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Alien & Sedition Acts. Presentation by Robert L. Martinez Primary Content Source: The New Nation by Joy Hakim. Images as cited. In 1798, the Federalist Congress passed laws called the Alien and Sedition acts , and President John Adams signed them.

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alien sedition acts

Alien & Sedition Acts

Presentation by Robert L. Martinez

Primary Content Source: The New Nation by Joy Hakim.

Images as cited.

In 1798, the Federalist Congress passed laws called the Alien and Sedition acts, and President John Adams signed them.

There were three Alien acts. One made it difficult for aliens (foreigners) to become U.S. citizens. Another said the president could throw anyone he wanted out of the U.S., if he thought them dangerous.

President John Adams

The acts were aimed at the French, many of who were fleeing from the violence of the French Revolution.

France and England were at war. The Federalists supported the English. Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans supported the French.

Thomas Jefferson

The Federalists acted as if the French were all villains. Religious prejudice was at work, too. Most people in the U.S. were Protestants. Most French people were Catholics.

Unfortunately, some Americans wanted to keep Catholics out of the country. They supported the Alien acts.

The Alien acts were bad enough, but the Sedition Act may have been worse. It made it a crime to criticize the government.

Some people got arrested for doing just that. One was Ben Franklin’s grandson. Another was Congressman Lyon of Vermont, a revolutionary war veteran.

Congressman Lyon attacked President Adams in the Rutland Gazette, saying Adams was trying to act like a king. He said Adams should be sent “to a mad house.”

Article I of the Bill of Rights says: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…

Congress and the president had done something the Constitution said they couldn’t do. They were restricting freedom of speech and of the press.

If Congress were to pass Alien and Sedition acts today, the Supreme Court would declare them unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court was just getting organized during Adam’s term as president.

The court was not very strong. No one was quite sure what to do. But, the Virginia and Kentucky state legislatures declared the Alien and Sedition laws unconstitutional.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Kentucky resolutions, while James Madison wrote the Virginia resolutions. They argued that if a state believed a law unconstitutional, it had the right to say so and not obey the law.

James Madison

Remember the Alien and Sedition acts when you read about the Civil War. The South will say the states have a right not to follow lays they think unconstitutional

( remember the Nullification Crisis.)

But just imagine if each state had the right to declare laws unconstitutional. Things would get very combative in this 50-state country (like the Civil War.)

Massachusetts responded, stating it had agreed to the Constitution and were bound by that agreement. It was not up to the states to say if a law was unconstitutional or not.

In the end, the Alien and Sedition acts expired, but they were not renewed.

The Constitution was a great beginning, but there were things to be worked out. It was not until 1803 that the Supreme Court first claimed the right to decide if a law is unconstitutional (Marbury v. Madison).

The men who wrote the Constitution were afraid of political power. So they set up a government with a separation of powers, with three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.

The three branches were supposed to be equal partners to check and balance each other.

Checks and Balances

But at first the Supreme Court didn’t seem to know what to do. There was no check and balance at all. The court was so weak it was hard to get good people even to serve as justices.

Then President Adams made a brilliant choice. He appointed John Marshall as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

As a young congressman, John Marshall voted against the Sedition Act and against his own Federalist Party. That took courage.

Marshall would make the Supreme Court powerful and the judiciary an equal third branch of the government.