The Alien and Sedition ActsJune 18 - July 14, 1798

Resources » The Alien and Sedition Acts

Synopsis

 

In response to growing opposition to John Adams’s Federalist administration—particularly over its war with France—the Federalists who controlled congress passed a series of highly controversial laws designed to guard against foreign influence in American politics and domestic treason. One of these, the Sedition Act, authorized the federal government to punish “any persons” who “unlawfully combine or conspire” against the federal government and its laws or who “write, print, utter or publish … scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States” intending to damage its reputation or incite resistance to its laws. The Sedition Act was thus an early test of the meaning of the freedom of speech and press provisions of the First Amendment.

While its reception, which galvanized Republican opposition to the Federalist and helped lead to Jefferson’s election in 1800, is typically understood to represent the triumph of modern liberal principles over the illiberal common law relics of seditious libel, in fact the political controversy surrounding the Alien and Sedition Acts was almost entirely limited to the question of whether the power to legislate and enforce laws concerning citizenship, deportation, and seditious libel belonged to the federal government or to state governments. The legitimacy of sedition laws as such would not become a political question until World War I. In light of this fact, the greatest advance in freedom of speech was not in the opposition to the Sedition Act but in the Act itself, which established for the first the right to give evidence of truth a defense against prosecution under the law as well as the right to jury trial.

 

Contents

 

1.  Sedition Act

2.  Naturalization Act

3.  Alien Friends Act

4. Alien Enemies Act

 


 

Sedition Act

 

Transcript courtesy of the Avalon Project.

 

An Act in Addition to the Act, Entitled “An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes Against the United States”

SECTION 1Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That if any persons shall unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States, which are or shall be directed by proper authority, or to impede the operation of any law of the United States, or to intimidate or prevent any person holding a place or office in or under the government of the United States, from undertaking, performing or executing his trust or duty, and if any person or persons, with intent as aforesaid, shall counsel, advise or attempt to procure any insurrection, riot, unlawful assembly, or combination, whether such conspiracy, threatening, counsel, advice, or attempt shall have the proposed effect or not, he or they shall be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor, and on conviction, before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars, and by imprisonment during a term not less than six months nor exceeding five years; and further, at the discretion of the court may be ho]den to find sureties for his good behaviour in such sum, and for such time, as the said court may direct.

SEC. 2. And be it farther enacted, That if any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the constitution of the United States, or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act, or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted and declared, That if any person shall be prosecuted under this act, for the writing or publishing any libel aforesaid, it shall be lawful for the defendant, upon the trial of the cause, to give in evidence in his defence, the truth of the matter contained in Republication charged as a libel. And the jury who shall try the cause, shall have a right to determine the law and the fact, under the direction of the court, as in other cases.

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That this act shall continue and be in force until the third day of March, one thousand eight hundred and one, and no longer: Provided, that the expiration of the act shall not prevent or defeat a prosecution and punishment of any offence against the law, during the time it shall be in force.

APPROVED, July 14, 1798.

 

Return to Contents


 

Naturalization Act

 

Transcript courtesy of the Avalon Project.

 

An Act supplementary to and to amend the act, intituled “An act to establish an uniform rule of naturalization; and to repeal the act heretofore passed on that subject.”

 

SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That no alien shall be admitted to become a citizen of the United States, or of any state, unless in the manner prescribed by the act, intituled “An act to establish an uniform rule of naturalization; and to repeal the act heretofore passed on that subject,” he shall have declared his intention to become a citizen of the United States, five years, at least, before his admission, and shall, at the time of his application to be admitted, declare and prove, to the satisfaction of the court having jurisdiction in the case, He shall declare and prove fourteen years residence within the United States, and five years in the state, &c. where he applies; besides otherwise conforming to the former act.that he has resided within the United States fourteen years, at least, and within the state or territory where, or for which such court is at the time held, five years, at least, besides conforming to the other residence within the United States, and five years in the state, &c. where he applies; besides otherwise conforming to the former act.declarations, renunciations and proofs, by the said act required, any thing residence therein to the contrary hereof notwithstanding: Provided, that any alien, who was residing within the limits, and under the jurisdiction of the United States, before the twenty-ninth day of January, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-five, may, within one year after the passing of this act—and any alien who shall have made the declaration of his intention to become a citizen of the United States, in conformity to the the provisions of the act, intituled “An act to establish an uniform rule of naturalization, and to repeal the act heretofore passed on that subject,” may, within four years after having made the declaration aforesaid, be admitted to become a citizen, in the manner prescribed by the said act, upon his making proof that he has resided five years, at least, within the limits, and under the jurisdiction of the United States: Alien enemies cannot become citizens.And provided also, that no alien, who shall be a native, citizen, denizen or subject of any nation or state with whom the United States shall be at war, at the time of his application, shall be then admitted to become a citizen of the United States.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of the clerk, or other recording officer of the court before whom a declaration has been, or shall be made, by any alien, of his intention to become a citizen of the United States, to certify and transmit to the office of the Secretary of State of the United States, to be there filed and recorded, an abstract of such declaration, in which, when hereafter made, shall be a suitable description of the name, age, nation, residence and occupation, for the time being, of the alien; such certificate to be made in all cases, where the declaration has been or shall be made, before the passing of this act, within three months thereafter; and in all other cases, within two months after the declaration shall be received by the court. And in all cases hereafter arising, there shall be paid to the clerk, or recording officer as aforesaid, to defray the expense of such abstract and certificate, a fee of two dollars; and the clerk or officer to whom such fee shall be paid or tendered, who shall refuse or neglect to make and certify an abstract, as aforesaid, shall forfeit and pay the sum of ten dollars.

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That in all cases of naturalization heretofore permitted or which shall be permitted, under the laws of the United States, a certificate shall be made to, and filed in the office of the Secretary of State, containing a copy of the record respecting the alien, and the decree or order of admission by the court before whom the proceedings thereto have been, or shall be had: And it shall be the duty of the clerk or other recording officer of such court, to make and transmit such certificate, in all cases which have already occurred, within three months after the passing of this act; and in all future cases, within two months from and after the naturalization of an alien shall be granted by any court competent thereto:—And in all future cases, there shall be paid to such clerk or recording officer the sum of two dollars, as a fee for such certificate, before the naturalization prayed for, shall be allowed. And the clerk or recording officer, whose duty it shall be, to make and transmit the certificate aforesaid, who shall be convicted of a wilful neglect therein, shall forfeit and pay the sum of ten dollars, for each and every offence.

