In the summer of 1798, the capital of Philadelphia was gripped by several fevers. Ships from the tropical West Indies brought Yellow Fever to several port cities including Philadelphia, causing thousands to flee for their lives as the number of victims escalated. The epidemic, however, hardly compared to the political fever taking hold over the country.
War fever also raged among the people as America mobilized for war due to the recent revelations of the XYZ Affair. When American diplomats sought to discuss French violations of American neutrality when French privateers seized hundreds of American vessels, their French counterparts had demanded a hefty bribe and loan of millions to receive American diplomats.
Congress quickly raised taxes to mobilize the American Navy and created a Provisional Army under General George Washington but actually commanded by Alexander Hamilton. Outraged Americans took up the slogan, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.” Many feared an impending French invasion of the United States would be supported by Fifth Columnist French citizens in America and their Republican Party sympathizers (whatever the unlikelihood of an invasion).
A raging fever of increasingly fierce partisanship swept through the country. Despite the universal hatred of political parties as instruments of faction that would destroy the common good, Federalist and Republican parties had emerged in the 1790s because of differences over domestic and foreign policies. Newspapers at the time were generally organs of party and launched vituperative attacks on the other side generally seeing them as unpatriotic and self-interested. The idea of a legitimate opposition criticizing the policies of the other party had not yet entered the American mind.
In the wake of the XYZ affair in the early summer of 1798, Congress passed and President John Adams signed, several Alien Acts into law which targeted immigrants and foreigners in America. The length of naturalization increased from five years to fourteen, aliens were subject to registration and surveillance, and most ominously, the president could deport foreigners deemed to be a “threat to public safety.” Republicans were inclined to support a pro-French foreign policy and denounced the acts. In the end, three alien French residents were deported, but the law provided for a dangerous expansion of federal and executive powers.
Ironically, the Senate assembled on the Fourth of July and voted to stifle free speech in the new nation. It approved a sedition bill along party lines with the Federalists supporting the measure. The House of Representatives then narrowly approved the bill by a mere three votes. Federalists thought it a necessary, emergency war measure, but Republicans such as Albert Gallatin asserted it was an “unconstitutional and arbitrary law.” Although President Adams had not sought out the bill, he signed the bill into law and supported administration officials who eagerly executed the law.
The Sedition Act made it a crime to speak out against the government. It became illegal to “write, print, utter or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing . . . against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States.” It would expire on March 3, 1801. Although the act did not institute “prior restraint” of publication and provided for truth as a defense unlike the British common law, the act was a blatant violation of the First Amendment and restrained criticisms of government by the people and the press.
Thomas Jefferson condemned “all violations of the constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.” Freedom of the press was, in Jefferson’s words, a “bulwark of liberty” because the right to criticize government in a constitutional republic was an essential right of the sovereign people.
The Sedition Act led to the partisan arrest of some two dozen editors and citizens who made derogatory comments in writing and speech about Adams, Congress, and the Sedition Act itself. The Federalist administration immediately targeted and prosecuted Republican newspaper printers such as Benjamin Franklin Bache and his successor James Duane. One Congressman, Representative Matthew Lyon, wrote against the act and spent time in jail where he was duly re-elected by his constituents. One unfortunate inebriated citizen joked about cannon-fire hitting President Adams’ rear-end and was jailed. Another was prosecuted for helping erect a liberty pole in protest and leading a discussion of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason because of its unorthodox religious views. In total, the government prosecuted seventeen individuals and all except one were found guilty of sedition.
The Republicans were not cowed by the suppression of dissenting views. Jefferson and others sent money to help beleaguered editors. More importantly, Jefferson and James Madison respectively wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which argued that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional. Jefferson’s proposed remedy of a state’s right of nullification of a federal law it considered unconstitutional was more radical than Madison’s constitutional remedies. The resolutions were roundly denounced by most other state legislatures. Whatever the outcome of the resolutions, the Republicans stood firmly for constitutional principles against the politically-motivated repression of free speech and a free press.
The Alien and Sedition Acts played an important and prominent role in the election of 1800. Republicans thundered against the laws and made them campaign issues. The laws seemed to confirm what they feared to be the centralizing tendencies of Federalist policies and ample evidence for arguing that a change to a Republican administration was necessary.
Tony Williams is the author of five books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, co-authored with Stephen Knott.