following the events of the Citizen Genêt Affair, the XYZ Affair, and the opening of the Quasi-War with France, there was a significant anti-French sentiment in the United States. The Federalist Party, who supported close tied with Great Britain over France, pushed the laws through, arguing they would control the activities of foreigners in the United States. The Acts were met with opposition and criticism from Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, who argued they were unconstitutional and violated Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press. The Acts were repealed or expired by 1802 and contributed to Jefferson winning the Presidential Election of 1800, which ushered in the Jeffersonian Era.

Thomas Jefferson, Painting, Rembrandt Peale
Thomas Jefferson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Alien and Sedition Acts Dates

  1. June 18, 1798 — The Naturalization Act extended the residency period from 5 to 14 years for aliens seeking citizenship; this law was aimed at Irish and French immigrants who were often active in Republican politics.
  2. June 25, 1798 — The Alien Act allowed the expulsion of aliens deemed dangerous during peacetime.
  3. July 6, 1789 — The Alien Enemies Act allowed the expulsion or imprisonment of aliens deemed dangerous during wartime. This was never enforced, but it did prompt numerous Frenchmen to return to France.
  4. July 16, 1789 — The Sedition Act provided for fines or imprisonment for individuals who criticized the government, Congress, or president in speech or print.

Alien and Sedition Acts Facts

  1. The Alien and Sedition Acts were a set of four laws passed by the United States Congress in 1798 during the presidency of John Adams.
  2. The four laws were the Naturalization Act, the Alien Friends Act, the Alien Enemies Act, and the Sedition Act.
  3. The Sedition Act was the most controversial and made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the federal government, Congress, or the president and was used to silence political opposition.
  4. The Alien and Sedition Acts were criticized as unconstitutional and a violation of freedom of speech and the press and played a role in the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800.
  5. Democratic-Republicans responded to the acts by writing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves, which contributed to the Nullification Crisis — a direct cause of the Civil War.
  6. Federalists claimed that the laws were enacted to control the activities of foreigners in the United States during a time of impending war with France.
  7. The only journalists prosecuted under the Sedition Act were editors of Democratic-Republican newspapers.
  8. The constitutionality of the Sedition Act was never determined by the Supreme Court because it expired in 1801, and the doctrine of Judicial Review was not established in the Marbury v. Madison decision in 1803.
  9. One of the people indicted for stirring up sedition was Democratic-Republican Congressman Matthew Lyon, a harsh critic of President Adams. Lyon successfully conducted his re-election campaign from jail in 1800.
  10. After becoming President, Thomas Jefferson pardoned all of those that were convicted of crimes under the Sedition Act.

Alien and Sedition Acts Overview and History

The Alien and Sedition Acts were a series of four laws passed by the United States Congress in 1798 during a period of tension with France. The acts were proposed by the Federalist Party, which was led by Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, and President John Adams. The purpose of the acts was to reduce foreign influence in politics and the media.

The Citizen Genêt Affair

The Citizen Genêt Affair — also known as the French Neutrality Crisis — was a diplomatic incident between France and the United States that took place from 1793–1794. In 1793, France declared war on Britain. Under the provisions of the 1783 Franco-American Alliance, the French appealed to the United States for support and sent Edmond Charles Genêt to America to negotiate. However, instead of going to Philadephia to meet with President George Washington, he started by gathering American citizens to volunteer to help France fight Britain and Spain. Washington responded by issuing the Proclamation of Neutrality, which Genêt ignored. Soon after, Genêt defied Washington and sent a ship out of Philadelphia to attack British ships. This could have led Britain to declare war on the United States. Washington and his cabinet responded by asking the French Government to recall Genêt and send a new Ambassador. The French agreed and sent a replacement — but also accused Genêt of treason. Genêt asked for political asylum in America, which was granted, and he spend the rest of his life living in New York. The affair deepened the divide between political parties in the United States but also led the government to define its policy regarding neutrality and the passage of the Neutrality Act of 1794.

Edmond Genêt. Image Source: Albany Institute of History & Art.

