Alien and Sedition Acts (1798)
In 1798 the United States stood on the brink of war with France. The Federalists
believed that Democratic-Republican criticism of Federalist policies was disloyal
and feared that aliens living in the United States would sympathize with the French
during a war. As a result, a Federalist-controlled Congress passed four laws,
known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These laws raised the residency
requirements for citizenship from 5 to 14 years, authorized the President to deport
aliens, and permitted their arrest, imprisonment, and deportation during wartime.
The Sedition Act made it a crime for American citizens to "print, utter,
or publish . . . any false, scandalous, and malicious writing" about the
The laws were directed against Democratic-Republicans, the party typically
favored by new citizens, and the only journalists prosecuted under the Sedition
Act were editors of Democratic-Republican newspapers. Sedition Act trials, along
with the Senate’s use of its contempt powers to suppress dissent, set
off a firestorm of criticism against the Federalists and contributed to their
defeat in the election of 1800, after which the acts were repealed or allowed
to expire. The controversies surrounding them, however, provided for some of
the first testings of the limits of freedom of speech and press.
For more information, visit The National Archives' Treasures of Congress Online Exhibit.