Study Guide

Alien and Sedition Acts Timeline

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War of the First Coalition

France had a bit of a head-chopping addiction in 1792, known to history-heads as the French Revolution.

This eventually led to a general war in Europe. The important part for the US was that both England and France made a habit of stealing American ships, while the USA was officially neutral. This also annoyed the French, as they were instrumental in helping the American colonists free themselves from England, and when it came time for their revolution, they it took for granted that the USA would help.

June 24, 1795

Jay's Treaty approved

This treaty, officially (and long-windedly) called, "Treaty of Amity Commerce and Navigation, between His Britannic Majesty; and The United States of America," was ratified by the Senate, (its provisions would be funded by the House in the following year).

Originally negotiated by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay (hence the name), it represented a slight thawing in U.S. -England relations over all that boat-stealing. Problem is, it made the French really tense, as we were something of an unofficial ally of theirs against England.

March 4, 1797

John Adams Becomes the 2nd President

John Adams, a Federalist, becomes president. Due to a weird quirk in the election process, Thomas Jefferson, his chief political rival and Democratic-Republican, is vice president. That had to be awkward.

July 1797

The XYZ Affair

President Adams sent three diplomats to France with the intention of negotiating the equivalent of Jay's Treaty with the French. When the foreign minister asked for a bribe, two of the American diplomats left (one stayed, and he eventually laid the groundwork for peace).

This is eventually known as the XYZ Affair, because someone named it while looking at a filing cabinet.


The Quasi-War

After the utter failure of diplomacy that was the XYZ Affair, the United States thought it might like to give undeclared war a shot. This two-year war—which was never an official war—was fought on the high seas and ended without a clear winner.

The important part for the Alien and Sedition Acts was that it fostered a lot of distrust for Jefferson, a serious Francophile, and the Democratic-Republicans, who had a lot of support among French immigrants.

June 18, 1798

Naturalization Act Signed

The first Alien and Sedition Act was signed into law. Now any French immigrants no longer had the right to vote. (Probably because they would have voted for Jefferson anyway.)

June 25, 1798

Alien Friends Act signed

It's possible this act was only written into law to make the Alien Enemies Act look better by comparison. It covered every power other than France, despite the fact that there was no official war being waged against France at the time (although Adams and others thought eventually there would be).

July 6, 1798

Alien Enemies Act signed

This is the big one. At the time, it was against the French only, though it's been used since against immigrants of Italian, German, and most notoriously, Japanese origins.

July 14, 1798

Sedition Act signed

At this point, Adams thought he had done so many wrong things that he should probably make that inevitable government protesting illegal.

October 10, 1798

Congressman Matthew Lyon Jailed

The representative from Vermont, Matthew Lyon, was arrested and jailed for criticizing John Adams under the Sedition Act.

Apparently, Lyon was kind of known for insulting almost everyone. He was the Sarah Silverman of 1798.

November 16, 1798

Kentucky Passes the Kentucky Resolution

Written by Jefferson, this resolution basically said that a state can ignore an unconstitutional law. How does it determine that? Basically however it likes.

This bad boy was used as justification for the Civil War.

December 24, 1798

Virginia Passes the Virginia Resolution

Madison wrote this one. It had softer language; basically calling for passive resistance against laws they found to be unconstitutional.


Sedition Act Expires

That's right. It just…expired. Like milk. Kind of anti-climactic right?

Bonus factoid: the concept of judicial review—where the Supreme Court decides whether a law is Constitutional or not—didn't become a thing until Marbury vs. Madison in 1803.


Alien Friends Act Expires

You want a big battle where someone repeals the thing, but nope. Again, this document was just tossed like a month-old opened carton of yogurt.

March 4, 1801

Jefferson Becomes President

Jefferson (with his vice president Aaron Burr—the guy who shot Alexander Hamilton), a Democratic-Republican, was sworn into office on this date. Looks like that vote suppression stuff didn't work. Jefferson pardoned people who were still in prison under the Sedition Act.

April 14, 1802

Naturalization Law of 1802 Enacted

Finally, we get a repealing. This new law repealed the Naturalization Act of 1798.

December 7, 1941

Presidential Proclamations 2525, 2526, and 2527

President Franklin Roosevelt used the Alien Enemies Act to order any non-citizens of German, Japanese, or Italian origin to be arrested and deported.

February 19, 1942

Executive Order 9066

Again using the Alien Enemies Act, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which ordered Japanese-Americans to be rounded up and put into camps for the duration of the war.

"Camps" is a benign term; these were not nice places. This was done to American citizens, who were deprived of freedom and property without due process because of their ethnic origins. You want an injustice? There's an injustice right there.

December 7, 2015

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump brought up Roosevelt's use of the Alien Enemies Act, this time to justify Trump's promise to ban Muslims from entering the country. Enacted in 1798, this law is still an important part of political discourse.

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