The Alien and Sedition Acts

The Alien and Sedition Acts were four laws passed by the Federalist-dominated 5th United States Congress and signed into law by President John Adams in 1798. They made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen (Naturalization Act), allowed the president to imprison and deport non-citizens who were deemed dangerous (“An Act Concerning Aliens”, also known as the Alien Friends Act of 1798) or who were from a hostile nation (Alien Enemy Act of 1798), and criminalized making false statements that were critical of the federal government (Sedition Act of 1798). The Alien Friends Act expired two years after its passage, and the Sedition Act expired on 3 March 1801, while the Naturalization Act and Alien Enemies Act had no expiration clause.

The Federalists argued that the bills strengthened national security during the Quasi-War, an undeclared naval war with France from 1798 to 1800. Critics argued that they were primarily an attempt to suppress voters who disagreed with the Federalist party and its teachings, and violated the right of freedom of speech in the First Amendment.

The Naturalization Act increased the residency requirement for American citizenship from five to fourteen years. At the time, the majority of immigrants supported Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, the political opponents of the Federalists. The Alien Friends Act allowed the president to imprison or deport aliens considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” at any time, while the Alien Enemies Act authorized the president to do the same to any male citizen of a hostile nation above the age of fourteen during times of war. Lastly, the controversial Sedition Act restricted speech that was critical of the federal government. Under the Sedition Act, the Federalists allowed people who were accused of violating the sedition laws to use truth as a defense. The Sedition Act resulted in the prosecution and conviction of many Jeffersonian newspaper owners who disagreed with the government.

The acts were denounced by Democratic-Republicans and ultimately helped them to victory in the 1800 election, when Thomas Jefferson defeated the incumbent, President Adams. The Sedition Act and the Alien Friends Act were allowed to expire in 1800 and 1801, respectively. The Alien Enemies Act, however, remains in effect as Chapter 3; Sections 21–24 of Title 50 of the United States Code. It was used by the government to identify and imprison allegedly “dangerous enemy” aliens from Germany, Japan, and Italy in World War II. (This was separate from the Japanese internment camps used to remove people of Japanese descent from the West Coast.) After the war they were deported to their home countries. In 1948 the Supreme Court determined that presidential powers under the acts continued after cessation of hostilities until there was a peace treaty with the hostile nation. The revised Alien Enemies Act remains in effect today.


The Federalists’ fear of the opposing Democratic-Republican Party reached new heights with the Democratic-Republicans’ support of France in the midst of the French Revolution. Some appeared to desire a similar revolution in the United States to overthrow the government and social structure. Newspapers sympathizing with each side exacerbated the tensions by accusing the other side’s leaders of corruption, incompetence, and treason. As the unrest sweeping Europe threatened to spread to the United States, calls for secession started to rise, and the fledgling nation seemed ready to tear itself apart. Some of this agitation was seen by Federalists as having been caused by French and French-sympathizing immigrants. The Alien Act and the Sedition Act were meant to guard against this perceived threat of anarchy.

The Acts were highly controversial at the time, especially the Sedition Act. The Sedition Act, which was signed into law by Adams on July 14, 1798, was hotly debated in the Federalist-controlled Congress and passed only after multiple amendments softening its terms, such as enabling defendants to argue in their defense that their statements had been true. Still, it passed the House only after three votes and another amendment causing it to automatically expire in March 1801. They continued to be loudly protested and were a major political issue in the election of 1800. Opposition to them resulted in the also-controversial Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, authored by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

Prominent prosecutions under the Sedition Act include:

