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The Debate Regarding the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 (2003) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

The Debate Regarding the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 (2003) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 20, 2014
Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2003 and published in four parts on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007.  The essay earned over 14,000 page views on Associated Content/Yahoo! Voices, and I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  ***
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 20, 2014

Mid-1798 was the culmination of a development of heated antagonisms which had entangled the United States on both the domestic and the foreign scenes. The passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in June and July of that year was met with a myriad of responses by various influential individuals and political movements within the country, thus adding fuel to a multifaceted dispute. Key areas of intense disagreement included relations with European powers, the nature of acceptable political dissent, and the distinction between loyalty to the Constitution and the present wielders of power.

This essay will examine the historical events and controversies central to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts and the debate regarding them.

American Diplomacy with Britain and France


In 1793 France, engulfed by a bloody revolution, declared war on Holland, Spain, and its archrival, Great Britain. The United States encountered a dilemma; it maintained key ties with both France, its principal ally by the Treaty of Alliance of 1778, and Great Britain, its chief commercial partner and the source of much of its overseas revenue.

In April 1793, Citizen Edmond Genet, a representative of the French government, employed the alliance with the United States as the pretext for recruitment of Americans on American soil to fight the British in the Western hemisphere (Norton 219). Genet also sought to entangle America in the war with Great Britain, facing instead a neutrality proclamation by President Washington, who strove to retain friendly impartiality between the United States and each of the warring powers.

Meanwhile, in hopes of averting war with England and resolving matters such as the stationing of British troops in the American Northwest and the British seizure of American merchant ships with French wares from the West Indies, Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to negotiate a treaty in 1794-95. The treaty satisfied a substantial portion of the United States’ requests and set its relations with Britain on a stable footing (Norton 221).

In the meantime, however, the Jay Treaty provoked a reaction by France, manifested by the Directory’s order to intercept American vessels that transported British goods. Upon the deployment of John Marshall, Elbridge Gerry, and C. C. Pinckney for the purpose of negotiating an end to these violations, the American envoys were met by three agents of Foreign Minister Talleyrand, who demanded a bribe, a loan, and an apology for President Adams’ anti-French remarks before the negotiations could even begin. Their extortionist approach was publicized in the “XYZ Affair,” which sparked a severe attitudinal backlash against France within the United States (Norton 224).

Federalists’ and Republicans’ Views of Britain and France


As fighting between American and French navies in the Caribbean developed into an unofficial war, the ruling Federalist Party in the United States saw the volatile situation as a pretext for implementing domestic controls. Hence, the Alien and Sedition Acts, legislation that lengthened immigrants’ naturalization period (Naturalization Act), gave the President almost unlimited power to detain (Alien Enemies Act) or deport them (Alien Friends Act), and rendered any criticism of government policy a virtual crime (Sedition Act), came into being. The Federalists hoped thereby to kill two birds with one stone, to actively resist France and to crush their primary political rivals, the Democratic-Republicans.

The dispute over foreign affairs was one of the key issues which separated the advocates of the Alien and Sedition Acts from their opponents. The rampant Reign of Terror during the French Revolution horrified many Federalists, and the effrontery of Commissioners X, Y, and Z even further intensified their hostilities toward France.

James Madison wrote concerning President John Adams’s opinion of France that Adams considered the French and American revolutions to be diametrically opposite in principle. Alexander Hamilton added that it would be treason for an American to sympathize with France and thereby offend his own government, which had been so callously mistreated. Hamilton and the High Federalists especially constantly urged for an official declaration of war against France during 1798-99 (Norton 226).

The Republicans, on the contrary, sympathized with the French Revolution and viewed the XYZ affair as exploited out of proportion by the Federalists to advance the ulterior motives of the latter. Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Madison that the XYZ papers were revealed to the American public in a misconstrued format, for the purpose of creating an intentional “shock” and arousing animosity against France.