The Jay Treaty

Soon after, the United States signed a treaty with Great Britain that was meant to keep the peace between those two nations. The Jay Treaty was not popular in the United States, and it was not popular with France, who viewed it as the Americans siding with the English. The French government also believed the actions of the United States violated the Treaty of Alliance, which had been signed during the American Revolutionary War.

Adams Elected President

On September 17, 1796, President Washington published his “Farewell Address.” He announced he would not seek a third term as President. This led to the contentious Election of 1796, which resulted in John Adams being elected as the second President, and Thomas Jefferson being elected as Vice-President. Although Adams and Jefferson were close friends due to their service during the American Revolutionary War and Confederation Congress, they were members — and leaders — of different political parties. Adams was a member of the Federalist Party. Jefferson was a member of the rival Democratic-Republican Party. Adams was inaugurated on Saturday, March 4, 1797, and inherited the trouble with France.

The XYZ Affair

One of the first things Adams did was meet with Jefferson to discuss sending emissaries to France to join the ambassador to France, Charles C. Pinckney. Adams suggested sending Elbridge Gerry and James Madison. However, members of Adams’s cabinet, who were Federalists, were staunchly opposed to Madison, a Democratic-Republican.

When Adams decided he needed to send someone else instead of Madison, Jefferson saw it as giving in to party politics. On the other side, Adams saw Jefferson’s unwillingness to accept another Federalist as the second emissary as following his party’s line. From that point forward, according to Jefferson, Adams never again sought his opinion on political matters. John Marshall would eventually join Gerry as an envoy to France.

The negotiations led to the XYZ Affair — a diplomatic scandal that happened when French officials tried to bribe American diplomats. When the plot was exposed, anti-French sentiment rose in America, and the slogan “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute” became popular. Congress re-established the United States Navy and American ships battled with French ships on the high seas in an undeclared naval war known as the Quasi-War

Charles C. Pinckney, Portrait, Trumbull
Charles C. Pinckney. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Quasi-War Begins

On July 7, 1798, Congress rescinded all treaties with France. The same day, the USS Delaware captured the French privateer La Croyable off the shore of New Jersey. It was the first victory for the new United States Navy. The Navy took the La Croyable, added it to its fleet, and renamed it the USS Retaliation.

President Adams and Congress were criticized by newspapers that supported the Democratic-Republicans for how the XYZ Affair was handled. However, Federalists did well in the elections of 1798 and increased their majority in the House of Representatives. 

Passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts

As the threat of war with France increased, the Federalists in Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The laws placed new restrictions on immigrants and foreigners living in the United States and made it illegal to make false or libelous statements about the federal government or the President. 

The first law passed on June 18, 1798, was the Naturalization Act, which required aliens — immigrants — to be residents of the United States for 14 years instead of 5 years before they became eligible for citizenship. It was meant to restrict the ability of immigrants to participate in elections.

The second law passed on June 25, 1798, was the Alien Friends Act, which gave the President the ability to deport foreigners who were considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” during peacetime. It was aimed at foreign spies and people living in the United States who were from a country that was at war with the United States.

The third law passed on July 6, 1798, was the Alien Enemy Act, which authorized the arrest, imprisonment, and deportation of foreigners who were acting on behalf of an enemy power during a time of war. The Alien Enemy Act is the only one of the four laws that are still active today.

The fourth law passed on July 14, 1798, was the Sedition Act, which declared that any activity deemed to be treasonable, including the publication of “any false, scandalous and malicious writing,” was a high misdemeanor (crime), punishable by fine and imprisonment. The Sedition Act was put into practice by the Federalists, and more than 20 people — most of them editors of newspapers that supported the Democratic-Republicans — were arrested. Some were thrown in jail, forcing their newspapers to close. The arrests were made as their newspapers had printed what the government considered to be malicious remarks about the president or government of the United States of America.

The Sedition Act was the most controversial of the four acts. Many people believed it was unconstitutional because it violated the rights of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press, which are protected by the First Amendment. The other laws reducing and denying the rights of immigrants were never enforced at the time. The Sedition Act expired on March 3, 1801, the last full day of Adams’ presidential term in office.

