Alien and Sedition Acts

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Text of the act.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were four bills passed in 1798 by the Federalists in the United States Congress—who were waging an undeclared naval war with France, later known as the Quasi-War. They were signed into law by President John Adams. Proponents claimed the acts were designed to protect the United States from alien citizens of enemy powers and to stop seditious attacks from weakening the government. The Democratic-Republicans, like later historians, attacked them as being both unconstitutional and designed to stifle criticism of the administration, and as infringing on the right of the states to act in these areas. They became a major political issue in the elections of 1798 and 1800. One act — The Alien Enemies Act — is still in force in 2009, and has frequently been enforced in wartime. The others expired or were repealed by 1802. Thomas Jefferson held them all to be unconstitutional and void, then pardoned and ordered the release of all who had been convicted of violating them.


[edit] Acts

There were actually four separate laws making up what is commonly referred to as the "Alien and Sedition files "

  1. The Naturalization Act (officially An Act to Establish a Uniform Rule of Naturalization) extended the duration of residence required for aliens to become citizens to 14 years. Enacted June 18, 1798, with no expiration date, it was repealed in 1802.
  2. The Alien Friends Act (officially An Act Concerning Aliens) authorized the president to deport any resident alien considered "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States." "The Naturalization and Alien acts of 1798 were aimed largely at Irish immigrants and French refugees critical of the Adams administration".[citation needed] Enacted June 25, 1798, with a two year expiration date.
  3. The Alien Enemies Act (officially An Act Respecting Alien Enemies) authorized the president to apprehend and deport resident aliens if their home countries were at war with the United States of America. Enacted July 6, 1798, with no expiration date, it remains in effect today as 50 U.S.C. § 21-24. At the time, war was considered likely between the U.S. and France.
  4. The Sedition Act (officially An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against the United States) made it a crime to publish "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or its officials. Enacted July 14, 1798, with an expiration date of March 3, 1801.

[edit] Constitutionality

While Jefferson did denounce the Sedition Act as invalid and a violation of the First Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights, which protected the right of free speech, his main argument on the unconstitutionality of the act was that it violated the Tenth Amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Jefferson more strongly argued the Federal Government had overstepped its limits in the Alien and Sedition Acts by attempting to exercise unjust powers. Apart from Virginia and Kentucky, the other state legislatures (all of them Federalist), rejected Jefferson's position by resolutions that either supported the acts, or denied that Virginia and Kentucky could denounce it.[1]

The judicial redress for unconstitutional legislation under the doctrine of judicial review was not established until Marbury v. Madison in 1803. The Supreme Court in 1798 was composed entirely of Federalists, all appointed by Washington. Many of them, particularly Associate Justice Samuel Chase, were openly hostile to the Federalists' opponents. The Alien and Sedition Acts were not appealed to the Supreme Court for review, although individual Supreme Court Justices, sitting in circuit, heard many of the cases prosecuting opponents of the Federalists.

In order to address the constitutionality of the measures, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sought to unseat the Federalists, appealing to the people to remedy the constitutional violation, and drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which called on the states to nullify the federal legislation. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions reflect the Compact Theory, which states that the United States is made up of a voluntary union of States that agree to cede some of their authority in order to join the union, but that the states do not, ultimately, surrender their sovereign rights. Therefore, under the Compact Theory, states can determine if the federal government has violated its agreements, including the Constitution, and nullify such violations or even withdraw from the Union. Variations of this theory were also argued at the Hartford Convention at the time of the War of 1812, and by the Southern states just before the American Civil War.

The Sedition Act was set to expire in 1801, coinciding with the end of the Adams administration. While this prevented its constitutionality from being directly decided by the Supreme Court, subsequent mentions of the Sedition Act in Supreme Court opinions have assumed that it would be ruled unconstitutional if ever tested in court. For example, in the seminal free speech case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Court declared, "Although the Sedition Act was never tested in this Court, the attack upon its validity has carried the day in the court of history." 376 U.S. 254, 276 (1964).

[edit] Elections of 1800

Although the Federalists hoped the Act would muffle the opposition, many Democratic-Republicans still "wrote, printed, uttered and published" their criticisms of the Federalists. Indeed, they strongly criticized the act itself, and used it as one of the largest election issues. It also had enormous implications on the Federalist party after that point, and ended up being a major contributing factor of its demise. The act expired when the term of President Adams ended in 1801.

Ultimately the Acts backfired against the Federalists; while they prepared lists of aliens for deportation, many aliens fled the country during the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Adams never signed a deportation order. Twenty-five people, primarily prominent newspaper editors such as Benjamin Franklin's grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache but also Congressman Matthew Lyon, were arrested. Of them, eleven were tried, Bache died awaiting trial, and ten were convicted of sedition, often in trials before openly partisan Federalist judges. Federalists at all levels, however, were turned out of power, and, over the following years, Congress repeatedly apologized for, or voted recompense to victims of, the enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Thomas Jefferson, who won the 1800 election, pardoned all of those that were convicted for crimes under the Alien Enemies Act and the Sedition Act.

[edit] Full cites

  • An Act to Establish a Uniform Rule of Naturalization (Naturalization Act of 1798), June 18, 1798 ch. 54, 1 Stat. 566
  • An Act Concerning Aliens, June 25, 1798 ch. 58, 1 Stat. 570
  • An Act Respecting Alien Enemies, July 6, 1798 ch. 66, 1 Stat. 577
  • An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against the United States (Sedition Act), July 14, 1798 ch. 74, 1 Stat. 596

[edit] See also

[edit] Bibliography

  • Elkins, Stanley M. and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism (1995), the standard scholarly history of the 1790s.
  • Miller, John Chester. Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts (1951)
  • Rehnquist, William H. Grand Inquests: The historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson (1994); Chase was impeached and acquitted for his conduct of a trial under the Sedition act.
  • Rosenfeld, Richard N. American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns: The Suppressed History of Our Nation's Beginnings and the Heroic Newspaper That Tried to Report It (1997), clippings from a Republican newspaper
  • Smith, James Morton. Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties (1967).
  • Stone, Geoffrey R.Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from The Sedition Act of 1798 to The War on Terrorism (2004).
  • Alan Taylor, "The Alien and Sedition Acts" in Julian E. Zelizer, ed. The American Congress (2004) pp. 63–76
  • Wright, Barry. "Migration, Radicalism, and State Security: Legislative Initiatives in the Canada's and the United States c. 1794–1804" in Studies in American Political Development, Volume 16, Issue 1, April 2002, pp. 48–60
  • Bill Ong Hing, Anthony D. Romero, "Defining America Through Immigration Policy" Chapter 1, Pgs 17-19., Published by Temple University Press, 2004

[edit] Primary sources

[edit] Notes

[edit] External links

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