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Alien and Sedition Acts: 1798

Alien and Sedition Acts: 1798

Defendants: 24 people, including: James Thompson Callender, Thomas Cooper, William Duane, Anthony Haswell, and Matthew Lyon.
Crime Charged: Seditious libel
Chief Defense Lawyers: Lyon acted for himself, advised by Israel Smith; David Fay and Israel Smith (Haswell); Thomas Cooper and Alexander Dallas, (Duane); Cooper acted for, himself; and William B. Giles, George Hay and Philip Nicholas (Callender)
Chief Prosecutors: Charles Marsh (Lyon, Haswell); William Rawle (Duane, Cooper); and Thomas Nelson (Callender)
Judges: William Paterson and Samuel Hitchcock (Lyon, Haswell); Samuel Chase, and Richard Peters (Cooper); Bushrod Washington and Peters (Duane); and Samuel Chase (Callender)
Dates of Trials: October 8, 1799 (Lyon); May 5, 1800 (Haswell) April 16, 1800 (Cooper); June 3, 1800 (Callender); June 11, 1800 (Duane court appearance)
Place: Rutland, Vermont (Lyon); Windsor, Vermont (Haswell); Norristown, Pennsylvania (Duane); Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Cooper); and Richmond, Virginia (Callender)
Verdict: Guilty (Lyon, Haswell, Cooper, and Callender)
Sentences: $1,000 fine, $60.96 court costs, 4 months in jail (Lyon); $200 fine, 2 months in jail (Haswell); $400 fine, 6 months in prison, a $2,000 surety bond upon leaving prison (Cooper); and $200 fine, 9 months in prison, a $1,200 bond for good behavior (Callender)

SIGNIFICANCE: On paper only, the terms of the Sedition Act were an improvement over traditional common law. But the fact that the federal government would enact a sedition law was a blow to freedom of the press.

Partisan politics contributed to the creation of the Alien and Sedition Acts. However, American perceptions and worries about European affairs, particularly realistic fears of a possible war with France, also contributed to their enactment. American attempts to maintain neutrality pleased no one at home or abroad.

The Naturalization and Alien Acts, which increased residency requirements for citizenship and gave extraordinary powers over aliens to the president, passed into oblivion unused. However, there were several prosecutions under the Sedition Act. The act's most pertinent provision allowed prosecutions against persons publishing "any false, scandalous and malicious writing" that brought the federal government, the Congress, or the president into disrepute.

Under common law, liberty of the press generally meant no prior restraint on publications. However, the publisher was responsible for what he (or she) wrote. If a court deemed the material to be libelous, the writer could be punished. Libel was a published statement that damaged a person's reputation, or in the case of seditious libel, the government or a government official. Truth was not a defense, nor did there need to be proof of malicious intent. Despite First Amendment prohibitions, most states had their own libel and sedition acts.

The federal Sedition Act tried to strike a compromise between common law and new American freedoms. Truth was a defense under the new federal statute, proof of malicious intent was required, and the jury would decide whether a libel existed. Under common law, the judge decided if material was libelous and he was free to determine any sentence. The Sedition Act stipulated that those convicted could be fined not more than $2,000 and imprisoned for no more than two years.

In practice these changes availed nothing to those prosecuted. Federalist courts insisted on turning the truth-as-a-defense clause into a presumptive-guilt clause. The plaintiff, the government, did not have to prove that the statements made were false. The defendant had to prove they were true. And such attempts often were thwarted by the judge.

Benjamin Franklin Bache, the vitriolic publisher of the Aurora, spurred passage of the Sedition Act when he obtained and published a copy of a letter from France's foreign minister, Tallyrand. This action convinced many Federalists that connections existed between Republicans and the French government. Before the Sedition Act could be passed, Bache's intemperate remarks earned him a common law indictment for libeling President John Adams and his administration. Bache died of yellow fever before he could be tried.

The first man actually indicted under the new Sedition Act was a member of Congress, Matthew Lyon. Charges stemmed from publication of two letters.One, Lyon wrote to a newspaper in reply to an attack on him.

