Alien and Sedition Acts

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The Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) were four separate acts passed by the Federalist Party controlled U.S. Congress during John Adams administration as America prepared for a possible war with France.[1] The four measures limited freedom of the press and speech and restricted the activities of aliens, particularly French and Irish revolutionaries. The the acts were in response to the Quasi-War with France.[2][3] The acts were an extremely divisive issue between Federalist and Jefferson's Republicans.

The Sedition of Act of 1798 made illegal to criticize the government of the United States under penalty of fines and/or imprisonment. For example, Luther Bladwin, a New Jersey citizen, was convected for and fined $100 for wishing that a wad from a presidential saluting-cannon hit Adams. Federalists also used the act against Republicans. In addition to several newspaper editors being imprisoned, Matthew Lyon, a Republican Congressman from Vermont, was fined $1,000 and imprisoned for four months. He ran for re-election from prison and won overwhelmingly.[4]

Thomas Jefferson, and his friend James Madison, secretly authored two resolutions which declared the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional, because they exercised a "power not delegated by the constitution, but on the contrary, expressly and positively forbidden by one of the amendments thereto."[5] Further, they stated, individual states "have the right and are duty bound to interpose for arresting of the evil." The resolution passed through the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures and became the first instance of individual states "nullification" of a "unauthorized acts".[2] The attempt at nullification later inspired the secession of the Confederate states in 1861.

Because this was before the Supreme Court established judicial review in Marbury v. Madison, it did not declare the laws unconstitutional at the time. However, in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), it declared in passing that "the invalidity of the Act has also been assumed by Justices of this Court."[6]

The Sedition Act automatically expired on March 3, 1801, so it did not outlast the Adams administration. Upon taking office, Thomas Jefferson pardoned everyone convicted under it:

I discharged every person under punishment or prosecution under the sedition law because I considered, and now consider, that law to be a nullity, as absolute and as palpable as if Congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a golden image.[6]

Congress repealed the Alien Friends Act. In 1840, Congress repaid all fines levied under the Sedition Act.[6]

The Alien Enemies Act is still the law of the land and allows the president in time of war to seize and hold enemy aliens.


  2. 2.0 2.1 Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, page. 240
  3. XYZ Affair. Law Library - American Law and Legal Information. Retrieved on 2007-01-13.
  4. America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the Revolutionary Election of 1800. Bernard A. Weisberger.
  5. Full text of the Virginia Resolutions
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Full opinion, New York Times v. Sullivan