Study Guide

Alien and Sedition Acts Themes

By Congress

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  • Fear

    Xenophobia is Greek for "fear of aliens." This is what anyone gets after watching Alien for the first time, but it's not how the word is used. It means fear of people from other countries, and usually gets narrowed down to people from other countries who want to live in your country.


    The Alien and Sedition Acts have that word "alien" right up front, two have it in their names, and three are all about policing their behavior.

    It's also important to note that the United States was super-young and democracy was still very much an experiment. That's the reason for the provision (for example) in the law that states the president must be "native-born." They didn't want a foreign aristocrat to take over and dismantle the system.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Many believe there is some justification for the waiting period that the Naturalization Act lengthened. What do you think would be an acceptable waiting period to become a citizen? How did you arrive at that number?
    2. The Alien Friends and Alien Enemies Act treat people from friendly and enemy countries in different ways. Does this make sense? Why or why not? How should treatment differ, if at all?
    3. The Sedition Act is designed to protect the government from speech and action it finds frightening. How much should a government fear its citizens if at all?
    4. While the Alien and Sedition Acts might have been motivated by fear of political enemies, how was the general fear of the public harnessed? Is there a case where fear can be used for good?

    Chew on This

    Any amount of xenophobia is too much. The doors should be open for all to immigrate if they so desire, and in doing so can only enhance the vibrant culture of America.

    While most immigrants are good people, there are those who would use any relaxation in immigration laws as a way to get in commit crime. We must be vigilant against these people, and the Alien and Sedition Acts were the first attempt.

  • Prejudice

    At their core, three of the four Alien and Sedition Acts assume that the biggest problem is immigrants, and one thinks the problem is people who believe different things.

    Though the laws were written at a time when they were worried about French immigrants, they can easily be repurposed into whatever ethnic or religious minority happens to be coming over in numbers.

    The unspoken assumption at the heart of the laws is that all this immigration is a negative thing. That without special laws policing these people, they're going to do something terrible. They're being judged for something they haven't done yet, or might never do.

    Questions About Prejudice

    1. Is prejudice always negative? Can you think of an example where it might be a good thing? Or should all forms of prejudice be done away with? Why or why not?
    2. Should there be a different set of laws policing immigrants and foreign residents that there are for natural-born citizens? What kinds of laws? What kinds of differences?
    3. How has prejudice changed over the years? Is it more damaging when it is encoded into laws, or are more subtle forms of discrimination worse because they can be ignored?
    4. Are any sections of the Alien and Sedition Acts a good idea? Which parts and why?

    Chew on This

    The Alien and Sedition Acts helped codify a specific kind of prejudice into American law, and the promise of the Declaration of Independence cannot be fulfilled until the Alien Enemies Act is repealed.

    Prejudice is most often used in a negative manner, but it can be merely an aspect of learning. While irrational aspects of prejudice should be avoided, the rational aspects should not be lost.

  • Freedom and Tyranny

    Every law that is enacted, every single one, reduces freedom. The question is, whether or not that reduction of freedom is worth it. Most people would agree that certain reductions aren't just okay, but they're necessary for a functioning civilization. Like getting rid of the right to kill people or steal stuff.

    When a law reduces freedom way more than its value would demand, that's when it's tyranny. In the case of the Alien and Sedition Acts, you're not getting a whole lot of value, and you're cutting into some of the basic freedoms the Constitution guarantees. That lands it smack dab on the tyranny end of the scale.

    Questions About Freedom and Tyranny

    1. How long should immigrants have to wait before they're allowed to become citizens? How did you arrive at that figure? Is there a place in history where that was the legal figure?
    2. What sort of due process are aliens entitled to? Should it be different based on their country of origin, or are rights constant?
    3. What situations should he freedoms of the First Amendment be abridged? What about those of the rest of the Bill of Rights? Is there a situation? Why or why not?
    4. Are laws like the Alien and Sedition Acts inevitable? What actions can the government take to protect people from fear-fueled tyranny?

    Chew on This

    The Alien and Sedition Acts are the best examples of tyrannical laws in the early history of the United States.

    The Alien and Sedition Acts, though unpopular, were a necessary tool in defeating the French in the Quasi-War and should be used as a model in the future.

  • Politics

    Politics have been a part of human life ever since Thog thought all the cavemen should move to one cave, and Grog thought they should stay in the same cave. And once a cave bear got everyone, people still said, "Don't blame me, I voted for Thog."

    Because it's so far back and American culture tends to elevate the Founders above the status of mortal men, it's easy to think they never had petty political squabbles. They totally did. The Alien and Sedition Acts weren't entirely because of politics, but politics played a huge role in their inception.

    Adams was concerned about Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans making trouble. To make matters worse, Adams was far from the consensus leader of his party. He tried to cut down on support for the other side by going after their base, which was immigrants, predominantly from France.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Is politics an inherently destructive force? Can it ever be used for greater good? Has it ever been used that way in the past?
    2. Are politics ever valuable in defeating an enemy that might be harder to deal with because of prevailing attitudes of the time? Or are they always petty?
    3. Did politics make the Alien and Sedition Acts possible, or were they inevitable?
    4. In the struggle between Adams and Jefferson did both men have a point, or was one right and one wrong? Where were they right and wrong, and why?

    Chew on This

    The Alien and Sedition Acts were more the result of an ideological disagreement between Adams and Jefferson that manifested itself as political maneuvering.

    The Alien and Sedition Acts are the birthplace of the rancor that exists between the two political parties of the US. Though they're different parties now, the disagreements in the acts are fundamental to American politics.

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