August 26, 2004

Rerun: Before McCarthy...

This was originally posted at my old site.

In the extended, a look at the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.

As I mentioned in a previous post about France, America came close to a war with Napoleon in 1800.

War was averted, but anti-French feelings before and after the conflict abounded. The Federalist party capitalized by passing laws designed to reduce or quiet their political enemies.

In 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts were aimed at these pro-Jeffersonian foes. The first of these oppressive laws was aimed at aliens. Most European immigrants lacked wealth and were therefore scorned by the aristocratic Federalist party. The aliens were welcomed as voters by the less prosperous and more democratic Jeffersonians. The law raised the residence requirements for immigrants wishing to become citizens from five years to fourteen. This drastic new law was meant to discourage and dishearten was also in violation of the traditional American policy of open-door hospitality and speedy assimilation.

Two additional Alien Laws struck heavily at "undesirable" immigrants. The president was empowered to deport dangerous foreigners in time of peace and to deport or detain them in time of hostilities. Though defensible as a war measure, this was an arbitrary grant of power contrary to the spirit of the Constitution. This law was never enforced.

However, one law that was enforced was the Sedition Act. It directly attacked two priceless freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights: freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This law stipulated that anyone who impeded the policies of the government or falsely defamed its officials, including the president, would be subjected to heavy fines and imprisonment.

Many outspoken Jeffersonian editors were indicted under the Sedition Act, and ten were brought to trial. All were convicted. Congressman Matthew Lyon was sentenced to four months in jail for writing about President Adams's "unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice." Another culprit was lucky to get off with a fine of $100 after he expressed the wish that the wad of a cannon fired in honor of Adams had landed in the seat of the president's breeches. The spirit of the Sedition Act was in direct conflict with the Constitution.

The Supreme Court was dominated by Federalists who were of no mind to declare it unconstitutional. This attempt by the Federalists to crush free speech and silence dissenters undoubtedly made many converts for the Jeffersonians.

Even so, the Alien and Sedition Acts commanded widespread popular support. Anti-French hysteria played directly into the hands of witch-hunting conservatives. In the congressional elections of 1798-1799, the Federalists rode a wave of popularity to score the most sweeping victory of their entire history.

Posted by Jennifer at August 26, 2004 09:00 AM