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That all white persons, aliens, (accredited foreign ministers, consuls, or agents, their families and domestics, excepted) who, after the passing of this act, shall continue to reside, or who shall arrive, or come to reside in any port or place within the territory of the United States, shall be reported, if free, and of the age of twenty-one years, by themselves, or being under the age of twenty-one years, or holden in service, by their parent, guardian, master or mistress in whose care they shall be, to the clerk of the district court of the district, if living within ten miles of the port or place, in which their residence or arrival shall be, and otherwise, to the collector of such port or place, or some officer or other person there, or nearest thereto, who shall be authorized by the President of the United States, to register aliens: And report, as aforesaid, shall be made in all cases of residence, within six months from and after the passing of this act, and in all after cases, within forty-eight hours after the first arrival or coming into the territory of the United States, and shall ascertain the sex, place of birth, age, nation, place of allegiance or citizenship, condition or occupation, and place of actual or intended residence within the United States, of the alien or aliens reported, and by whom the report is made. And it shall be the duty of the clerk, or other officer, or person authorized, who shall receive such report, to record the same in a book to be kept for that purpose, and to grant to the person making the report, and to each individual concerned therein, whenever required, a certificate of such report and registry; and whenever such report and registry shall be made to, and by any officer or person authorized, as aforesaid, other than the clerk of the district court, it shall be the duty of such officer, or other person, to certify and transmit, within three mouths thereafter, a transcript of such registry, to the said clerk of the district court of the district in which the same shall happen; who shall file the same in his office, and shall enter and transcribe the same in a book to be kept by him for that purpose. And the clerk, officer or other person authorized to register aliens, shall be entitled to receive, for each report and registry of one individual or family of individuals, the sum of fifty cents, and for every certificate of a report and registry the sum of fifty cents, to be paid by the person making or requiring the same, respectively. And the clerk of the district court, to whom a return of the registry of any alien, shall have been made, as aforesaid, and the successor of such clerk, and of any other officer or person authorized to register aliens, who shall hold any former registry, shall and may grant certificates thereof, to the same effect as the original register might do. And the clerk of each district court shall, during one year from the passing of this act, make monthly returns to the department of State, of all aliens registered and returned, as aforesaid, in his office.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That every alien who shall continue to reside, or who shall arrive, as aforesaid, of whom a report is required as aforesaid, who shall refuse or neglect to make such report, and to receive a certificate thereof; shall forfeit and pay the sum of two dollars; Surety of the peace may be required of them.and any justice of the peace, or other civil magistrate, who has authority to require surety of the peace, shall and may, on complaint to him made thereof, cause such alien to be brought before him, there to give surety of the peace and good behaviour during his residence within the United States, or for such term as the justice or other magistrate shall deem reasonable, and until a report and registry of such alien shall be made, and a certificate thereof, received as aforesaid; and in failure of such surety, such alien shall and may be committed to the common gaol, and shall be there held, until the order which the justice or magistrate shall and may reasonably make, in the premises, shall be performed. And every person, whether alien, or other, having the care of any alien or aliens, under the age of twenty-one years, or of any white alien holden in service, who shall refuse and neglect to make report thereof, as aforesaid, shall forfeit the sum of two dollars, for each and every such minor or servant, monthly, and every month, until a report and registry, and a certificate thereof, shall be had, as aforesaid.

SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That in respect to every alien, who shall come to reside within the United States after the passing of this act, the time of the registry of such alien shall be taken to be the time when the term of residence within the limits, and under the jurisdiction of the United States, shall have commenced, in case of an application by such alien, to be admitted a citizen of the United States; and a certificate of such registry shall be required, in proof of the term of residence, by the court to whom such application shall and may be made.

SEC. 7And be it further enacted, That all and singular the penalties established by this act, shall and may be recovered in the name, and to the use of any person, who will inform and sue of the same, before any judge, justice, or court, having jurisdiction in such case, and to the amount of such penalty, respectively.

APPROVED, June 18, 1798

 

Return to Contents


 

Alien Friends Act

 

Transcript courtesy of the Avalon Project.

 

An Act Concerning Aliens.

SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States at any time during the continuance of this act, to order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or shall have reasonable grounds to suspect are concerned in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof, to depart out of the territory of the United Slates, within such time as shall be expressed in such order, which order shall be served on such alien by delivering him a copy thereof, or leaving the same at his usual abode, and returned to the office of the Secretary of State, by the marshal or other person to whom the same shall be directed. And in case any alien, so ordered to depart, shall be found at large within the United States after the time limited in such order for his departure, and not having obtained a license from the President to reside therein, or having obtained such license shall not have conformed thereto, every such alien shall, on conviction thereof, be imprisoned for a term not exceeding three years, and shall never after be admitted to become a citizen of the United States. Provided always, and be it further enacted, that if any alien so ordered to depart shall prove to the satisfaction of the President, by evidence to be taken before such person or persons as the President shall direct, who are for that purpose hereby authorized to administer oaths, that no injury or danger to the United Slates will arise from suffering such alien to reside therein, the President may grant a license to such alien to remain within the United States for such time as he shall judge proper, and at such place as he may designate. And the President may also require of such alien to enter into a bond to the United States, in such penal sum as he may direct, with one or more sufficient sureties to the satisfaction of the per- son authorized by the President to take the same, conditioned for the good behavior of such alien during his residence in the United States, and not violating his license, which license the President may revoke, whenever he shall think proper .

