The Alien and Sedition Acts for APUSH
About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.
In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.
The Alien and Sedition Acts
The Alien and Sedition Acts were a series of four laws enacted by Congress in 1798. As a group, these laws made it more difficult for aliens to become citizens, allowed the president greater latitude in deporting or imprisoning non-citizens, and constricted free speech by making it illegal to utter or print false statements about the government. These laws were enacted on the heels of the XYZ Affair in conjunction with the undeclared naval war (or Quasi-War) with France. They were aimed at silencing Republican criticism of John Adams and reflected serious concern over the increasing role of French operatives in the American political system. They established the precedent that during war, declared or undeclared, the federal government assumed the right to limit civil liberties.
A New Revolution, A New Problem
The Alien and Sedition Acts came about as a result of the French Revolution and the subsequent declaration of war by France on England in 1793. Washington formally declared the United States a neutral country in the conflict, but Americans divided into pro-French and pro-English camps. Some, like Jefferson’s supporters, saw the French Revolution as an attempt to overthrow tyranny in the same way the colonists had overthrown British tyranny in 1776. Others, supporters of Adams and Hamilton, saw the French Revolution as the overthrow of the established order resulting in anarchy and viewed the strong central government of Great Britain as a much more preferable model. For the United States, neutrality, in truth, meant that both Great Britain and France would attempt to prevent American goods from reaching their enemy, frequently in violation of the established precedents of neutral rights. Ultimately French attacks on neutral shipping led to the XYZ Affair and deteriorating relations with France. Many Federalists called for war with France, but Adams, putting national interest above party, resisted believing that the United States was not in an adventitious position to go to war. Nevertheless, Adams came under severe criticism from the Democratic-Republican press.
Neutrality, in truth, meant that both Great Britain and France would attempt to prevent American goods from reaching their enemy, frequently in violation of the established precedents of neutral rights. Many Federalists called for war with France, but Adams, putting national interest above party, resisted. Nevertheless, Adams came under severe criticism from the Democratic-Republican press.
Practical, but Flawed
The Alien and Sedition Acts were in some ways justified because of French attempts to undermine American neutrality. As early as 1794, Citizen Genet attempted to recruit American privateers to raid British shipping, a clear violation of American neutrality. Subsequently there was a concerted French attempt to influence the American political system, particularly by gaining control of the print media. Nevertheless the Alien and Sedition Acts were used as a tool to silence Democratic-Republican criticism of the Adams administration. Democratic-Republican newspaper editors were particular targets, though certainly not the only ones, in the enforcement of the acts. Even Matthew Lyon, a Vermont Congressman, was jailed and fined for composing “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” criticizing John Adams for his “continual grasp for power [and] unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and selfish avarice.” He was reelected to office while in jail. Coincidentally the Sedition Act was designed to expire on March 3, 1801, Inauguration Day for the next president. Since immigrants tended to vote for Democratic-Republicans, increasing the time period for becoming a naturalized citizen by the legislation was designed to benefit Federalist candidates for office, as well.
Nevertheless the Alien and Sedition Acts were used as a tool to silence Democratic-Republican criticism of the Adams administration.
To Nullify, or Not to Nullify? That is the Crisis…
Predictably Democratic-Republicans renounced the Alien and Sedition Acts as unconstitutional, violating the rights of free speech and freedom of the press. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison penned the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions establishing a premise for states’ rights that would not be resolved until the end of the Civil War. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions presented the “compact theory” of government which contended that the Union was a voluntary association of states. Further, they contended that when the federal government behaved in an unconstitutional manner, states could “interpose” themselves between the federal government and their citizens (that is, prevent the law from being enforced). According to Jefferson and Madison, states also had the right to “nullify” federal laws they considered to be unconstitutional and to ultimately secede from the Union if the federal government refused to rescind any of these laws. Such logic was used in the Nullification Crisis in the 1830s, when South Carolina nullified the Tariff of 1832 and again in 1860 as the basis for the secession of South Carolina. The northern victory in the Civil War cemented the concept that the United States was a “perpetual union” and that states could neither nullify federal law nor secede.
Jefferson and Madison, states also had the right to “nullify” federal laws they considered to be unconstitutional and to ultimately secede from the Union if the federal government refused to rescind any of these laws. Such logic was used in the Nullification Crisis in the 1830s.
A Sticky, and Seditious, Idea
However, the idea remained that the national government had the right to suppress First Amendment rights in times of crisis. During the Civil War, Ohio Copperhead (Democrats who criticized Lincoln’s prosecution of the war) Clement Vallandigham was convicted and banished to the Confederacy for saying that “King Lincoln” was pursuing a wicked, cruel, and unnecessary” war “for the purpose of crushing out liberty.” During World War I, the Sedition and Espionage Acts were passed designed to stifle criticism of the war effort. Socialist Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison for violating the Espionage Act for saying, among other things, “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.”
The idea remained that the national government had the right to suppress First Amendment rights in times of crisis.
Similar constrictions of civil liberties have occurred in World War II (Japanese internment camps), during the “Red Scare” (McCarthyism), during the War in Vietnam (with the Pentagon Papers), and even during the “War on Terror” (with the Patriot Act), to name but a few.
Exposing and Edge
The Alien and Sedition Acts and the subsequent reaction to them in the form of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (compact theory of government, nullification, and secession) set in motion a chain of events which eventually led to the Civil War. Beyond that, the Alien and Sedition Acts highlighted a basic problem in American democracy. In a two-party system, a major function of the minority party is to critique the performance of the majority party. In times of crisis, it is very tempting for the majority party to constrict civil liberties to protect the country from real or imagined threats. It is also very tempting for the majority party to exaggerate and exploit threats posed by the speech of the opposition party for political gain. The discriminatory enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts and subsequent Sedition and Espionage Acts against political opposition have frequently called into question the “preferred position” of First Amendment rights.
The Alien and Sedition Acts and the subsequent reaction to them in the form of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (compact theory of government, nullification, and secession) set in motion a chain of events which eventually led to the Civil War.