In July 1798, under threat of a war with France and in a nation biographer David McCullough describes as having a "rampant fear of the enemy within," President John Adams signed into law a series of Acts which secured him and his Federalist Party enormous powers to control alien residents and the press. Under the Alien Acts , Adams could deport any foreign person he deemed subversive. A frequent target of harsh criticism from Republican journalists, he also signed the Sedition Act, outlawing all false, scandalous, or malicious statements about any government official. The consequences of the Sedition Act were so severe that the many Republican journalists immediately stopped their attacks on Adams.
Adams hoped to stabilize his administration and stifle support for another costly war that could jeopardize the fledgling nation. He later recalled, "I knew there was need enough of both, and therefore I consented to them."
Today historians still debate why Adams, who fought fiercely for independence and who was known as a passionate advocate for individual rights, took this repressive action. McCullough says, "The Alien and Sedition Acts seem to contradict everything that [Adams] stood for. But it was a very scary time." Adams' biographer John Ferling writes, "The acts were undertaken largely toward the goal of maintaining Federalist hegemony. The measures sought to stifle domestic opposition to a war movement that many Federalists perceived as essential for the Party's salvation."
Should John Adams have signed the Alien and Sedition Acts?