  • James Thomson Callender, a British subject, had been expelled from Great Britain for his political writings. Living first in Philadelphia, then seeking refuge close by in Virginia, he wrote a book titled The Prospect Before Us (read and approved by Vice President Jefferson before publication) in which he called the Adams administration a “continual tempest of malignant passions” and the President a “repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor.” Callender, already residing in Virginia and writing for the Richmond Examiner, was indicted in mid-1800 under the Sedition Act and convicted, fined $200, and sentenced to nine months in jail.
  • Matthew Lyon was a Democratic-Republican congressman from Vermont. He was the first individual to be placed on trial under the Alien and Sedition Acts. He was indicted in 1800 for an essay he had written in the Vermont Journal accusing the administration of “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.” While awaiting trial, Lyon commenced publication of Lyon’s Republican Magazine, subtitled “The Scourge of Aristocracy”. At trial, he was fined $1,000 and sentenced to four months in jail. After his release, he returned to Congress.
  • Benjamin Franklin Bache was editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, a Democratic-Republican newspaper. Bache had accused George Washington of incompetence and financial irregularities, and “the blind, bald, crippled, toothless, querulous Adams” of nepotism and monarchical ambition. He was arrested in 1798 under the Sedition Act, but he died of yellow fever before trial.
  • Anthony Haswell was an English immigrant and a printer of the Jeffersonian Vermont Gazette. Haswell had reprinted from the Aurora Bache’s claim that the federal government employed Tories, also publishing an advertisement from Lyon’s sons for a lottery to raise money for his fine that decried Lyon’s oppression by jailers exercising “usurped powers”. Haswell was found guilty of seditious libel by judge William Paterson, and sentenced to a two-month imprisonment and a $200 fine.
  • Luther Baldwin was indicted, convicted, and fined $100 for a drunken incident that occurred during a visit by President Adams to Newark, New Jersey. Upon hearing a gun report during a parade, he yelled “I hope it hit Adams in the arse.”
  • In November 1798, David Brown led a group in Dedham, Massachusetts, including Benjamin Fairbanks, in setting up a liberty pole with the words, “No Stamp Act, No Sedition Act, No Alien Bills, No Land Tax, downfall to the Tyrants of America; peace and retirement to the President; Long Live the Vice President.” Brown was arrested in Andover, Massachusetts, but because he could not afford the $4,000 bail, he was taken to Salem for trial. Brown was tried in June 1799. Brown pleaded guilty, but Justice Samuel Chase asked him to name others who had assisted him. Brown refused, was fined $480 (equivalent to $7,200 in 2019), and sentenced to eighteen months in prison, the most severe sentence ever imposed under the Sedition Act.

Contemporaneous reaction

After the passage of the highly unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts, protests occurred across the country, with some of the largest being seen in Kentucky, where the crowds were so large they filled the streets and the entire town square. Noting the outrage among the populace, the Democratic-Republicans made the Alien and Sedition Acts an important issue in the 1800 election campaign. Upon assuming the Presidency, Thomas Jefferson pardoned those still serving sentences under the Sedition Act, and Congress soon repaid their fines. It has been said that the Alien Acts were aimed at Albert Gallatin, and the Sedition Act aimed at Benjamin Bache’s Aurora. While government authorities prepared lists of aliens for deportation, many aliens fled the country during the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Adams never signed a deportation order.

The Virginia and Kentucky state legislatures also passed the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions denouncing the federal legislation, secretly authored by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. While the eventual resolutions followed Madison in advocating “interposition”, Jefferson’s initial draft would have nullified the Acts and even threatened secession. Jefferson’s biographer Dumas Malone argued that this might have gotten Jefferson impeached for treason, had his actions become known at the time. In writing the Kentucky Resolutions, Jefferson warned that, “unless arrested at the threshold”, the Alien and Sedition Acts would “necessarily drive these states into revolution and blood”.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were never appealed to the Supreme Court, whose power of judicial review was not clearly established until Marbury v. Madison in 1803. Subsequent mentions in Supreme Court opinions beginning in the mid-20th century have assumed that the Sedition Act would today be found unconstitutional.

The Alien Enemies Act in the 20th and 21st centuries

The Alien Enemies Acts remained in effect at the outset of World War I and remains U.S. law today. It was recodified to be part of the US war and national defense statutes (50 USC 21–24).

On December 7, 1941, responding to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the authority of the revised Alien Enemies Act to issue presidential proclamations 2525 (Alien Enemies – Japanese), 2526 (Alien Enemies – German), and 2527 (Alien Enemies – Italian), to apprehend, restrain, secure and remove Japanese, German, and Italian non-citizens. On February 19, 1942, citing authority of the wartime powers of the president and commander in chief, Roosevelt made Executive Order 9066, authorizing the Secretary of War to prescribe military areas and giving him authority that superseded the authority of other executives under Proclamations 2525–7. EO 9066 led to the internment of Japanese Americans, whereby over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the Pacific coast were forcibly relocated and forced to live in camps in the interior of the country, 62% of whom were United States citizens, not aliens.

Hostilities with Germany and Italy ended in May 1945, and with Japan in August. Alien enemies, and U.S. citizens, continued to be interned. On July 14, 1945, President Harry S. Truman issued Presidential Proclamation 2655, titled “Removal of Alien Enemies”. The proclamation gave the Attorney General authority regarding aliens enemies within the continental United States, to decide whether they are “dangerous to the public peace and safety of the United States”, to order them removed, and to create regulations governing their removal. The proclamation cited the revised Alien Enemies Act (50 U.S.C. 21–24) as to powers of the President to make public proclamation regarding “subjects of the hostile nation” more than fourteen years old and living inside the United States but not naturalized, to remove them as alien enemies, and to determine the means of removal.

