The Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798 were the first threat to constitutional guarantees in America and led to calls for state sovereignty over federal authority.
In the United States’ first decade of existence, tensions mounted with Great Britain and France over improper seizures of American shipping on the high seas. Meanwhile on the home front, political factions were forming in the federal government between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans (i.e., Republicans).
The Federalists favored closer relations with Britain, a strong federal government and a loose interpretation of the Constitution. The Republicans favored closer relations with France, a limited federal government and a strict interpretation of the Constitution. By 1798, the Federalists controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency.
Federalist Majorities Fear Opposition
When U.S. diplomats attempted to negotiate a peace with France, French agents refused to talk unless a bribe was first paid. This prompted many Federalists in Congress to call for war against France. Furthermore they feared that pro-French citizens and immigrants, primarily Republicans, would undermine a war effort by favoring France over their own country.
As a result, the Federalist majority passed a series of laws in the summer of 1798 that became known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These were intended to tighten immigration restrictions, limit critical speech against the government, and curtail “anti-American” (i.e., Republican) criticism in the press.
The Measures and Their Justification
The Alien and Sedition Acts consisted of four measures:
- The Naturalization Act lengthened the requirement for foreigners to receive citizenship from five to 14 years. This was primarily aimed at French and Irish immigrants, most of whom were Republicans.
- The Alien Act and Alien Enemies Act authorized the president to arrest or deport “dangerous” aliens with “treasonable” leanings during peacetime and wartime respectively. Leading Republican Thomas Jefferson believed that these acts were aimed at his political ally, Albert Gallatin, because he was born in Geneva.
- The Sedition Act prohibited criticism of the government, particularly in newspapers and public speeches. This was aimed at critical Republican newspapers.
Federalists defended these laws as a means to stop disloyalty and give the president redress against defamation. They also cited the recent “Reign of Terror” in France and expressed fear that government criticism would spark a similar bloody rebellion in the U.S.
Opposition and Enforcement
Republicans not only opposed the acts but they were outraged by the way they were enforced. Many Republican newspaper editors were jailed and their papers suppressed. Other Republicans were harassed and threatened with arrest. Federalist judges used the loosely worded laws to trump up charges and imprison political dissenters.
Republican Congressman Matthew Lyon denounced these acts and spat in the eye of a Connecticut Federalist. He was jailed and won reelection while imprisoned. The Alien and Sedition Acts proved to be the first crisis concerning the viability of the constitutional guarantees of free speech, press, association, assembly and expression.
The Assertion of State Sovereignty
In addition to charges of unfair enforcement, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison argued that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional in their Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. The resolutions cited the Tenth Amendment, under which powers not delegated to the federal government belong to either the states or the people. Thus the acts, by violating the First Amendment, violated the Tenth Amendment as well and should be considered null and void.
Jefferson and Madison further declared that the laws infringed on state sovereignty, which violated the compact between the states and the federal government. Under this “compact theory,” since the states existed before the federal government, and since the states voluntarily agreed to form the United States for their mutual benefit, the states had the right to nullify federal laws deemed unconstitutional.
This was the first doctrine of states’ rights, and it introduced the principle of nullification that would be invoked to challenge federal authority in the future.
Unintended Consequences of the Acts
Like most federal legislation, the Alien and Sedition Acts produced unintended consequences. First, the laws proved so unpopular that they led to sweeping Republican victories in the 1800 elections, including the election of Thomas Jefferson as president. The acts were rescinded after Jefferson took office.
Second, the Federalists never fully recovered from Jefferson’s victory in 1800 and the faction eventually dissolved, only to be resurrected as the Whig Party in the 1830s, and again as the Republican Party in the 1850s.
Third and perhaps most importantly, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions introduced the concepts of state sovereignty and nullification that would become the primary political issues of the 19th century, ultimately leading to civil war.
- Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael: A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2004)
- Wallechinsky, David and Wallace, Irving: The People’s Almanac (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1975)
- Woods Jr., Thomas E.: The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2004)