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions

The Democrat-Republicans believed the Alien and Sedition Acts were aimed at silencing them and their supporters. In response, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, in secret, wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which challenged the Alien and Sedition Acts on the grounds that they went beyond the powers specifically granted to the federal government in the U.S. Constitution. Such an extension of federal power was an encroachment on states’ rights. The Resolutions brought the idea of nullification into play, meaning states could nullify federal law, or declare it unenforceable within their borders.

James Madison, Painting
James Madison. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Quasi-War Ends and Peace with France

The United States Navy dominated the Quasi-War. Then, on November 9, 1799, Napoleon rose to power in France and changed the direction of French politics and foreign policy, including a better relationship with the United States. President Adams sent official envoys to Europe to meet with French officials at the Convention of 1800. The convention was successful and on September 30, 1800, the Treaty of Mortefontaine was signed, ending the hostilities of the undeclared war. The Treaty terminated all previous agreements and reestablished trade ties between the two nations.

The Election of 1800 Begins the Jeffersonian Era

Despite the success of the Quasi-War and peace with France, the Alien and Sedition Acts caused outrage among U.S. citizens. The strength of the opposition was so strong the government feared a violent uprising and riots, similar to those that took place during the French Revolution. President John Adams even feared for his life, as did many Federalist politicians. The public opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts was so immense that they were, in part, responsible for the election of Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, to the presidency in 1800.

Alien and Sedition Acts Significance

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 are important to United States history because they challenged the Freedom of speech and the Freedom of the Press guaranteed by the First Amendment. The laws were passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress and signed into law by President John Adams, also a Federalist. The four acts were aimed at addressing concerns over national security during a time of war with France and during the aftermath of the French Revolution, but they were highly controversial. The Democratic-Republican Party wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which challenged the constitutionality of the acts. The Alien and Sedition Acts were also a factor in the Election of 1800, which saw Thomas Jefferson defeat John Adams for President, which started the Jeffersonian Era.

Alien and Sedition Acts Frequently Asked Questions

What did the Alien and Sedition Acts do?

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were a collection of four laws passed by Congress during the presidency of John Adams. The first three acts, known as the Alien Acts, restricted the rights of immigrants and gave the President the power to deport them during peacetime or imprison them during wartime. The fourth act, known as the Sedition Act, made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, or malicious writing” against the government or its officials, and it was aimed at suppressing criticism of the Adams administration.

What was the purpose of the Sedition Act?

The Sedition Act, which was part of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, was designed to suppress criticism of the Adams administration and the Federalist Party. The law made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, or malicious writing” against the government or its officials, and those convicted could be fined or imprisoned. The Sedition Act was widely criticized for violating the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and the press.

Why were the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional?

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were widely criticized for violating the Constitution, particularly the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and the press. The Sedition Act made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, or malicious writing” against the government or its officials, which many felt was a clear violation of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. The Alien Acts also faced opposition for restricting the rights of immigrants to the United States, which was seen as a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

Who passed the Alien and Sedition Acts?

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress and signed into law by President John Adams. The Federalists believed that the laws were necessary for national security and aimed at making the nation safe for trade and wealthy men of property. However, the laws were deeply unpopular and contributed to the decline of the Federalist Party, helping to pave the way for Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800.

Alien and Sedition Acts AP US History (APUSH) Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Federalist Era, and the United States Consitution for the AP US History Exam.

Alien and Sedition Acts APUSH Definition

The Alien and Sedition Acts refers to a series of four laws passed by the United States Congress in 1798, during the presidency of John Adams. The laws were intended to protect national security during a time of hostility with France but were controversial for their restrictions on immigration and limitations on free speech. The laws were seen as unconstitutional by many and were a significant factor in the rise of political opposition to the Federalist Party, as well as the eventual election of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency in 1800.

American History Central Resources and Related Topics

Alien and Sedition Acts Video for APUSH Review

This video from Adam Norris reviews everything important about the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions for the APUSH Exam.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 — Four laws that led to the downfall of the Federalist Party
  • Date 1798
  • Author
  • Keywords Alien and Sedition Acts, Federalist Party, John Adams, Citizen Genet Affair, Proclamation of Neutrality, Jay Treaty, XYZ Affair, Quasi-War, Election of 1800, Virginia and Kentucky Resolves
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 5, 2024

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