In an attempt to appeal to Republican primary voters and win the presidency, Donald Trump vilified immigrants and the news media. As any American historian will tell you, these repulsive acts were nothing new in American history. Attacking immigrants and the press for political gain stretches back all the way to the Founding generation. In a series of posts, I’m going to examine the history of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and their ramifications on the history of immigration, the press, and the use of government power for personal political gain.

Before getting to the details of the laws themselves, let’s examine the political situation of the early republic that led to their creation. During the presidential administration of George Washington (1789-1797), two factions emerged within Washington’s cabinet and the Federal government at large. The first was the Federalist Party under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Simply put, the Federalists favored a strong national government that promoted trade and manufacturing. They wanted a strong relationship with Great Britain, America’s largest trading partner. Emerging as a result of Hamilton’s creation of the Bank of the United States, Federalists garnered support from merchants, businessmen, bankers, and had their strongest support in urban areas and the Northeast.


John Adams 


On the other side was the Democratic-Republican Party (which has no relation to either the Democratic or Republican parties of today) under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Democratic-Republicans feared centralized power and wanted strong state governments as a check against the Federal government. They drew their electoral strength from farmers, agrarian interests, and immigrants. In contrast to the Federalists, the Democratic-Republicans sought closer ties to France, America’s ally during the Revolution. They also viewed the French as more democratic following the overthrow of the French monarchy.

Throughout the 1790s, the tensions between the two parties grew especially since the election of 1796 resulted in a Federalist president, Adams, and a Democratic-Republican vice president, Jefferson. Additionally, as a result of the French Revolution, the United States had stopped repaying loans owed to the French from the Revolutionary War. In response, the French navy and French privateers had begun attacking American shipping across the globe. The resulting “Quasi-War” stoked political antagonism between the two parties.


A British cartoon depicting the relationship between France and the US. (via Greater Encyclopedia of Philadelphia

In 1798, President Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law. The laws proved immediately divisive. The Federalist dominated Congress stressed that the laws helped protect the security of the United States against the French. Democratic-Republicans believed that the Acts suppressed free speech and targeted voters who supported the Democratic-Republicans.

The Alien and Sedition Acts attacked the Democratic-Republican Party on multiple fronts. First, the Naturalization Act lengthened the amount of time required for immigrant to become a naturalized citizen from five to fourteen years. The law made it harder for immigrants, one of the bases of support for the Democratic-Republicans, to vote. The Alien Friends Act and the Alien Enemies Act gave the president sweeping authority to arrest and deport immigrants. The Alien Friends Act stated that the president had the authority to “order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or shall have reasonable grounds to suspect are concerned in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof, to depart out of the territory of the United States.” The Alien Enemies Act stated that any people who were natives or citizens of a hostile nation (a nation that U.S. was at war with) of the United States “shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed as alien enemies.”

Attacks on immigrants for political gain are nothing new in American history. Next week, we’ll take a look at the Sedition Act and how the Adams administration tried to use the law to pommel its political opponents into submission.

Additional Reading

Text of the Alien and Sedition Acts:

Terri Halperin, The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798: Testing the Constitution.

Geoffrey Stone: Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime: From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism.