Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798: America’s Quasi War with France

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As America entered into its undeclared war with France, decisions made by the Federalist leadership in Washington assured the eventual destruction of their own party.

To declare war, according to President John Adams, was considered a last resort, though such an action was indeed being called for by many in the President’s own Federalist party (including Alexander Hamilton, the party’s primary voice) who felt that France needed to be thoroughly dealt with in order to protect American interests.

The president surely did not rule out the option of war entirely, though, as he stated in the second State of the Union Address: “But in demonstrating by our conduct that we do not fear war in the necessary protection of our rights and honor we shall give no room to infer that we abandon the desire of peace.”

A Second Delegation

Adams, in order to avoid war if at all possible, yet without the support of congress, sent still another delegation to France (the first being the delegation who instigated the XYZ affair), who brought with them a very serious threat of war.

In light of Adams’ threat, the delegation was finally allowed to enter France and begin discussing ceasefire agreements with then French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, a man who, like Adams had no love for the French revolution (a fact which had, in fact, gotten him excommunicated in 1791), and through this, the war that never officially existed (while claiming a grand total of 20 American lives) eventually died down altogether.

This was John Adams’ greatest achievement politically, but also a central element in ending his career politically.

Federalist Opposition

During the quasi-war with the French, the Federalists, led by Hamilton, had been busy pushing Adams toward war with France, which brought upon the entire Federalist Party severe backlash from the American public, mainly as a result of writings and commentaries by prominent Democratic Republicans such as the Vice President himself, Thomas Jefferson.

In an effort to dissuade these anti-federalist commentaries, the Federalist congress passed the infamous Alien and Sedition acts in 1798 which instituted three new laws concerning the treatment of foreign “aliens” and another concerning sedition (speaking out against the government in such a way that may incite rebellion).

The Alien laws gave power to the government to imprison or deport citizens of enemy nations, to deport citizens of friendly nations if the government thought them to be a threat, and made it necessary for a foreigner to live in the United States for 14 years before applying to become a citizen. The sedition law made it possible for the government to prosecute any who would speak out openly against the government, especially concerning the possible war with France. Laws such as these, while arguments may be made in their favor at certain times, are rarely very popular amongst the populace at large.

The backlash from the Alien and Sedition acts was intense from all sides. Democratic Republicans immediately came out against the acts as being unconstitutional and contrary to the freedom of speech and of the press granted in the Bill of Rights.

Even John Adams was personally against the acts, yet being a Federalist, he was just as much a target of the backlash as the congressional Federalists who had passed them. The backlash was so severe, in fact, that the Federalist Party would never again be able to gain its footing in American politics. Ironically, the act that the party used in order to save itself from the fickle American people, turned out to be the death blow for the party, and for John Adams’ attempt at reelection (he never could distance himself from the more extreme elements of his party).

And it was all a result of a little war that didn’t really exist in the first place.

Reference:

  1. McCollough, David. “John Adams.” Simon and Schuster. 2002.
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