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Introduction

The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by Congress in 1798 in preparation for an anticipated war with France. The Naturalization Act increased the residency requirement for American citizenship from five to fourteen years, required aliens to declare their intent to acquire citizenship five years before it could be granted, and rendered people from enemy nations ineligible for naturalization. The subsequent Sedition Act banned the publishing of scandalous or malicious writings against the government. The acts were designed by Federalists to limit the power of the opposition Republican Party, but enforcement ended after Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by Congress in 1798 in preparation for an anticipated war with France. Interpreting the prominent participation of immigrants in the Republican opposition party as evidence of a relationship between foreigners and disloyalty, Federalists championed tighter restrictions for foreigners and critics of their policies.

The Naturalization Act of 1798 increased the residency requirement for American citizenship from five to fourteen years, required aliens to declare their intent to acquire citizenship five years before it could be granted, and made persons from ‘enemy’ nations ineligible for naturalization. The act consequently deprived Republicans of an important source of political support. Aliens were specifically affected by two other acts, which authorized their deportation if they were deemed ‘dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States’ and their wholesale incarceration or expulsion by presidential executive order during wartime.

Under the Sedition Act, even the rights of American citizens were curtailed by prohibiting assembly ‘with intent to oppose any measure … of the government’ and made it illegal for any person to ‘print, utter, or publish … any false, scandalous, and malicious writing’ against the government.

Armed with these statutes, Federalists attempted to suppress Republican opposition on the basis of ideological differences-most successfully prosecuting newspaperman Thomas Cooper and Republican congressman Matthew Lyon. These controversies provoked the first probing of the constitutional limits on free speech, the press, and the rights of an organized political opposition. When Thomas Jefferson became president, enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts ended. The sedition and incarceration provisions of the acts, however, were resurrected during later wars.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.