While the Federalists sought stable commercial and cultural relations with Britain, the Republicans sensed danger in all things British. Jefferson, writing to Phillip Mazzei, explicitly mentioned the Federalists’ association with England and English monarchy, and the purported desires of the Federalists to re-impose British-style government on the United States. While the Federalists perceived the integrity of America as threatened by French extortion, the Republicans saw a radically different menace in British-imitating aristocracy. Whereas the Federalists persecuted French sympathizers because of the alleged threat to national security that the latter caused, the Republicans saw the threat in the Federalists’ persecution itself.

Arguments About the Permissibility of Political Dissent


Aside from issues of desirable American foreign policy toward Britain and France, the arguments over the Alien and Sedition Acts also encompassed issues of free speech and political dissent.

For the Federalists, the acts were an opportunity, explicitly acknowledged by Senate whip Theodore Sedgwick, to eliminate factionalism and opposition within the country. Fifteen indictments and ten convictions resulted from the Acts, the victims including outspoken Republican newspaper editors and Matthew Lyon, a Republican congressman (Norton 224).

The Federalists did not consider the silencing of critics to be in opposition to the First Amendment; John Allen, a Federalist congressman, expressed the generally prevailing view within his party that the freedom of the press did not imply the right to slanderous smearing or incitement toward subversion of lawful government. Allen’s statement assumed that the integrity of Federalist policies was beyond question, and anyone who doubted their validity was automatically a liar and an insurrectionist.

In short, the Federalists did not see a distinction between forceful revolution and peaceful denunciation of government policies. The Republicans, on the contrary, recognized the philosophy behind the Sedition Act to be a foundation for dictatorial oligarchy and the antithesis of a free society.

Representative Edward Livingston, for example, noted that the Acts invested in the President (and his Federalist-packed courts) the authority to determine what constituted a crime under them, whom to convict, and how to punish the convicted. Thus, the Acts violated the balance between the various branches of government and tipped the scales in extreme favor of the executive.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison undertook a campaign against the Acts on a state level, drafting the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which proclaimed the laws unconstitutional due to the fact that state approval of the measures had been bypassed. The Constitution and the Federal Government, it was argued, were the products of a compact amongst the states, and the Federal Government’s legislation possessed no legitimate connection to the interests of the people unless verified by more direct representatives thereof (Norton 225). Thus the Republicans, far from espousing any anti-American rhetoric, actively condemned Federalist policy using the principles of the American revolution and of a limited government that safeguards, not violates, the sacred liberties of man.

It is fortunate that the Republicans won the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts, thereby setting a strong precedent against government suppression of criticism which has lasted to this day. Free political speech came under attack in the United States during the first decades of the country’s existence, and it thankfully withstood that attack.

Loyalty to the Constitution Versus Loyalty to the Government


In the political disputes over the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the distinction between loyalty to the Constitution and loyalty to the established government further separated Federalists and Republicans in the controversy over the Acts.

Representative Albert Gallatin criticized the Federalists for equating the two loyalties and, in contraposition, the two disloyalties. The idea that an opposition to the temporary majority of the present day is an opposition to the Constitution was, according to Gallatin, “subversive of the principles of the Constitution itself.”

The Federalists, by rendering criticism of their measures illegal, would thereby institutionalize their regime into a force-backed behemoth that would no longer be susceptible to the interests and displeasures of the people. With the press silenced, both sides of an issue would not be able to be transferred to the public, who would thus be manipulated by the government into favoring the incumbency. How, then, would the First Amendment apply? This perversion of the public’s electoral right was, stated the Republicans, the gateway to dictatorship.

Both the Federalists and the Republicans viewed each other as traitors to the American essence. The former categorized treason as dislike of the political status quo, whereas the latter saw the status quo as a form of treason in itself.

On the foreign front, the Quasi-War with France was resolved during the Convention of 1800, canceling the Treaty of Alliance of 1778 and freeing America from all binding foreign obligations (Norton 226).

Domestically, the Alien and Sedition Acts proved to be the Federalists’ undoing. Matthew Lyon, arrested during the Federalist reign of censorship, would cast the deciding ballot in favor of Republican Thomas Jefferson in 1800. Jefferson would pardon all persons convicted under the Sedition Act.