When I shall see the efforts of that power bent on the promotion of the comfort of the people, that executive shall have my zealous and uniform support: but whenever I shall see the public welfare swallowed up in a continual grasp for power behold men of real merit daily turned out of office men of meanness preferred for the ease with which they take up and advocate opinions when I shall see the sacred name of religion employed as a state engine to make mankind hate I shall not be their humble advocate.

The other letter, published by Lyon, was written by Joel Barlow. Commenting on a speech of Adams', Barlow wondered why Congress had not sent the president "to a mad house."

Lyon tried to defend himself on the grounds that the Sedition Law was unconstitutional. The court did not look kindly on this defense. Found guilty, Lyon wrote, published, and was re-elected from his cell.

Anthony Haswell, a supporter of Lyon's, was indicted because an advertisement to raise funds for Lyon's fine, described "the oppressive hand of usurped power" Lyon suffered and "the indignities heaped upon him by a hard-hearted savage" [the jailer]. Also, reprinted from the Aurora was a charge Tories were holding government office. Haswell tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain testimony from the Secretary of War to prove the Tory charges. His lawyers argued just as unsuccessfully that the "oppressive hand of power" referred only to the marshal and the jailer.

The most elusive Republican was William Duane, who had married Bache's widow and taken over the Aurora. Duane charged that the British wielded great influence over administration politics and had spent a fortune in bribes. He claimed there was a secret alliance between England and America against France.

Duane appeared for trial, only to have the trial suspended for several months. A procedural reason was given, but the true reason rested with a letter Duane had obtained from Tench Coxe, one-time assistant to Alexander Hamilton in the Treasury. The letter, written years earlier to Coxe by John Adams, claimed the Pinckneys from South Carolina were enlisting help from the British to obtain federal appointments. Although this letter did not prove Duane's extravagant allegations, it showed some evidence of British influence.

While awaiting the new trial, Duane aggravated the Senate. He criticized a proposed, unpublished bill, to settle disputed presidential and vice presidential elections. Then, when summoned to answer questions, he refused to go because his lawyers refused to appear. They believed Senate rules precluded mounting an effective defense. Duane was arrested on a contempt warrant signed by Thomas Jefferson, president of the Senate.

Not until after the Congress adjourned did the administration indict Duane for libeling the Senate. When Jefferson became president, he dismissed that suit. To preserve the Senate's rights, Jefferson ordered a new suit instituted. The grand jury refused to indict.

Because he was one of Duane's lawyers, Thomas Cooper was indicted for a handbill published months prior to Duane's summons from the Senate. Prosecutor William Rawles treated the handbill as inflammatory:

Error leads to discontent, discontent to a fancied idea of oppression, and that to insurrection.

Cooper maintained that his statements were true, he held no malicious motives, and had attributed none to Adams. The judge, Samuel Chase, blocked Cooper's defense at every turn.

When James Thompson Callender faced Judge Chase after being indicted for his savage writings about Adams, like met like. Callender had no regard for truth or decency. Chase had little regard for truth or law. Chase struck down every reasonable defense request made, harassing the defense lawyers until they withdrew from the case.

Callender's sentence expired the day the Act expired. The new Jefferson administration did not seek to renew the Sedition Act, although libel actions did continue under common law.

Teddi DiCanio

Suggestions for Further Reading

Miller, John C. Crisis in Freedom. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1951.

Smith, James Morton. Freedom's Fetters, The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1956.

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Alien and Sedition Acts


In 1798, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed four acts to empower the president of the United States to expel dangerousaliens from the country; to give the president authority to arrest, detain, and deport resident aliens hailing from enemy countries during times of war; to lengthen the period of naturalization for immigrants, and to silence Republican criticism of the federalist party. Also an act passed by Congress in 1918 during world war i that made it a crime to disrupt military recruiting or enlistments, to encourage support for Germany and its allies or disrespect for American war efforts, or to otherwise bring the U.S. government, its leaders, or its symbols into disrepute.

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

Passions over the French Revolution split early American politics. Having endured shays's rebellion and the whiskey rebellion, Federalists saw much to fear in the French Revolution. On the other hand, Democratic-Republicans, led by thomas jefferson, proudly supported the French Revolution as the progeny of the American Revolution. Democratic-Republicans still viewed Britain as an enemy, while the Federalists regarded Britain as a bulwark against French militancy.

