These acts were provoked by the war crisis with France in 1798. Three of the four acts concerned ALIENS. Federalist leaders feared the French and Irish, in particular, as a potentially subversive force and as an element of strength in the Republican party. The Naturalization Act increased the period of residence required for admission to CITIZENSHIP from five to fourteen years. The Alien Act authorized the President to deport any alien deemed dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States. The Alien Enemies Act authorized incarceration and banishment of aliens in time of war. The Sedition Act, aimed at "domestic traitors," made it a federal crime for anyone to conspire to impede governmental operations or to write or publish "any false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government, the Congress, or the President.
While Republicans conceded the constitutionality, though not the necessity, of the Naturalization and Alien Enemies acts, they assailed the others, not only as unnecessary and unconstitutional but as politically designed to cripple or destroy the opposition party under the pretense of foreign menace. The constitutional argument received authoritative statement in the VIRGINIA AND KENTUCKY RESOLUTIONS. In defense of the Alien Act, with its summary procedures, Federalists appealed to the inherent right of the government to protect itself. The same appeal was made for the Sedition Act. Federalists denied, further, that the act violated FIRST AMENDMENT guarantees of FREEDOM OF SPEECH and PRESS, which they interpreted as prohibitions of PRIOR RESTRAINT only. They also claimed that the federal government had JURISDICTION over COMMON LAW crimes, such as SEDITIOUS LIBEL, and so could prosecute without benefit of statute. The statute, they said, liberalized the common law by admitting truth as a defense and authorizing juries to return a general verdict.
Despite the zeal of President JOHN ADAMS ' administration, no one was actually deported under the Alien Act. (War not having been declared, the Alien Enemies Act never came into operation.) The Sedition Act, on the other hand, was widely enforced. Twenty-five persons were arrested, fourteen indicted (plus three under common law), ten tried and convicted, all of them Republican printers and publicists. The most celebrated trials were those of Matthew Lyon, Republican congressman and newspaper editor in Vermont; Dr. Thomas Cooper, an...