On September 8, 1945, Truman issued Presidential Proclamation 2662, titled “Removal of Alien Enemies”. The revised Alien Enemies Act (50 U.S.C. 21–24) was cited as to removal of alien enemies in the interest of the public safety. The United States had agreed, at a conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1942, to assume responsibility for the restraint and repatriation of dangerous alien enemies to be sent to the United States from Latin American republics. In another inter-American conference in Mexico City on March 8, 1945, North and South American governments resolved to recommended adoption of measures to prevent aliens of hostile nations who were deemed to be security threats or threats to welfare from remaining in North or South America. Truman gave authority to the Secretary of State to determine if alien enemies in the United States who were sent to the United States from Latin America, or who were in the United States illegally, endangered the welfare or security of the country. The Secretary of State was given power to remove them “to destinations outside the limits of the Western Hemisphere”, to the former enemy territory of the governments to whose “principles of which (the alien enemies) have adhered”. The Department of Justice was directed to assist the Secretary of State in their prompt removal.

On April 10, 1946, Truman issued Presidential Proclamation 2685, titled “Removal of Alien Enemies”, citing the revised Alien Enemies Act (50 U.S.C. 21–24) as to its provision for the “removal from the United States of alien enemies in the interest of the public safety”. Truman proclaimed regulations that were in addition to and supplemented other “regulations affecting the restraint and removal of alien enemies”. As to alien enemies who had been brought into the continental United States from Latin America after December 1941, the proclamation gave the Secretary of State authority to decide if their presence was “prejudicial to the future security or welfare of the Americas”, and to make regulations for their removal. 30 days was set as the reasonable time for them to “effect the recovery, disposal, and removal of (their) goods and effects, and for (their) departure”.

In 1947 New York’s Ellis Island continued to incarcerate hundreds of ethnic Germans. Fort Lincoln was a large internment camp still holding internees in North Dakota. North Dakota was represented by controversial Senator William “Wild Bill” Langer. Langer introduced a bill (S. 1749) “for the relief of all persons detained as enemy aliens”, and directing the US Attorney General to cancel “outstanding warrants of arrest, removal, or deportation” for many German aliens still interned, listing many by name, and all of those detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which was under the Department of Justice (DOJ). It directed the INS not to issue any more warrants or orders, if their only basis was the original warrants of arrest. The bill never passed. The Attorney General gave up plenary jurisdiction over the last internee on Ellis Island late in 1948.

In Ludecke v. Watkins (1948), the Supreme Court interpreted the time of release under the Alien Enemies Act. German alien Kurt G. W. Ludecke was detained in 1941, under Proclamation 2526. and continued to be held after cessation of hostilities. In 1947, Ludecke petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus to order his release, after the Attorney General ordered him deported. The court ruled 5–4 to release Ludecke, but also found that the Alien Enemies Act allowed for detainment beyond the time hostilities ceased, until an actual treaty was signed with the hostile nation or government.

In 1988, President Reagan and the 100th Congress introduced the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, whose purpose amongst others was to acknowledge and apologize for actions of the US against individuals of Japanese ancestry during World War II. The statement from Congress agreed with the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, that “a grave injustice was done to both citizens and permanent resident aliens of Japanese … without adequate security reasons and without any acts of espionage or sabotage documented by the Commission, and were motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”.

In 2015, presidential candidate Donald Trump made a proposal to ban people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States (as part of the War on Terror); Roosevelt’s application of the Alien Enemies Act was cited as a possible justification. The proposal created international controversy, drawing criticism from foreign heads of state that have historically remained uninvolved in United States presidential elections. A former Reagan Administration aide noted that, despite criticism of Trump’s proposal to invoke the law, “the Alien Enemies Act … is still on the books … (and people) in Congress for many decades (haven’t) repealed the law … (nor has) Barack Obama”. Other critics claimed that the proposal violated founding principles, and was unconstitutional for singling out a religion, and not a hostile nation. They included the Pentagon and others, who argued that the proposal (and its citation of the Alien Enemies proclamations as authority) played into the ISIL narrative that the United States was at war with the entire Muslim religion (not just with ISIL and other terrorist entities). On June 26, 2018, in the 5–4 decision Trump v. Hawaii, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Presidential Proclamation 9645, the third version of President Trump’s travel ban, with the majority opinion being written by Chief Justice John Roberts.

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