Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in the summer of 1798 as tension between Federalists and Republicans peaked. Federalists, led by President John Adams, sought a strong, orderly central government, and feared the chaos of the French Revolution. Republicans accused Federalists of instituting a tyranny similar to the one they had struggled against in the American Revolution. Lauding the efforts of French revolutionaries, they believed that a minimal central government best served the people’s interests.
Federalists, the party in power, framed the Alien and Sedition Acts. As hostilities loomed between France and the United States, the three anti-alien laws targeted French and pro-French immigrants whom Federalists thought brought dangerous political ideas to America; moreover, Federalists believed, those recent arrivals would likely support the Republican party. Thus, the Naturalization Act instituted a residency requirement of fourteen years before citizenship could be granted; the Alien Act authorized the president to deport any alien he deemed dangerous to the security of the United States; and the Alien Enemies Act allowed the president to deport aliens of an enemy country or restrict their freedoms in times of war. The Sedition Act targeted Americans themselves. Because opposition had not yet gained legitimacy in American politics, the Federalist-controlled presidency and congress sought to limit Republican influence. The Sedition Act forbade opposition to laws of the federal government and made it illegal to publish criticism of the government.
Concerned citizens around the country petitioned President Adams to oppose the restrictive measures. Adams responded with a series of public addresses admonishing the people against factional divisions and foreign interference in American government. His administration vigorously enforced the legislation: under the Sedition Act, the most controversial of the four, several Republican newspaper publishers were arrested, and ten were convicted for seditious libel before the Acts expired in 1801. After the Republicans took office in 1801, Federalists found themselves the victims of their own policies when the new administration prosecuted several Federalist editors in state courts. More than tools of partisan politicking, however, the Alien and Sedition Acts brought to the fore the issues of free speech and the balance of power between the state and federal governments. It also forced Americans to grapple with the fact that instead of classical republican harmony or unitary support for presidential leadership, dissent would thereafter characterize American politics.
James Roger Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 163-186.
Alfred H. Kelly, Winfred A. Harbison, and Herman Belz, The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development, vol. 1, 7th ed., (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 130-32.
Kermit H. Hall, Major Problems in American Constitutional History, vol. 1 (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992), 231-234, 253-274.