The Acts themselves expired in 1801, and the newly empowered Republicans had no intention of renewing them. The controversies over foreign affairs, political dissent, and the nature of Constitutional adherence were ultimately resolved in the Republicans’ favor; war with France was averted, freedom of speech reinstated, and loyal opposition forces encouraged in American politics up to the present day. Since the death of the Alien and Sedition Acts, America has remained a haven for spirited and vibrant ideological dispute.

To this day, it is urgent for Americans to keep in mind that loyalty to the United States and to the Constitution does not necessarily imply loyalty to the government currently in power, which can and often does trample on America’s founding principles and neglect the proper nature and limits of its operation.


Norton, Katzman, et. al. A People and a Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

That Cold-Hearted Discipline – Article by David J. Hebert

That Cold-Hearted Discipline – Article by David J. Hebert

The New Renaissance Hat
David J. Hebert
November 6, 2013

But of all the duties of beneficence, those which gratitude recommends to us approach nearest to what is called a perfect and complete obligation. What friendship, what generosity, what charity, would prompt us to do with universal approbation, is still more free, and can still less be extorted by force than the duties of gratitude. —Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

A recent article by Wharton Professor Adam Grant has been popping up here and there, most recently in Psychology Today. Grant suggests that studying economics breeds greed, and he cites several studies to support his claim. The studies conclude economics professors give less money to charity than other professions, economics students are more likely to deceive others for personal gain, and people who study economics have less of a concern for fairness and tend to think that “greed” is okay.

To his credit, Grant does consider the alternative: that maybe economics actually attracts greedy people or that greedy people tend to thrive by studying economics. He dismisses these possibilities by noting that “there is evidence for selection . . . but this doesn’t rule out the possibility that studying economics pushes people further toward the selfish extreme.” He goes on to chide practitioners of the discipline for teaching self-interest in the classroom.

Finally, he concludes with four points that are meant to provide evidence of the social harm in studying economics, which can be summarized in two overarching points:

1) Economics justifies greedy behavior, and

2) Studying economics makes people less altruistic.

I want briefly to discuss these two points here.

Economics Justifies Greedy Behavior?

Studying economics, and specifically the role of incentives, teaches us that relying on altruism is a brave assumption that has but limited applicability. For example, among people we know, we can rely on a certain degree of altruism or benevolence. I know, for example, that my family and friends will be there for me not because I pay them to do so, but because they care about me. Similarly, they know I will be there for them. However, I don’t know the same thing about random people I encounter on the street.

And yet in order to enjoy the immense wealth that the division of labor affords us, society demands that we have interactions both with people we know well and people we do not know at all. These two distinct spheres of activity require two distinct forms of cooperation, which one might get from reading Adam Smith’s twin pillars of economics: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.

More tidily, perhaps, F. A. Hayek describes this situation in The Fatal Conceit by noting the difference between the macroeconomy and the microeconomy. Macro, in this context, refers to society as a whole, while micro refers to just the people to whom we are close. Hayek says that if we were to apply the same rules of the family unit to the macro, as would be the case if we were to allocate resources altruistically, we would destroy the macro. This is because there would be a complete lack of economic calculation, resources would be misallocated, and plans would fail to be coordinated (see these articles for more on economic calculation).

Hayek also notes that the reverse is true: If we were to apply the rules of the market to the family, we would destroy it as well. We don’t need prices and incomes at the dinner table to allocate the food. Even the most ardent defender of markets would agree that having prices and such as the means of allocating food at the dinner table would be wrong, just like paying your friends to help you move across town would be strange. (Beer and pizza don’t count.)

Instead, students of economics recognize not that greed is good, as the saying goes, but that greed can be transformed into the service of others given the proper institutional setting. That institutional setting, which has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere, is one that celebrates the role of property rights, prices, and profits (and losses) and recognizes their role in creating the incentives to properly husband resources, generates the information about the relative scarcities of various goods and transmits this information to consumers and producers in a quick and efficient manner, all of which provides a feedback mechanism to drive continued innovation.

Economics Makes People Less Altruistic?

