President John Adams passes the Naturalization Act, the first of four pieces of controversial legislation known together as the Alien and Sedition Acts, on this day in 1798. Strong political opposition to these acts succeeded in undermining the Adams administration, helping Thomas Jefferson to win the presidency in 1800.
At the time, America was threatened by war with France, and Congress was attempting to pass laws that would give more authority to the federal government, and the president in particular, to deal with suspicious persons, especially foreign nationals. The Naturalization Act raised the requirements for aliens to apply for U.S. citizenship, requiring that immigrants reside in the U.S. for 14 years before becoming eligible. The earlier law had required only five years of residence before an application could be made.
Adams, in fact, never enforced the Naturalization Act. Nevertheless, he came under heavy fire from the Republicans, led by Vice President Thomas Jefferson, who felt that the Naturalization Act and its companion legislation was unconstitutional and smacked of despotism. So disgusted was Jefferson with Adams’ enthusiastic support of the law that he could no longer support the president and left Washington during the Congressional vote. Former President George Washington, on the other hand, supported the legislation. Adams signed the second piece of the legislation, the Alien Act, on June 25. This act gave the president the authority to deport aliens during peacetime. The Alien Enemies Act, which Adams signed on July 6, gave him the power to deport any alien living in the U.S. with ties to U.S. wartime enemies. Finally, the Sedition Act, passed on July 14, gave Adams tremendous power to define treasonable activity including any false, scandalous and malicious writing. The intended targets of the Sedition Act were newspaper, pamphlet and broadside publishers who printed what he considered to be libelous articles aimed primarily at his administration. Abigail Adams urged her husband to pass the Sedition Act, calling his opponents criminal and vile.
Of the four acts, the Sedition Act was the most distressing to staunch First Amendment advocates. They objected to the fact that treasonable activity was vaguely defined, was defined at the discretion of the president and would be punished by heavy fines and imprisonment. The arrest and imprisonment of 25 men for supposedly violating the Sedition Act ignited an enormous outcry against the legislation. Among those arrested was Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, who was the editor of the Republican-leaning Philadelphia Democrat-Republican Aurora. Citing Adams’ abuse of presidential powers and threats to free speech, Jefferson’s party took control of Congress and the presidency in 1800.