On this day in 1798, President signed The Alien and Sedition Acts into law, making it illegal to criticize the government, any elected official or any appointed official.
At that time France and the United States were in a heated conflict. Just 22 years earlier they were allies in American Independence. The conflict put a strain on the newly formed nation. The Federalist Party, run by Alexander Hamilton and of which John Adams was a member of, believed that resident aliens would support France and that dissent from the Democratic-Republican Party, the opposition party, was subversive. In an effort to expel foreigners and quiet dissent, they passed four acts which became known as The Alien and Sedition Acts.
- The Naturalization Act, enacted June 18, raised the numbers of years in residence required for citizenship from five to 14 years.
- The Alien Friends Act, enacted June 25, allowed the president to deport any alien deemed to be “dangerous to the peace and safety” of the U.S.
- The Alien Enemies Act, enacted July 6, allowed the president to deport any alien from a country at war with the U.S.
- The Sedition Act outlawed conspiracies “to oppose any measure or measures of the government.” It made “false, scandalous and malicious writing” against Congress or the president punishable by fine or imprisonment.
The Sedition Act was set to expire on March 3, 1801, the last day of Adams’ presidency. Federalists contended that it was necessary to ensure that Adams could fulfill his obligations as president without interference.
Vice President Thomas Jefferson and other Democratic-Republicans who opposed the Sedition Act claimed that it granted too much power to an already authoritative government.
In the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, which he wrote anonymously, Jefferson called for the annulment of the Sedition Act. He asserted that it was unconstitutional under the 10th Amendment, which reserves to the states all powers not specifically granted to the federal government by the Constitution. James Madison included similar arguments in his draft of the Virginia Resolutions in 1799, also written anonymously.
In response to the Virginia Resolutions, state legislators in New England, New York and Delaware passed counter-resolutions defending the Sedition Act. The resolution of Massachusetts—Adams’ home state—argued that it was “wise and necessary” because public criticism of authority served only “the purpose of perverting public opinion, and threatened to undermine and destroy the whole fabric of the government.”
At least 26 critics of the Adams administration, ranging “from the editor of the most influential opposition newspaper in the nation to a New Jersey resident who drunkenly jeered” Adams, would be tried under the Sedition Act between 1798 and 1801, writes Bruce A. Ragsdale, director of thr Federal Judicial History Office.
The “Sedition Act trials, along with the Senate’s use of its contempt powers to suppress dissent, set off a firestorm of criticism against the Federalists and contributed to their defeat in the election of 1800,” explains the National Archives.
Jefferson opposed Adams in the election of 1800 and won with 61 percent of the vote. He would repeal the Naturalization Act, and allow the Alien Friends Act and Sedition Act to expire, pardoning all those who had been prosecuted under the Sedition Act. Only the Alien Enemies remains as law.