Alien and Sedition Acts

In the tense atmosphere during John Adams‘ presidency, war with France seemed imminent. Internal strife between the two major political parties abounded. In response, the Federalists who dominated Congress and Adams’ cabinet passed four laws, collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.

President John Adams

Adams was working hard toward peace with France, believing that war so soon after the union had been established would destroy the country. The rift in political parties alone was tearing the government apart and secession from the union was loudly called for by the newspapers.

The leading political figures of the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties were paying newspapers to publish slanderous articles about each other.

The Alien and Sedition Acts changed the residency requirement from 5 years to 14 years and gave the President authority to deport aliens (non-American citizens) whom he felt were threatening the union. This meant that foreign-born Americans who the government felt were sympathetic to the French could be imprisoned and deported if they were deemed “a threat.”

Thomas Jefferson

The Acts also limited the press, which had entered into a brutal war. Fearing that the less-than-accurate “reporting” might turn the public opinion, the Acts allowed the government to imprison and fine newspaper editors whose content was “false, scandalous and malicious(!) against the government of the United States, or the President” or if their content was intended to “defame” or “bring them into contempt or disrepute.” It’s worth noting that the only newspaper editors who were punished by these Acts were Democratic-Republican, which outraged them. 

When Adams left office, Thomas Jefferson (who was of the Democratic-Republican party) allowed the Acts to expire, but the damage had been done. The Alien and Sedition Acts had proven exactly what the people had feared: the government wanted too much control. John Adams, though not completely responsible for the Acts, lost the election for his second term.

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