John Adams and the Controversial Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798
Dr. Michael Faubion
October 22, 2018
Controversy nowadays connotes problems that are negative and tend to get attention very much from society, to then turn into a dispute that can never be “fixed.” Nevertheless, almost every bill that has passed through the Congress and then to the Executive branch, were all considered controversial at a certain period of time.
A clear example of this is the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, the four bills passed by a Federalist-controlled Congress in preparation for war against France, they were signed by John Adams, our 2nd President to be. The Alien and Sedition Acts were not put into consideration nor negotiation. “These laws were designed to silence and weaken the Democratic-Republican Party. Thus, negative reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts helped contribute to the Democratic-Republican victory in the 1800 elections.” After the American Revolution, John Adams being the 2nd president of the United States of America had a big responsibility towards our big nation. Many people counting on him, trusting him, were hoping he will make the right decisions and follow George Washington’s steps. Abigail Adams, former first lady of the United States, John Adam’s spouse, had a big influence on his political views overall. The fact that the Federalist Party was founded to oppose the Democratic-Republican Party during the presidency of George Washington, and these bills were ratified by the Federalist Party, caused even more controversy. Many Americans hated the Alien and Sedition Acts, so they removed the Federalists from Congress by electing Thomas Jefferson as President of the United States. During Jefferson’s presidency, the Alien Acts were repealed, and the Sedition Act was expired.
In the descriptive biography of John Adams, David McCullough defends John Adams actions and behavior towards the Acts, by stating that “Adams did not ask for a declaration of war against France,” he continues to say “Federalist majority in Congress passed into law extreme measures that Adams had not asked for or encouraged.” McCullough believes the Alien and Sedition Acts were justified and “must be seen in context of the time, which was tumult and fear.”
The Alien Acts “included a Naturalization Act, which increased the required period of residence to qualify for citizenship from five to fourteen years… and granted the President the legal right to expel any foreigner he considered ‘dangerous’.” The primary document of the Fifth Congress of the United States, at the Second Session proves and confirms this, it states that, “An Act concerning aliens… it shall be lawful for the President of the United States at any time during the continuance of this act, to order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.” This Act is giving the President so much power and control over immigrants which was very questionable and authoritarian, not just nor fair. One might ask our own selves, what is he basing on his assumptions or ideas about being dangerous? What are the factors that determine danger to the peace and safety of the United States?
The Sedition Act, “made any ‘false, scandalous, and malicious’ writing against the government, Congress, or the President, or any attempt ‘to excite against them’.” Once again, to corroborate this statement, in the official, original document, it is stated that “if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States…shall be punished.” This was a violation of the first amendment, freedom of speech, but it was considered as a war measure at the time.
Those opposed to it, would be against “the development of a strong federal government and the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, and preferring instead for power to remain in the hands of state and local governments.” Those in favor of it, argue that they “wanted a stronger national government and the ratification of the Constitution to help properly manage tensions following the American Revolution.”
Consequently, this leads us to another “Conservatism vs. Liberalism” discussion and belief; People that think the way the Acts were created, is the correct way our government should function, be, and stay, they would call themselves “federalists,” (conservatists) very committed to traditional values and ideas with opposition to change or innovation. And on the other hand, the Democratic-Republican Party (liberalists) would desire a democratic, egalitarian government.
In conclusion, anyone would think that the Alien and Sedition Acts were a justification to keep aliens, immigrants, foreign residents from being American citizens, or to make it harder for them to become American citizens, thus, these repressive measures for the “war” against France, are seen as a cautious precaution for something that never happened. The people that wanted to abuse the power of the federal government, wanted to have a powerful, overcontrolled government, limiting the liberty and freedom of not only immigrants but every citizen. Personally, I do not agree with the laws myself because they can be interpreted as vague as possible and can become subjective, like our Constitution, that tends to be very wide and loose without any real specifications, and many variations. Immigrants should not have been the ones with the repercussions of not being able to become citizens, when that was all they wanted and specially when they were not conspiring against America.