Study Guide

Alien and Sedition Acts Analysis

By Congress

  • Rhetoric

    Logos, Pathos, and Ethos...Kind of.

    The purpose of rhetoric is to make an argument, and a law isn't an argument. It's what happens after an argument.

    In this case, the argument was the election of 1796, which gave the presidency and a majority in Congress to the Federalists. The Federalists, in turn, decided that aliens and sedition were dangers, and since the Democratic-Republicans already lost the argument, the Federalists made some laws.

    How the Federalists came to decide they needed them and sell them to the public involves all three branches of logic. You start with pathos. Specifically, the writers of the law were focusing on fear. It's a powerful emotion and one of the best ways to get people to agree to something they might otherwise not agree to. Adams and his allies used the fear of war with France as well as a generalized xenophobia, to push the laws through.

    There's also an implied sense of ethos to the laws themselves, especially the Naturalization Act. Each law assumes that those enacting it are in a loftier position than those who will be hurt by it. In essence, they are, since they have the ability to deprive those people of rights. No easier way to tell who's in charge, really.

    Lastly, the laws are laid out using logos. Once the premises are accepted, then the argument can be laid out more dispassionately. If these aliens are causing trouble, doesn't it make sense to be able to deport them or lock them up? If sedition is undermining our ability to fight France, shouldn't we crack down on it?

    The logic does a good job at hiding what, frankly, are some pretty nasty parts of America's past. Except for the Alien Enemies Act. That's still a part of America's present.

  • Structure

    Legal Document

    Well, technically, we have four legal documents. That's four for the price of one, folks.

    The Alien and Sedition Acts are made up of four different federal laws that get lumped together because they're more or less on the same theme. That theme? Our government is potentially threatened by immigrants and also people who say bad things about us. If these were enacted today, chances are the Supreme Court would strike them down.

    How it Breaks Down

    All Four Laws

    The laws are all structured in a similar way, which makes sense since they were written by the same people. It would be kind of fun if one was written in iambic pentameter just to mess with people, but no such luck.

    They're divided up into at least three parts. The first part, which consists of at least one section and sometimes more, is the meat of the law. This says what the law is supposed to do: from now on, no one named Jeff can chew gum after three p.m. on weekdays, for example. Although nowadays, that would be challenged in court, giving us the decision Jeffs vs. Massachusetts (or something).

    The second part details how the law is to be enforced. Sometimes there's discussion of specific penalties. Sometimes those penalties are listed in the first part. Mostly, this is the practical discussion of who is arresting whom, and what's going on with this person.

    The third part gives the law's lifespan. The Naturalization Act and the Alien Enemies Act didn't have this part, meaning they would be laws until they were either repealed or someone made a law that replaced them. This happened to the Naturalization Act in 1802. It never happened to the Alien Enemies Act. It's still out there.

    Naturalization Act

    For immigrants to become citizens, they have to wait a little while and declare their intention to do so. This is so anyone visiting doesn't just up and decide to be a citizen. The Naturalization Act increased the wait time from three to five years of residency to declare and from five to fourteen years to actually become a citizen.

    Alien Friends Act

    Immigrants from countries the United States isn't at war with can be locked up and deported if the president thinks they're dangerous.

    Alien Enemies Act

    Immigrants from countries the United States is at war with can be unceremoniously locked up or thrown out for any reason whatsoever.

    Sedition Act

    Remember those pesky First Amendment rights? Yeah, you don't have those anymore.

  • Writing Style

    18th-Century Legalese

    Ever turn an essay into a teacher and get the dreaded highlighter with a note that says "run-on"? We all have.

    Except, apparently, the Founding Fathers. It's like these guys only finished a sentence when they ran out of breath. Every single one has so many clauses, sub-clauses, and sub-sub-clauses, it's easy to get lost.

    Want an example? Here goes:

    And the President of the United States shall be, and he is hereby authorized, in any event, as aforesaid, by his proclamation thereof, or other public act, to direct the conduct to be observed, on the part of the United States, towards the aliens who shall become liable, as aforesaid; the manner and degree of the restraint to which they shall be subject, and in what cases, and upon what security their residence shall be permitted, and to provide for the removal of those, who, not being permitted to reside within the United States, shall refuse or neglect to depart therefrom; and to establish any other regulations which shall be found necessary in the premises and for the public safety: Provided, that aliens resident within the United States, who shall become liable as enemies, in the manner aforesaid, and who shall not be chargeable with actual hostility, or other crime against the public safety, shall be allowed, for the recovery, disposal, and removal of their goods and effects, and for their departure, the full time which is, or shall be stipulated by any treaty, where any shall have been between the United States, and the hostile nation or government, of which they shall be natives, citizens, denizens or subjects: and where no such treaty shall have existed, the President of the United States may ascertain and declare such reasonable time as may be consistent with the public safety, and according to the dictates of humanity and national hospitality. (Enemies.1)

    That's one sentence.

    What it actually means is that the President can watch immigrants from hostile countries and decide what should be done with them and their stuff. That's it.

    The intent isn't to hide the meaning. They weren't writing these laws in terror that they'd fall into the hands of the enemy. This is just how people wrote legal documents. The idea is to remove ambiguity and to account for any possible loopholes beforehand. That way the law says exactly what the writer wants it to. No more, no less.

