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.