Alien and Sedition Acts

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 gave the U.S. government new powers where foreigners and immigrants were concerned. The acts made it more difficult for immigrants to gain citizenship and therefore to vote, while providing new governmental authority for deporting foreigners who were considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.” The Acts came about as a result of the French Revolution, during an undeclared naval war with France in the late 1700s. To explore this concept, consider the Alien and Sedition Acts definition.

Definition of Alien and Sedition Acts


  1. A series of laws passed in 1798, during the presidency of John Adams, granting the president and federal government new powers over foreigners and immigrants.


1798    Congressional legislation

What are the Alien and Sedition Acts

The Alien and Sedition Acts were a series of four laws that were proposed by the Federalist party at the end of the 18th century. The Acts, signed into law by President Adams, were intended to increase national security. This collection of laws changed residency requirements for obtaining citizenship, gave the president power to imprison or deport aliens (non-U.S. citizens), and made it a crime for any American citizen to print, utter, or publish false, scandalous, or malicious statements about the United States government.

History of the Alien and Sedition Acts

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 came about in response to American reaction to the French Revolution. With Democratic-Republican party beginning to show strong support for France, and many refusing to enforce federal laws, the Federalist party began to fear that the unrest in Europe was starting to bleed over into the United States. The Federalists felt that this turmoil was caused by immigrants who sympathized with the French revolution.

The Federalist party, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, strongly believed that, once political leaders were elected to their positions, they should not be criticized publically for doing what they felt needed to be done. As events around the world, and in the United States, began to unfold, the Federalists led people to believe that the Acts were necessary to eliminate foreign enemies residing in the United States, and to make America a safer place.

Legislation Making up the Alien and Sedition Acts

The Alien and Sedition Acts were aimed at controlling the activities of foreigners, as the country experienced political unrest, and anticipated the possibility of war. The laws referred to under the name of “Alien and Sedition Acts” include:

  1. The Naturalization Act – enacted June 18, 1798, this act increased the amount of time immigrants were required to live in the United States before becoming eligible for citizenship. This time period was raised from 5 years to 14 years.
  2. The Alien Act – also known as the Alien Friends Act, and enacted on June 25, 1798, allowed the federal government, and the president in particular, to deport foreigners who were, during peacetime, considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.”
  3. The Alien Enemy Act – enacted on July 6, 1798, this act authorized the government to arrest, imprison, and deport any alien (non-citizen) who was subject to an enemy power during time of war. Although the Alien Enemy Act was not used until the War of 1812, it was this Act that laid the foundation for imprisoning enemy aliens, namely Japanese-Americans, and confiscating their property, during World War II.
  4. The Sedition Act – enacted July 14, 1798, this act made it illegal to oppose, or conspire against, the United States government. This allowed prosecution for treason of anyone who printed or declared any false, malicious, or scandalous writing or publication against Congress or the President of the United States. The Sedition Act flew in the face of the First Amendment, taking away the rights of the people to engage in free speech, free press, and the right to peaceable assembly.

Effect of the Alien and Sedition Acts

After the laws went into effect, the government began compiling a list of aliens (non-citizens) that were to be deported. Many who were not incarcerated, fled the country on their own, to avoid deportation or imprisonment. President Adams, however, never signed an order of deportation. Following the Acts’ implementation in 1798, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison secretly drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, denouncing the Alien and Sedition Acts as unconstitutional.

During the election of 1800, the Democratic-Republicans brought the Alien and Sedition Acts to the fore of public knowledge, making it an important issue. Thomas Jefferson was elected President that year, and immediately went about pardoning individuals who were still incarcerated for violating the Sedition Act. He also repaid the individuals’ fines with government funds.

First Person Charged Under the Sedition Act

In October 1798, Vermont Republican congressman, Matthew Lyon, became the first individual to face trial for charges under the Sedition Act. The charges came about after Lyon published an article in the Vermont Journal, criticizing the presidential administration as being full of “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.”

Lyon was indicted by a federal grand jury and he defended himself. He claimed that, because he was simply expressing his personal opinions, he did not violate the Act. Lyon was found guilty, however, of expressing seditious opinions with intent to do harm. Lyon was sentenced to spend four months in jail, and fined $1,000, which was no small sum at the time.

Toughest Sentence Ever Imposed Under the Sedition Act

A veteran of the Revolutionary War, David Brown led a group denouncing the new federal government, as they hoisted a liberty pole sporting the phrases:

“No Stamp Act, No Sedition Act, No Alien Bills, No Land Tax, downfall to the Tyrants of America; peace and retirement to the President; Long Life the Vice President.”

In November 1798, the authorities caught up with Brown in Andover, Massachusetts, and took him into custody. Because he could not afford to pay the $4,000 bail, Brown was transported to Salem to face trial for violation of the Sedition Act. In June 1799, Brown pled guilty to speaking his mind, but rather than sentence him then, Justice Samuel Chase asked him to provide names of others who had helped him. Brown refused to do so, and was sentenced to spend 18 months in prison, and fined $480. This was the most severe sentence ever imposed under the Sedition Act.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
  • Democratic-Republican Party – The American political party of the 1790s, headed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, in opposition to the policies of the new Federalist party.
  • Federalist Party – The first American political party, existing from about 1790 to 1816, promoting a fiscally sound nationalistic government.