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The Alien And Sedition Acts Essay, Research Paper

The Alien and Sedition Acts were four laws passed in 1798. The Naturalization Act raised the number of years of United States residency required for naturalization from 5 to 14. The Alien Act empowered the president to arrest and deport aliens considered dangerous. The Alien Enemies Act provided for the deportation of subjects of foreign powers at war with the United States. The Sedition Act made it illegal to publish certain statements against the government, oppose lawful acts of the Congress of the United States, or aid a foreign power in plotting against the United States. These laws were in response to the harsh criticism that was drawn by the administration of John Adams by newspaper editors and public speakers.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were enacted by a Congress dominated by the Federalist Party and signed by President John Adams during a crisis with France. Though the acts were allegedly in response to the hostile actions of the French Revolutionary government on the seas and in the councils of diplomacy. They were designed to destroy Thomas Jefferson’s Republican party, which had openly expressed its sympathies for the French Revolutionaries. Depending on recent immigrants from Europe for much of their voting strength, the Republicans were adversely affected by the Naturalization Act. It postponed citizenship, and thus voting privileges until the completion of 14, rather than 5, years of residence. The Alien Act and the Alien Enemies Act, gave the President the power to imprison or deport aliens suspected of activities posing a threat to the national government. President John Adams made no use of the alien acts. Most controversial, however, was the Sedition Act. It was devised to silence Republican criticism of the Federalists. Its broad proscription of spoken or written criticism of the government, the Congress, or the President virtually nullified the First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press. Prominent Jeffersonians, most of them journalists, were arrested under these laws.

Thomas Cooper (1759-1839) was an American scientist, educator, and political philosopher. As a supporter of the Jeffersonian opposition to the Federalists, he wrote many political pamphlets, especially against the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Convicted under the acts, he was imprisoned and fined $400. William Duane (1760-1835) was an American journalist. An able and courageous writer, he made the Aurora the leading Jeffersonian organ. His sarcastic criticism, however, led to his arrest (1799) under the Alien Act. Acquitted, he was arrested again under the Sedition Act. Matthew Lyon (1750-1822) was an American political leader and pioneer. From 1797 to 1801 he was a vociferous Anti-Federalist member of the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1798 he was convicted under the Sedition Act for the publication in the Vermont Journal of a letter criticizing President John Adams. While serving a short jail sentence, he was re-elected to Congress.

The dispute over these Acts brought about fierce party rivalry between the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists. Federalists defended the Sedition Act by saying that the Freedom of Press was never meant to give the freedom to publish slanderous articles and falsehoods. The Republicans however felt that the Alien Act gave the president too much power and the Sedition Act was to be used to punish those who spoke against the Federalists and therefore perpetuate Federalist control of congress.

The Republican-controlled Congress repealed the Naturalization Act in 1802; the others were allowed to expire (1800-1801). The Jeffersonian Republicans first replied with the Kentucky Resolutions. They were adopted by the Kentucky legislature in November, 1798. Written by Thomas Jefferson himself, they were a severe attack on the Federalists’ broad interpretation of the Constitution, which would have extended the powers of the national government over the states. The resolutions declared that the Constitution merely established a compact between the states and stated that the Federal government had no right to exercise powers not specifically delegated to it under the terms of the compact. Should the Federal government assume such powers, its acts under them would be unauthoritative and therefore void. It was the right of the states, and not the Federal government, to decide as to the constitutionality of such acts. A further resolution, adopted in February, 1799, provided a means by which the states could enforce their decisions by formal nullification of the objectionable laws. A similar set of resolutions were adopted by Virginia in December, 1798, but these Virginia Resolutions, written by James Madison, were a somewhat milder expression of the strict construction of the Constitution and the compact theory of the Union.

Although it might seem as though the Alien and Sedition Acts had no real effect beyond 1802, they did help destroy the Federalists. They only existed beyond 1800 as judges on federal courts serving life terms. The Alien and Sedition Acts also unified the Republican Party and secured a victory for the Republican Thomas Jefferson in 1800. They also provoked the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. Written respectively by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, these resolutions affirmed the rights of the states to determine the validity of laws passed by the federal government. Thirty years later John C. Calhoun adopted this notion as the basis for his theory of nullification of federal laws.

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