The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Alien and Sedition Acts

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ALIEN AND SEDITION ACTS, in American political history, four acts passed by the Federalist party in Congress in the summer of 1798, under John Adams, which were the immediate cause of the first nullification proceedings in the South (see Kentucky Resolutions; Nullification; Virginia Resolutions) and one of the causes which alienated enough votes from the Federalists to drive them out of power sooner than was inevitable. (For the genesis of the alien acts see also American Party). The embittered exiles who flocked here from 1790 on were doubly obnoxious to the Federalists; both as scurrilously offensive journalists, oftentimes, and as hostile to all attempts to punish France for her wanton aggressions on American commerce. In 1797 the House was Republican, the Senate Federalist; the latter attempted to pass measures for defense against France, which the former steadily voted down. At length, in 1798, the publication of the “X. Y. Z.” correspondence, showing the rottenness of the French Directory, shamed the defenders of France and incensed the moderates into supporting the Federalists, who, having now a majority in both houses, first enacted three laws concerning aliens; (1) 18 June, making the residence before naturalization 14 years instead of five and the term after declaration of intentions five instead of three; alien enemies not to be allowed naturalization; registration of all aliens on arrival, under penalties, and entry on such register the only proof admitted on applying for naturalization. (2) 25 June, empowering the President for two years to order out of the country any aliens he thought dangerous or engaged in conspiracies. (3) 6 July, legalizing the apprehension or deportation of all resident aliens when war was declared against the United States. These acts were denounced by the Republicans on three grounds, two of State rights and one general, as invading the constitutional rights of the States to permit such immigration as they chose up to 1808 (really intended to apply only to slaves); that it assumed national powers over persons under the jurisdiction of their States; and that it violated the right of trial by jury. It was on these points that Jefferson and Madison drew up the Kentucky and Virginia legislative resolutions, the former of which, on its repetition in 1799, named nullification as the proper remedy. Second, on 26 June, Lloyd of Maryland introduced a bill (1) declaring France an enemy of the United States and any one who should uphold her or give her aid or comfort guilty of high treason; (2) defining treason; (3) imposing $5,000 fine and six months' to five years' imprisonment on any one conspiring to oppose or impede United States measures, intimidate United States officers, stir up insurrection, etc.; (4) imposing a fine of not over $2,000 and imprisonment for not over two years for any utterance or writing tending to justify France or to defame United States officials as hostile to popular liberties, etc. It passed the Senate by a heavy majority; the House made important changes in it and passed the altered bill by a scratch. These changes were: (1) Canceling the first two sections altogether; (2) substituting for the fourth, the publishing or printing any false, scandalous or malicious writings to bring the government, Congress or President into contempt or disrepute, excite popular hostility to them, incite resistance to United States laws or encourage hostile designs against the United States, etc. To these, which gave Federal judges power to make any opposition to the ruling party a felony, Bayard of Delaware got two clauses added which drew their teeth: the first making the truth a good defense and juries the judges of the fact; the second restricting the term of operation to 4 March 1801 — that is, till a new administration came in, so that it should expire with the Federalists if they went out and the Republicans thus lose the éclat of repealing it. It would naturally be supposed that the Alien Acts, which affected only a few foreigners and no internal liberties, ana which as a fact remained entirely unenforced, would have caused little commotion in the Republican party; and that the Sedition Act, which struck at all liberty of free speech or publication, and was contrary to the very basis of free government, and under which at least six prosecutions and most scandalous performances of one Federal judge took place, would have provoked almost a civil war. The facts are an instructive historical lesson against transferring the ideas of one age to another. The Republicans disliked the use of prosecutions under the Sedition Act as a party weapon and resented Judge Chase's partisan decisions; but it was only as directed against themselves, not as against civil liberty, that they reprobated it, — neither party had attained to that ideal, — and their chief rhetoric and defiance was directed against the harmless acts which tried to prevent their supporting France. It was in crystallizing the spirit of State resistance to national power that the acts have their main importance.