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States, whenever he may deem it necessary (for the public safety, to order to be removed out of the territory thereof, any alien who mayor shall be in prison in pursuance of this act; and to cause to be arrested and sent out of the United States such of those aliens as shall have been ordered to depart therefrom and shall not have obtained a license as aforesaid, in all cases where, in the opinion of the President, the public safety requires a speedy removal. And if any alien so removed or sent out of the United Slates by the President shall voluntarily return thereto, unless by permission of the President of the United States, such alien on conviction thereof, shall be imprisoned so long as, in the opinion of the President, the public safety may require.

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That every master or commander of any ship or vessel which shall come into any port of the United States after the first day of July next, shall immediately on his arrival make report in writing to the collector or other chief officer of the customs of such port, of all aliens, if any, on board his vessel, specifying their names, age, the place of nativity, the country from which they shall have come, the nation to which they belong and owe allegiance, their occupation and a description of their persons, as far as he shall be informed thereof, and on failure, every such master and commander shall forfeit and pay three hundred dollars, for the payment whereof on default of such master or commander, such vessel shall also be holden, and may by such collector or other officer of the customs be detained. And it shall be the duty of such collector or other officer of the customs, forthwith to transmit to the office of the department of state true copies of all such returns.

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That the circuit and district courts of the United States, shall respectively have cognizance of all crimes and offences against this act. And all marshals and other officers of the United States are required to execute all precepts and orders of the President of the United States issued in pursuance or by virtue of this act.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That it shall be lawful for any alien who may be ordered to be removed from the United States, by virtue of this act, to take with him such part of his goods, chattels, or other property, as he may find convenient; and all property left in the United States by any alien, who may be removed, as aforesaid, shall be, and re- main subject to his order and disposal, in the same manner as if this act had not been passed.

SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That this act shall continue and be in force for and during the term of two years from the passing thereof.

APPROVED, June 25, 1798.

 

Return to Contents


 

Alien Enemies Act

 

Transcript courtesy of the Avalon Project.

 

An Act Respecting Alien Enemies

SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That whenever there shall be a declared war between the United States and any foreign nation or government, or any invasion or predatory incursion shall be perpetrated, attempted, or threatened against the territory of the United States, by any foreign nation or government, and the President of the United States shall make public proclamation of the event, all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of the hostile nation or government, being males of the age of fourteen years and upwards, who shall be within the United States, and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured and removed, as alien enemies. And the President of the United States shall be, and he is hereby authorized, in any event, as aforesaid, by his proclamation thereof, or other public act, to direct the conduct to be observed, on the part of the United States, towards the aliens who shall become liable, as aforesaid; the manner and degree of the restraint to which they shall be subject, and in what cases, and upon what security their residence shall be permitted, and to provide for the removal of those, who, not being permitted to reside within the United States, shall refuse or neglect to depart therefrom; and to establish any other regulations which shall be found necessary in the premises and for the public safety: Provided, that aliens resident within the United States, who shall become liable as enemies, in the manner aforesaid, and who shall not be chargeable with actual hostility, or other crime against the public safety, shall be allowed, for the recovery, disposal, and removal of their goods and effects, and for their departure, the full time which is, or shall be stipulated by any treaty, where any shall have been between the United States, and the hostile nation or government, of which they shall be natives, citizens, denizens or subjects: and where no such treaty shall have existed, the President of the United States may ascertain and declare such reasonable time as may be consistent with the public safety, and according to the dictates of humanity and national hospitality.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That after any proclamation shall be made as aforesaid, it shall be the duty of the several courts of the United States, and of each state, having criminal jurisdiction, and of the several judges and justices of the courts of the United States, and they shall be, and are hereby respectively, authorized upon complaint, against any alien or alien enemies, as aforesaid, who shall be resident and at large within such jurisdiction or district, to the danger of the public peace or safety, and contrary to the tenor or intent of such proclamation, or other regulations which the President of the United States shall and may establish in the premises, to cause such alien or aliens to be duly apprehended and convened before such court, judge or justice; and after a full examination and hearing on such complaint. and sufficient cause therefor appearing, shall and may order such alien or aliens to be removed out of the territory of the United States, or to give sureties of their good behaviour, or to be otherwise restrained, conformably to the proclamation or regulations which shall and may be established as aforesaid, and may imprison, or otherwise secure such alien or aliens, until the order which shall and may be made, as aforesaid, shall be performed.