In early 1798, john quincy adams, son of President john adams and the U.S. ambassador to Prussia, advised his father that France intended to invade America's western frontier. Jonathon Dayton, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, speculated publicly that troops already massed in French ports were destined for North America. Federal officials feared parts of America were rife with French agents and sympathizers who might rise up in support of an invasion. George Tucker, professor of Law at the College of William and Mary, predicted that 100,000 U.S. inhabitants, including himself, would join a French invading army. Former president george washington, summoned from retirement to lead the U.S. Army against a possible French invasion, expressed concerns that France would invade the southern states first, "because the French will expect from the tenor of the debates in Congress to find more friends there."

Congress responded to these concerns by enacting the alien and sedition acts, the popular names for four laws passed in 1798. On June 18, Congress passed the Naturalization Act, which extended from five to 14 years the period of residence required for alien immigrants to become full U.S. citizens (1 Stat. 566). On June 25, Congress passed the Alien Act, which authorized the president to expel, without a hearing, any alien the president deemed "dangerous to the peace and safety" of the United States or whom the president suspected of "treasonable or secret" inclinations (1 Stat. 570). On July 6, Congress passed the Alien Enemy Act, which authorized the president to arrest, imprison, or banish any resident alien hailing from a country against which the United States had declared war (1 Stat. 577).

None of these first three acts had much practical impact. The Naturalization Act contained a built-in window period that allowed resident aliens to become U.S. citizens before the fourteen-year requirement went into effect. President Adams never invoked the Alien Act, and the passing of the war scare in 1789 rendered the Alien Enemies Act meaningless.

However, the Sedition Act deepened partisan political positions between the Federalist Party and the democratic-republican party. The Sedition Act made it a high misdemeanor, punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both, for citizens or aliens (1) to oppose the execution of federal laws; (2) to prevent a federal officer from performing his or her duties; (3) to aid "any insurrection, riot, unlawful assembly, or combination"; or (4) to make any defamatory statement about the federal government or the president (1 Stat. 596).

Because the Federalists controlled Congress and the White House, Republicans believed these laws were aimed at silencing Jeffersonian critics of the Adams administration and its laws and policies. Eighteen people were indicted under the Sedition Act of 1798; 14 were prosecuted, and 10 convicted, some of whom received prison sentences.

The validity of the Sedition Act was never tested in the U.S. Supreme Court before it expired in 1801. But Congress later passed a law that repaid all fines collected under it, and Jefferson, after becoming president in 1801, pardoned all those convicted under the act.

Before becoming president, Jefferson joined Madison in voicing opposition to the Sedition Act by drafting the virginia and kentucky resolutions. Jefferson was responsible for drafting the two Kentucky Resolutions, while Madison penned the one Virginia Resolution. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions condemned the Sedition Act as a violation of the Free Speech Clause to the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The resolutions also argued that Congress had exceeded its powers by passing the law in the first place, since Congress may only exercise those powers specifically delegated to it, and nowhere in Article I of the Constitution is authority given to the legislative branch to regulate political speech. The Kentucky state legislature passed its two resolutions on November 16, 1798, and November 22, 1999, while Virginia passed its one resolution on December 24, 1798.

Sedition Act of 1918

Concern over disloyalty during wartime provided the backdrop for the second Sedition Act in U.S. history. In April 1917, the United States entered World War I when Congress declared war against Germany and its allies. A month later, the Selective Service Act reinstated the military draft. Both the draft and U.S. entry into the war were met with protest at home. Worried that anti-war protestors might interfere with the prosecution of the war, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918.

An amendment to the espionage act of 1917, the Sedition Act of 1918 made it a felony (1) to convey false statements interfering with American war efforts; (2) to willfully employ "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the U.S. form of government, the Constitution, the flag, or U.S. military or naval forces; (3) to urge the curtailed production of necessary war materials; or (4) to advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any such acts. Violations were punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both. The law was aimed at curbing political dissent expressed by socialists, anarchists, pacifists, and certain labor leaders.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Sedition Act of 1918 over free speech objections made by civil libertarians. However, in a famous dissenting opinion that shaped First Amendment law for the rest of the twentieth century, Associate Justice oliver wendell holmes jr. encouraged courts to closely scrutinize prosecutions under the Sedition Act to make sure that only those individuals who created a clear and present danger of immediate criminal activity were convicted (abrams v. united states, 250 U.S. 616, 1180, 40 S. Ct. 17, 63 L. Ed. 1173 [1919]).

further readings

Miller, John Chester. 1951. Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts. Boston: Little, Brown.

