Framing Questions, the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798
- What conditions led to the drafting of the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798?
- What were the consequences of those acts?
- What role did the press play in the drama? What was the role of political parties?
I. Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798: General Background
A. “Signed into law by President John Adams in 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts consisted of four laws passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress as America prepared for war with France. (The main argument supporting their passage was that the United States was threatened by the recent events in France which had overthrown the monarchy and established a republic. The Federalists feared the French citizens would provoke unrest here.) These acts increased the residency requirement for American citizenship from five to fourteen years, authorized the president to imprison or deport aliens considered "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States" and restricted speech critical of the government. These laws were designed to silence and weaken the Democratic-Republican Party. Negative reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts helped contribute to the Democratic-Republican victory in the 1800 elections. Congress repealed the Naturalization Act in 1802, while the other acts were allowed to expire.” Library of Congress, Alien and Sedition Acts
Documents in the Case
For an authoritative overview of the conditions that prompted implementation of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798:
The Sedition Act: Certain Crimes Against the United States
There are a wealth of original documents from this period, which can form the basis for class discussion and lectures. Students can be directed to search the documents for specific arguments and to do further research into the conditions of the period and what prompted the response by Congress.
Jefferson and Madison were fierce opponents of the acts, and they exchanged letters and later wrote resolutions for two states voicing their objections to them. Here are links to specific texts:
- Which provisions of the Constitution supported opposition to the implementation of these acts?
- Which provisions of the Constitution supported the belief that Congress had the power to pass a Sedition Act?
- In what ways did the Sedition Act abuse powers or restrict fundamental rights granted in the Constitution and/or Bill of Rights?
- Did the Sedition Act tend, as written, to do more to protect security or to endanger freedom?
- Debate: (objections to and arguments in favor of a sedition act.) Resolved: The Constitution of the United States of America supports implementation of an act prohibiting seditious speech.
- Position Paper: Assign students a short research paper (2-3 pages) in which they become partisans and must justify their support for either the Federalists or the Jeffersonian Republicans. Students should begin their essays with clear statements of their party affiliations. Avoiding hindsight, they should defend their choices using both practical and constitutional arguments, and they should challenge their opposition using the same criteria.
Teaching with Documents
- U.S. v. Thomas Cooper (a violation of the Sedition Act of 1798)
This is a wonderful lesson, with excellent supporting materials and a variety of activities drawn from examining the original documents, includes images of the original broadside that got Cooper into trouble, the indictment, subpoenas, Cooper’s not guilty plea, and the verdict and fine. A variety of activities are suggested at the National Archives site.
- Substantive information and materials also are available in another case involving a different publisher, William Duane.
- You can access part of a chapter from “The American Counter-Revolution: a retreat from liberty, 1783-1800,” with background information on William Duane (and Thomas Cooper), available from Google Books.
- Original documents are available from the Senate archives and NARA: “Senate Holds Editor in Contempt” William Duane
- Charges against Duane
Analyze a Cartoon
One of the most famous incidents in Congressional history involved a fight between two members of the House in the debate over the sedition Act, immortalized in an engraving of a cartoon from the period.
Use the cartoon as a prompt for a 10-minute essay about the incident and how it is visualized.
Cartoon Analysis, Written Document and Document Analysis worksheets
- Use the cartoon for a discussion of other heated issues before legislatures and whether they provoke such an extreme response. It could also be the basis for research into other instances of violence in the midst of debate.
- Ask students to create a cartoon visualizing some other aspect of the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts, for example, using the materials from the Cooper or Duane sedition trials, or Madison’s and Jefferson’s objections to the acts.
. These guide students through an analysis of primary materials. (Created by National Archives education staff and available for use by teachers).