The Alien and Sedition Acts: The Federalists and War Paranoia

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, 2ND EDITION

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

The initial support for John Adams and the Federalists soon turned into distrust, and then opposition. This was the result of a set of controversial acts supported by the Federalists: the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Picture showing American and French ships at war during the Quasi War.
The naval war with the French created a war scare in the United States. This turned public opinion against the French and their supposed Republican supporters. (Image:Rear Admiral John William Schmidt (Ret.) (1906-1981)/Public domain)

Federalist Accusations of Republican Treason

The height of the war scare in the summer of 1798 turned Americans against anything and everything French. Soon, Federalist newspapers began raising the stakes of accusation.

They began suggesting that the Republicans’ admiration for France made every Republican at best a potential tool of French policy, and at worst, a traitor.

War scare paranoia hit its peak in the summer of 1798, in Congress, in the form of a series of bills known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts were really four separate bills introduced by the Federalists in an effort, as one of their sponsors Senator James Lloyd of Maryland wrote to Washington, “to enable us to lay our hands on traitors”.

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The Naturalization Act

The first of the Alien and Sedition Acts was the Naturalization Act. The Naturalization Act aimed to increase the amount of time that it would take for an alien to go through the process of becoming an American citizen. It expanded from five to 14 years the statutory length of residence that immigrants had to spend in the United States before they could be naturalized as citizens.

This was aimed pretty plainly at keeping political power, for as long as possible, out of the hands of people born in other countries. It was presumed that people born in other countries, especially if they were born in France, would be presumably sympathetic to the Republicans.

Ostensibly, this was supposed to inject an element of caution into the naturalization process. But the political logic underneath the surface was to keep Republicans struggling for votes.

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Acts Concerning Aliens and Alien Enemies

The Naturalization Act was followed by the Act Concerning Aliens, and the Act Concerning Alien Enemies.

These two bills gave the president sweeping powers to act against those who were still only immigrants, by permitting their arrest and deportation if they were suspected of treasonable or secret leanings.

Portrait of Harrison Gray Otis, the sponsor of the Alien Acts.
Harrison Gray Otis was a Federalist member of Congress who introduced the Alien acts. (Image: Chester Harding/Public domain)

The bill’s sponsor, Harrison Gray Otis, explained pretty candidly that his legislation was prompted by his desire that “we not wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all parts of the world to come here with a view to disturb our tranquility, after having succeeded in the overthrow of their own governments. So let immigrants be put on notice by these bills, that if they immigrate to the United States, they can be sent back at a moment’s notice, by order of the president if there was a suspicion that they have been involved in treasonous or seditious activities.” The definition of ‘treasonous or seditious activities’ was left unexplained.

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The Sedition Act

The next of the Alien and Sedition Acts was the Sedition Act. This bill turned its attention to the native-born version of potential traitors.

The Sedition Act established heavy fines and even imprisonment for writing, speaking, or publishing any false, scandalous, and malicious writings with intent to defame or to bring into contempt or disrepute the president or Congress.

One supposes at this point that even someone who indulged in political humor—making a joke about John Adams—might well have found themselves falling under the ambit of the Sedition Act.

The Acts Backfire on the Federalists

It didn’t take very long to discover who the most likely targets of the bills would be. Matthew Lyon was arrested under the terms of the Sedition Act when his Vermont Journal recommended that John Adams be committed to a madhouse.

Thomas Jefferson’s favorite editor—the Irish-born William Duane—was indicted for seditious libel in Philadelphia. The indictment was overturned, only to be reinstated again in July of 1799, and then quashed again by a Senate committee.

Jedediah Peck was an anti-Federalist Justice of the Peace from Otsego, New York, who opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts as incredibly unwise. When he criticized the Acts, he found himself indicted for seditious libel and hauled to New York City in chains.

All told, 25 people were arrested under the terms of the Alien and Sedition Acts. But instead of silencing some subversive Republican or French fifth column in the United States, all this did was convince everyone that John Adams and the Federalists had simply gone over the top.

The Resurgence of Pro-Republican Sentiment

Image of William Duane, the Republican editor.
William Duane, Jefferson’s favorite editor, was twice indicted for sedition under the new laws. (Image: Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin/Public domain)

Arrests and trials under the Acts were turned into anti-Federalist carnivals. The Philadelphia jury that quashed William Duane’s first indictment took less than half an hour to deliberate, and their verdict was greeted with cheers.

When Judge Peck was brought manacled and dragged from his home to New York City, his journey turned into what you can only call a martyr’s progress.

One description if this journey was: “A hundred missionaries in the cause of democracy stationed between New York and Cooperstown could not have done so much for the Republican cause as this journey of Judge Peck, as a prisoner from Otsego to the capital of the state. It was nothing less than the public exhibition of a suffering martyr for the freedom of speech and the press, and the right of petitioning to the view of the citizens of the various places through which the marshal traveled with his prisoner.”

Common Questions about the Alien and Sedition Acts

Q. What was the Naturalization Act?

The Naturalization Act expanded from 5 to 14 years the statutory length of residence that immigrants had to spend in the United States before they could be naturalized as citizens.

Q. What powers did the American President have under the Act Concerning Aliens and the Act Concerning Alien Enemies?

The Act Concerning Aliens and the Act Concerning Alien Enemies gave the American president sweeping powers to act against those who were still only immigrants, by permitting their arrest and deportation if they were suspected of treasonable or secret leanings.

Q. What was the Sedition Act?

The Sedition Act established heavy fines and even imprisonment for writing, speaking, or publishing any false, scandalous, and malicious writings with intent to defame or to bring into contempt or disrepute the president or Congress.

Q. Who were the first victims of the Alien and Sedition Acts?

Matthew Lyon was arrested under the terms of the Sedition Act when his Vermont Journal recommended that John Adams be committed to a madhouse. Thomas Jefferson’s favorite editor—the Irish-born William Duane—was indicted for seditious libel in Philadelphia. Jedediah Peck, a Federalist Justice of the Peace from New York, found himself indicted for seditious libel when he opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts as incredibly unwise.

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