    Now they look like walls of text that barely qualify as English. One thing to bear in mind is that to the standard citizen of the time, this style of writing would have been nearly as baffling. The Founding Fathers were a bunch of rich, landowning lawyers. They were hardly the common individual, and the way they wrote reflects that.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Each of the four laws in the Alien and Sedition Acts is named after what it's intended to do. It's all pretty straightforward. The Naturalization Act modified existing naturalization laws, the Alien Friends Act changed how the president could treat immigrants from friendly countries, and the Alien Enemies Act did the same for immigrants from enemy countries.

    The Sedition Act is more far-reaching. It made sedition illegal, and defined it, basically, as using the First Amendment in a way the government didn't like. This ignores that such use is the entire point of the First Amendment.

    Naturally, they aren't officially called by these shorthand names. Adams and his Federalist pals were 18th-century lawyers and they weren't going to use two words when four would do. The Naturalization Act is properly named, "An Act to Establish an Uniform Rule of Naturalization." The Alien Friends Act is the genteelly named, "An Act Concerning Aliens." The Alien Enemies Act is, "An Act Respecting Alien Enemies." Lastly, the Sedition Act is, "An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against the United States."

    There's some political calculation in these names. The Naturalization Act isn't hurting anyone by putting an unreasonable timeline on naturalization. Oh no, it's only making a uniform rule for it. The Alien Friends Act is just concerning aliens, which remember, was a much less alarming word back then.

    The king of the innocuous phrasing is the Sedition Act. It's not about punishing sedition. These are "certain crimes against the United States." The phrase "certain crimes" could mean literally anything, and people, unless they're from Gotham City, are usually against crime. The victim, though, is named as the United States. This is about patriotism.

    Adams and the Federalists knew they were overstepping constitutional bounds. They were curtailing the freedoms they literally just fought a war to protect. They had to couch these laws in nicer terminology. That we now use the nicknames for them shows how history has judged the Alien and Sedition Acts.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Yikes. The first lines of all four laws are massive run-on sentences.

    Unfortunately for people trying to understand laws, that's usually where they put the primary purpose of the law. The rest is clarification, how to enforce the law, how it works in relation to other laws. That kind of thing. If you want to know what a law is all about, read the first line.

    Now read it again…because there's no way you understood 18th-century legalese on the first try.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    The final line of a law is usually how long it's intended to exist, like an expiration date for milk.

    The Alien Friends Act only lasted until 1800, and the Sedition Act only lasted until 1801. When Jefferson took office, he was content to run out the clock on these. The Naturalization Act didn't include an expiration date, so it had to be repealed with a whole other law. The creatively-named Naturalization Act of 1802 did the job. (Source)

    And uh, the Alien Enemies Act was just…ignored. It's alive and kicking today.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (9) Mount Everest

    Yikes. It's like they're intentionally hiding the purpose of the Acts from you…almost as if the writers knew eventually history would turn on them.

    These things are written in the legalese of the late 18th century. It's practically a whole other language. Just calm down, read them slowly, maybe even out loud. There's a reason every word is there, but sometimes it's tough to figure out what that reason might be.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Literary and Philosophical References

    Nationalism

    Nations are a super-recent invention. Like, around the same age as the USA.

    Before this time, people were loyal to larger groups, but it was generally to things like ethnicity, tribe, or religion. For example, Europe used to be more conventionally known as Christendom (land of Christians), and if another Christian nation were discovered in Asia or Africa, it would have been considered part of it.

    The Alien and Sedition Acts are a reaction to this brand new concept of national identity. The USA is, after all, a nation founded on some principles that were written down and agreed to. That's more than most countries had at the time. Those principles were what bound the people of the nation together.

    So threats to them would be greeted with much the same reaction as a threat to a sovereign. This is the philosophical underpinnings of what they're getting at. Although, ironically, in trying to enforce this they were actively contradicting those same principles.

    Yeah, it was a little weird.

    References to This Text

    Historical and Political References

    Franklin D. Roosevelt, Executive Order 9066

    The Alien Enemies Act was the justification for the needlessly cruel and unconstitutional action taken against Japanese Americans during World War II. Because Japan was an enemy nation, it was thought that the Japanese American community was harboring spies. So the government thought it would just lock everyone of Japanese descent because that was safer.

  • Trivia

    John Adams was the first president to live in the White House (though it wasn't called that until Teddy Roosevelt named it in 1901). You might think Washington lived on his mom's couch, but it was actually a pair of mansions in New York.
    (Source)

    John Adams was the first, and to date only, Federalist president. This probably won't change since the Federalist party doesn't exist.
    (Source)

    Adams and Jefferson died the same day: July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Spooky.
    (Source)

    Dayton, Ohio is named for Jonathan Dayton—he was the most famous person from there.
    (Source)

    At 5'4", James Madison was the shortest US president in history…proving that height means exactly zilch when it comes to achieving great things.
    (Source)

    Star Trek actor and the internet's fun uncle George Takei was imprisoned at the age of five by Executive Order 9066.
    (Source)