Study Guide

Alien and Sedition Acts

By Congress

Alien and Sedition Acts Introduction

Here's American immigration in a nutshell: we're basically all immigrants. (Except, of course, for the approximately 1.7% of Americans that are Native American.) (Source)

Yeah: pretty much all of our forefathers and foremommys started out somewhere else, thought about the allure of amber waves of grain and purple mountain's majesty and booked a one-way ticket to the US of A.

And while we might think about anti-immigrant sentiment as a new thing, it ain't. It was around in WWI. It basically makes up the foundation of the plot of Gangs of New York. And, when the country was only ten years old, people were already making laws about who could live here and how much of their Constitutional rights they could really practice.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were a group of four laws—yup, you get four for the price of one— written by a Federalist Congress and signed into law by John Adams, a Federalist president. He's the Founding Father you probably forget about…but he's also the only one whose son was also prez.

So what are these acts, exactly?

  1. The Naturalization Act. This act made it more difficult for immigrants to become naturalized citizens—hence the name—as well as restricting any immigration to "free white people." (Yeah. They went there.) Incidentally, "naturalization" is the technical name for allowing a foreign-born person to become a citizen. It did this in a variety of ways, but that's the pertinent bit. It was signed into law June 18, 1798.
  2. The Alien Friends Act. We know this sounds awesome, like it would govern relations with E.T. and whatever Groot is, but it actually allowed the president to imprison or deport people from other countries ("aliens") he considered dangerous. That's an awful thing hiding under an innocuous name. (You do not want to hear about the Fluffy Kitten Act of 1876.) The Alien Friends Act became law on June 25, 1798.
  3. The Alien Enemies Act. No, this had nothing to do with Xenomorphs or the Kree Empire. Basically, anything covered under the Alien Friends Act required some kind of burden of proof. With the Alien Enemies Act, the president could imprison or deport someone from an enemy nation for any reason or no reason at all. Adams signed it into law on July 6, 1798
  4. The Sedition Act. This fourth law clamped down on First Amendment rights, and is in fact entirely unconstitutional. It outlawed assembly, like protests, against the government, and it made it illegal to make a false or scandalous (whatever that means) statement against the government. It became a law on July 14, 1798.

Sounds pretty bad, right? Luckily, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison agreed.

They fought the Alien and Sedition Acts, and when Jefferson became president a few years later, he allowed them to expire. Well, three of them. The Sedition Act expired in 1800, the Alien Friends Act in 1801, and the Naturalization Act was repealed by the Naturalization Law of 1802.

And that last one? The Alien Enemies Act? Oh, that's still around and kicking to this day.

  

What is Alien and Sedition Acts About and Why Should I Care?

We're going to repeat what we said up above:

The Alien Enemies Act? Oh, that's still around and kicking to this day.

That, guys, is a big deal.

Here's why: because this old scrap of yellowing parchment was used to create Executive Order 9066, which imprisoned Japanese Americans during WWII because the government was afraid that all Japanese-Americans—including people that had been born in the USA like Bruce Springsteen—were secret spies.

So they rounded up somewhere between 110,000 and 120,000 Japanese-Americans, confiscated their belongings, and sent them to internment camps in the high desert, a.k.a. America's armpit.

It was shameful. It was inhumane. In fact, it turned out to be such a terrible idea that the United States formally apologized for it).

But it was legal.

And it's still legal to do something like that again. And that, Shmoopers, is an important thing to consider…because the world is a scary place and people can panic and make legal decisions—like Executive Order 9066—which history proves to have been the result of blind panic and no moral forethought.

But let's ignore the present for a hot second and talk about the documents that either a) expired like a tinfoiled plate of tuna salad or b) got struck down in 1802. Because even though those docs are dead as disco, they're still super-important from a historical perspective.

Their presence in the halls of history (does that expression mean there are kids in the hall of history?) shows us that our national infancy was fraught with fear and worry—and that that worry grew so great it directly challenged the First Amendment in the form of the Sedition Act.

If that's not a reason to abide by the wisdom of "keep calm and carry on," we don't know what is.

But on a positive note, three out of the four of these acts are as extinct as the triceratops. And that shows some political progress on the part of the Founding Papas. One set of dudes made a law, another set of dudes realized that law stunk like a gym shoe full of blue cheese, and the laws died unceremonious deaths.

And that's hopeful in the most anti-climactic, workaday way possible. Bad decisions are made…but sometimes people with good heads on their shoulders come along and fix things in a bland-but-effective, bureaucratic way.

It's not the sexiest way of thinking about America's greatness, but it's proof that sketchy laws can be changed…and that nations can be changed for the better.

Alien and Sedition Acts Resources

Websites

Brief Overview
This gives a nice overview of what the Acts did. The links kind of put them in context, too.

Movie or TV Productions

John Adams
The defining TV depiction of the second president. Adams tends to get passed over in favor of the more famous two-term names that surround him. But in this miniseries, he's the main character.

Articles and Interviews

So what's all this Alien and Sedition stuff?
Just read this article. That will update you.

Who Got Busted
Here's a list of people who got charged with violating the acts.

Video

John Adams discusses the acts.
In this clip from HBO's John Adams miniseries, Adams first debates the need for the acts, then talks it over with Thomas Jefferson. And yes, Jefferson is totally Stannis Baratheon.

A Short Overview
You know all this stuff already, but it can't hurt.

Images

John Adams
He kind of looks like someone's chubby uncle.

Thomas Jefferson
This is how he looked in 1800, right around when the Alien and Sedition Acts were signed.

James Madison
Our smallest president.

The Alien and Sedition Acts
Here's what they actually looked like.