Grant cites a 2005 article by Neil Gandal et. al. as concluding that “students who planned to study economics rated helpfulness, honesty, loyalty, and responsibility as just as important as students who were studying communications, political science, and sociology,” but that by the third year, economics students rated these values “significantly less important than first-year economics students.”

While the Gandal study does include such conclusions, it also includes much more. For example, economics students attribute less importance to fairness. Evidencing this, Gandal points out that, when questioned about the allocation of radio frequencies to different mobile-phone service providers, students who study economics are more likely to advocate selling the rights to the highest bidder while students of other disciplines are more likely to advocate for allocating the rights to “anybody who meets some minimal eligibility criteria.”

Students of economics do not advocate for property rights because we are greedy; we advocate for property rights because we understand and take seriously potential incentive problems in politics. The notion of minimal eligibility requirements may sound nice, for example, but problems may lie in who gets to draw that line, by what process that line gets drawn, and the incentives faced by the line-drawers. As Madison points out in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Economics students know men are no angels. And as Nobel laureate James Buchanan points out, government officials are human beings, too, with their own hopes, dreams, and aspirations—and yes, forms of avarice. Supporting the allocation of resources to the highest bidder sidesteps the issues raised by these potential incentive problems. This means that the choice of how to allocate resources fundamentally comes down to a choice of institutions.

We can have a central authority establish guidelines by which anyone who wants can use the radio frequencies, or we can let the market decide. The former leads to a standard tragedy of the commons problem, whereby the radio frequency gets overused. In the case of cell phones, this means that the frequency would be crowded with multiple conversations simultaneously; imagine trying to shout to your friend across a crowded bar. The latter leads to the frequencies being allocated to the person who is best able to utilize them to serve the general population. So AT&T, for example, gets exclusive rights to a certain bandwidth and then tries to figure out how to best serve its customers. In this case, the customer gets to enjoy a clear phone call without the distraction of several other conversations in their ear simultaneously.

In any case, these are not examples of quelling altruism, but of keeping it in its place.

Less Greed, More Cooperation

Viewed in this light, economics does not so much teach greed but rather the beauty of cooperation. How else could we explain how a woolen coat gets made, how Paris gets fed, or how a pencil gets made? And if allocating, say, radio frequencies based on highest valued use makes people learn to discard fairness, well, how exactly is that a bad thing?

David Hebert is a Ph.D. student in economics at George Mason University. His research interests include public finance and property rights.

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.


Editor’s Note by Gennady Stolyarov II: Mr. Hebert’s article is excellent in focusing on the true significance of economics and the need for private property rights. In one important respect, though, my position differs from his when it comes to the allocation of radio frequency to highest bidders such as AT&T and other entities exercising similar coercively granted monopoly and quasi-monopoly powers.

My position, arising out of similar libertarian principles, is that the allocation of radio frequencies to AT&T (and similar local/regional telecommunications monopolies) through the political process would not result in an economically optimal allocation, even if AT&T were the highest bidder. The reason for this is that AT&T’s very bidding ability arises out of (1) its decades-long history as the telephone monopoly in the United States and (2) the protections from competition that it enjoys in certain jurisdictions as a local or regional monopoly provider of certain services wrongly considered “natural monopolies” – such as high-speed cable services. In a pure free-market system, there would likely need to be some sort of allocation process for radio frequencies, so long as the use of radio frequencies by some parties has the physical ability to interfere with the use of the same frequencies by other parties. However, the outcome of such a free-market allocation process would differ considerably from the outcome of a bidding process in today’s status quo, conditioned by decades of deleterious path-dependency arising out of the privileges granted to AT&T and similar local/regional monopolists. Probably, an auction of radio spectrum on a purely free market would result in many smaller firms buying up many smaller ranges of spectrum and competing with one another more vigorously to provide superior customer service than do a handful of large, politically privileged telecommunications companies (AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, et al.) today. In this path-dependent, partially unfree environment it may be, in some cases, that allocations to lower bidders would result in better uses of resources and improved consumer outcomes, as long as institutional political privilege (e.g., enforced monopolies or historical insulation from competition) of the higher bidders can be incorporated into the bidding process in the form of some reasonable handicap used in considering their bids.