The Alien and Seditions Act
John Adams called the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 "war measures." To opponents, they were unconstitutional and indefensible. To supporters, they protected the very foundations of the nation. Joseph J. Ellis voices the opinion of most modern historians when he calls Adams' decision to support the acts "unquestionably the biggest blunder in his presidency."
Alien Friends and Enemies
During a two-week period starting on June 18, 1798, the majority Federalist Congress passed four acts collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Naturalization Act increased from five to 14 the number of years that immigrants must wait before obtaining U.S. citizenship and the right to vote. The Alien Acts comprised two separate acts: The Alien Friends Act, which empowered the president to deport any alien whom he considered dangerous; and the Alien Enemies Act, which allowed the deportation of any alien who hailed from a country at war with the United States. The Sedition Act authorized the punishment of any person authoring or printing "false, scandalous and malicious writing" against the Congress or the president which was intended to "defame ... or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them ... the hatred of the good people of the United States. ..." Adams signed the Acts into law on July 14, the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille that began the French Revolution. They expired on March 3, 1801, the last full day of Adams' presidential term.
Rampant Fear, Uncertain Alliances
The Acts' unconstitutionality seems straightforward now, but at the time the nation was in an undeclared war with France, the so-called Quasi-War. There was, as Adams' biographer David McCullough explains, "rampant fear of the enemy within." Partisanship had grown fierce. Adams, a Federalist, actually disagreed with his party's desire for all-out war and agreed with the Republican party, led by Vice President Thomas Jefferson, that diplomacy must end the French crisis. But the two did not work cooperatively with one another, in part because Jefferson wanted the Federalist Party to fail -- which meant that Adams had to fail along with it. Meanwhile, congressional Federalists accused Adams of siding with the "Gallic faction." While flags had flown in the streets in support of the French Revolution five years earlier, anti-French sentiment had become rabid.
Straining the System
The pressure on Adams was relentless. The Republican press savaged him, attacking his character and his policies with increasing frequency and virulence. Abigail Adams, who supported her husband's signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts, feared for her husband's physical safety. Adams himself feared riots, and the High Federalists (the ultra-conservative wing of the party with which Adams was not aligned) feared bloody revolution of the French sort.
The Alien Acts were never used. Many of the French who had flooded the United States following the Revolution left America, not because they were deported, but because the country's atmosphere simply became too inhospitable for them. The Sedition Act, however, hadn't even been signed into law before its effects were felt. Several Republican newspaper editors softened their tone or eliminated offending material altogether. Other journalists, outraged by the act and exercising the freedom of speech it forbid, hammered away at Adams. As promised, they were met with fines and arrests. Sixteen indictments resulted from the Sedition Act, and five out of six of the leading Republican papers were tried for libel. James Callender, a journalist and a paid operative of Jefferson commissioned to smear Adams in the press, was arrested and jailed, as was Benjamin Franklin Bache, the editor of the Aurora and grandson of Benjamin Franklin. He died awaiting trial.