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of the marshal of the district in which any alien enemy shall be apprehended, who by the President of the United States, or by order of any court, judge or justice, as aforesaid, shall be required to depart, and to be removed, as aforesaid, to provide therefor, and to execute such order, by himself or his deputy, or other discreet person or persons to be employed by him, by causing a removal of such alien out of the territory of the United States; and for such removal the marshal shall have the warrant of the President of the United States, or of the court, judge or justice ordering the same, as the case may be.

APPROVED, July 6, 1798.

 

Return to Content

 

 

Chafee, Zechariah Jr. Free Speech in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1941.

Chafee represents the dominant view from the first half to he 20th century of the American tradition of freedom of speech, which is that the First Amendment represents a rejection of the common-law understanding of freedom of speech in favor of a more libertarian view of that freedom. On this view, which is still very much current in our popular understanding of the Founding, the Sedition Act was a gravely hypocritical measure by the Federalists, embraced in a moment of weakness as they faced emerging Republican opposition.

Find it on Amazon.


Levy, Leonard. Emergence of a Free Press. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1985.

This is a revised and enlarged version of Levy’s original 1960 book,

Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960.

A useful five-page extracted version of this books argument can be found in

Garvey, John H. And Frederick Schauer, eds. The First Amendment: A Reader. 2nd Ed. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1996.

Levy exposed the near-total acceptance of the common-law understanding of freedom of speech in the period of the founding, according to which freedom was restricted entirely to a prohibition against prior restraint. Levy thus regards the Sedition Act and the response to it not as a momentary lapse in American liberalism, but as a turning point in the American understanding of liberty: it was the Republican opposition to the Acts that led to the first articulation of a libertarian theory of freedom of speech and press.

Find Emergence of a Free Press, or the First Amendment: A Reader on Amazon.


Berns, Walter. “Freedom of the Press and the Alien and Sedition Laws: A Reappraisal.” Supreme Court Review 109 (1970). 

Berns’ argument is that neither the Federalists nor the Republicans, in their opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, showed any tendency toward a libertarian theory of freedom of speech. Republican opposition, he argues, was based entirely on the view that the power to punish seditious libel—a power assumed to be altogether legitimate—belonged exclusively to state governments. Berns argues that in fact the Republican enforcement of state laws curbing opposition speech was not only much more vigorous than Federalist enforcement of the Sedition Act, but lacked the important qualifications of the Sedition Act that allowed truth as a defense and jury trials.

Find it on JSTOR.


West, Thomas G. 2004. “Free Speech in the American Founding and in Modern Liberalism.” Social Philosophy and Policy 21 (2): 310-384.

Though West’s paper does not depart substantially from Berns’s in his understanding of the factual history of freedom of speech in America, he does depart from Berns in his defense of the Founders’ understanding of freedom of speech. He regards Berns’s study as implicitly bowing to modern liberal tendencies, insofar as he seems to allow that the movement toward a libertarian view of freedom of speech is a good thing. West defends a view of freedom of speech that includes certain restrictions that we today find troubling and that omits certain restrictions that are becoming more and more commonplace. His argument involves a partial critique of the Sedition Act as contrary to the Founders’ proper view, and to that extent represents a kind of return to the traditional view of the Alien and Sedition Acts (see, e.g., Chafee, above).

Find it at Cambridge University Press.