The debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 revealed bitter controversies on a number of issues that had been developing since the penning of the Constitution. The writers of the document knew that over time the needs of the nation and its people would change, and therefore provided for its amendment. But by not expressly delegating powers to specific organizations, whether the federal government, state governments, or the people themselves, they inadvertently created a major problem in the years to follow.
The two parties, Federalists and Republicans interpreted the Constitution in terms of how this interpretation would fit their very different interests. The result of these differences were the Alien and Sedition Acts, followed closely by the secretly formed Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. Passed in early 1798, the Acts laid down a number of harsh restrictions on foreigners. They were enacted by a Congress dominated by the Federalist Party and signed by President John Adams during a crisis with France.
Though the acts were allegedly in response to the hostile actions of the French Revolutionary government on the seas and in the councils of diplomacy, they were designed to destroy Thomas Jefferson’s Republican party, which had openly expressed its sympathies for the French Revolutionaries. Depending on recent immigrants from Europe for much of their voting strength, the Republicans were adversely affected by the Naturalization Act. It postponed citizenship, and thus voting privileges until the completion of 14, rather than 5, years of residence.
It also empowered the president to arrest and deport aliens considered dangerous. The Alien Enemies Act provided for the deportation of subjects of foreign powers at war with the United States. The Sedition Act made it illegal to publish certain statements against the government, oppose lawful acts of the Congress of the United States and aid a foreign power in plotting against the United States; all considered seditious acts; hence the name of the law. The contents of the Alien Act were either ignored or welcomed by most Americans.
It was accepted that people from foreign countries were enemies of the nation and, as their leaders had taught them, impressed upon then undemocratic principles. There was also a sense of isolation. most Americans had difficulty believing themselves to be even a part of the United States; most never left the states in which they lived and considered themselves more Virginians or Alabamians than Americans. As for the Sedition Act, it was targeted at strangers, those who were not Americans and therefore the law was unimportant. (Doc C)
The opponents of the Alien and Sedition Acts were led by Jefferson and Madison; in response to the Acts the Republicans launched an attack on what they believed were breaches of the Constitution (Doc A). Both leaders were strict constructionists. They believed that the government could not be given powers by implication; the jurisdiction of the federal government was plainly stated in the Constitution, and it had to be followed. Jefferson and Madison declared the Alien Act to be unconstitutional as it was an expansion of the powers of the executive branch, and an extension of the authority of the federal government over aliens.
The Sedition Act was perhaps more important and denied knowledge and freedom of inquiry as it encroached on the peoples great power of freedom of the state. (Doc B) He foresaw a tyrannical government with the institutions of these laws. The Alien and Sedition Acts meant to be the end to the Republicans, actually helped destroy the Federalists. They provoked the very influential Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions which turned the public against them. Written respectively by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, these resolutions affirmed the rights of the states to determine the validity of laws passed by the federal government.
The Alien and Sedition Acts also unified the Republican Party and secured a victory for the Republican Thomas Jefferson in 1800. The Alien and Sedition Acts were wholly unconstitutional and a needed test for the new republic. They were the representation of what the Constitution was formed to prevent and made finer the distinction between that which is constitutional and that which is not. They were an attempt by the dwindling Federalists to hurt their opponents, the Republicans whose numbers were greatly affected by immigration and whose greatest tool was that of the pen.