Moore, Wayne D. 1994. "Reconceiving Interpretive Autonomy: Insights from the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions." Constitutional Commentary 11 (fall).

Smith, James Morton. 1956. Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press.


Aliens "Aliens and Civil Rights" (Sidebar); Espionage; Freedom of Speech.

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Alien and Sedition Acts

Alien and Sedition Acts (1798).In 1798, the Federalist Congress passed four laws to check a perceived French threat during the Undeclared Naval War with France. The Naturalization Act (18 June) extended required residence from five to fourteen years before an alien could become a citizen. The Alien Friends Act (25 June) allowed the president to deport any alien deemed dangerous to “peace and safety” and the Alien Enemies Act (July 6) allowed the deportation of any alien from a country at war with the United States. The Sedition Act (14 July) rendered it a crime to make statements intended to defame or bring the president, Congress, or government into contempt or disrepute. Those convicted could be fined up to $2,000 and jailed for two years. The Naturalization and Enemies Acts were permanent; the Alien Friends Act would expire in 1800, and the Sedition Act in 1801. Not vigorously enforced, the Alien Acts convinced many aliens to leave the United States.

Ultimately twenty‐one people were indicted for sedition, and eleven were convicted, receiving sentences of up to eighteen months and fines of $1,000 or more. Influential Republican editors and leaders were the main targets, but any criticism was a federal crime. The Federalists argued that by allowing truth as a defense, the Sedition Act advanced civil liberties. Federal judges at sedition cases, however, interpreted the law so as to guarantee convictions: the accused must prove the truth of their opinions.

In November 1798, Vice President Thomas Jefferson and former congressman James Madison secretly drafted resolutions adopted by the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures challenging the Alien and Sedition Acts. These resolutions argued that the states had not delegated power to punish libel to the federal government, and that free government rested on the people's free opinions. As president (1801), Jefferson pardoned all convicted under the Sedition Act and helped pay their fines.
[See also Adams, John; Civil Liberties and War.]


James Morton Smith , Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties, 1956.

Robert J. Allison

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Alien and Sedition Acts

Alien and Sedition Acts, 1798, four laws enacted by the Federalist-controlled U.S. Congress, allegedly in response to the hostile actions of the French Revolutionary government on the seas and in the councils of diplomacy (see XYZ Affair), but actually designed to destroy Thomas Jefferson's Republican party, which had openly expressed its sympathies for the French Revolutionaries. Depending on recent arrivals from Europe for much of their voting strength, the Republicans were adversely affected by the Naturalization Act, which postponed citizenship, and thus voting privileges, until the completion of 14 (rather than 5) years of residence, and by the Alien Act and the Alien Enemies Act, which gave the President the power to imprison or deport aliens suspected of activities posing a threat to the national government. President John Adams made no use of the alien acts. Most controversial, however, was the Sedition Act, devised to silence Republican criticism of the Federalists. Its broad proscription of spoken or written criticism of the government, the Congress, or the President virtually nullified the First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press. Prominent Jeffersonians, most of them journalists, such as John Daly Burk, James T. Callender, Thomas Cooper, William Duane (1760–1835), and Matthew Lyon were tried, and some were convicted, in sedition proceedings. The Alien and Sedition Acts provoked the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and did much to unify the Republican party and to foster Republican victory in the election of 1800. The Republican-controlled Congress repealed the Naturalization Act in 1802; the others were allowed to expire (1800–1801).

See J. C. Miller, Crisis in Freedom (1951, repr. 1964); J. M. Smith, Freedom's Fetters (1956); L. Levy, Legacy of Suppression (1960).

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Alien and Sedition Acts

Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) Four US acts designed to curb criticism of the government at a time when war with France seemed imminent. Many of the severest critics were refugees from Europe who were regarded as disloyal. The acts imposed stringent rules on residency before naturalization, and gave the president unprecedented powers to deport undesirable foreigners or imprison them in time of war.

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