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Not the politics of the day

A toughening of immigration and naturalization laws sending a clear signal to immigrants that they are, in general, not welcome here.

Even legal immigrants under threat of removal from the United States whenever the President deems them “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.”

And anyone — even a citizen — even a newspaper — who dares to speak out against the President of the United States or to oppose or resist anything the President does can go to prison for up to two years.

resistNo, this is not a post about the politics of 2017.

The Legal Genealogist respectfully invites your attention to the laws.

Yes, the laws.

The laws of 1798.

These provisions and more were part of a package of bills rammed through an acquiescent Congress by the Federalists and signed into law by President John Adams. Collectively, they were known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.1

The four laws that made up the package were enacted in response to a fear of war with France — and at the same time were intended to weaken the opposition Democratic-Republican Party headed by then-Vice President Thomas Jefferson.2

The four laws were:

• The Naturalization Act of 1798, which made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen by extending the length of time an immigrant had to have been a resident from five years to 14 years.3

• The Alien Friends Act of 1798, giving the President the right to determine which non-citizens were dangerous to the United States and then authorizing their imprisonment and deportation.4

• The Alien Enemy Act of 1798, allowing for the imprisonment and deportation of any male over the age of 14 years who was a national of a country with which the United States was at war.5

• The Sedition Act of 1798, which made it illegal to make false statements critical of the federal government or any of its officials and to resist the enforcement of any of its laws.6

It was the last — the Sedition Act — that most challenged the vitality and viability of the young Republic and its rule of law:

Between 1798 and 1801, in the midst of the threat of war with France, at least twenty-six individuals were prosecuted in U.S. federal courts on charges of publishing false information or speaking in public with the intent to undermine support for the federal government. The accused ranged from the editor of the most influential opposition newspaper in the nation to a New Jersey resident who drunkenly jeered President John Adams. All of the defendants were political opponents of the Adams administration.7

Consider, if you will, the very first case brought under the act.

The defendant was Matthew Lyon of Vermont. He was a duly-elected member of the United States Congress and was in the middle of a re-election campaign when he was indicted for publishing letters critical of President Adams.

The first count of the indictment cited a published letter that Lyon wrote before passage of the Sedition Act. In this critique of the Adams administration, Lyon asserted that he had seen “every consideration of public welfare swallowed up in a continual grasp for power, in an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, or selfish avarice.” Two other counts accused Lyon of further promoting sedition through his role in publicizing a letter in which the poet Joel Barlow blamed Adams and the Senate for the diplomatic crisis with France.8

Lyon was convicted of violating the act, and re-elected to Congress while in jail. He was indicted again — though never tried or convicted — for his jailhouse writings critical of his trial and conditions of confinement. He later served as a Congressman from Kentucky.9

Major newspapers supporting the Jeffersonian side were singled out for prosecution:

There were at that time four papers which, because they were located at strategic points and were edited with considerable ability, and had a relatively large circulation, stood in a separate class as regards power and influence, the other Republican papers consisting largely of articles reprinted from these four. They were the Aurora (Philadelphia), the Examiner (Richmond), the Argus (New York), and the Independent Chronicle (Boston). Could these or any one of them be silenced, a hard blow would be dealt the Republican party. That all four were attacked through their proprietors, editors, or chief writers, and that the Aurora, the ablest, boldest, and most influential of the four, was repeatedly attacked was probably in large measure responsible for the belief among Republicans that a real effort was being made to silence the Republican press.10

And there were cases brought “against insignificant persons, whose acts it is hard to believe could have been of any serious import.” One David Brown, for example,who erected a liberty pole in Massachusetts with the words “No Stamp Act, no Sedition, no Alien Bills, no Land Tax: downfall to the Tyrants of America, peace and retirement to the President, long live the Vice-President and the Minority; may moral virtue be the basis of civil government.”11 Or one Luther Baldwin of Newark, New Jersey, who drunkenly yelled when he heard a gunshot while watching Adams passing through town that he wouldn’t mind if Adams were shot “through his arse.”12

This is law, not politics.

Except, of course, for one thing.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”13


  1. See “Alien and Sedition Acts,” Primary Documents in American History, Library of Congress ( : accessed 18 Jan 2017).
  2. See “The Alien and Sedition Acts: Defining American Freedom,” Constitutional Rights Foundation ( : accessed 19 Jan 2017).
  3. “An Act supplementary to and to amend the act, intituled ‘An act to establish an uniform rule of naturalization’; and to repeal the act heretofore passed on that subject,” 1 Stat. 566 (18 June 1798).
  4. “An Act concerning Aliens,” 1 Stat. 570 (15 June 1798).
  5. “An Act respecting Alien Enemies,” 1 Stat. 577 (6 July 1798).
  6. “An Act in addition to the act, entitled ‘An act for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States,’” 1 Stat. 596 (14 July 1798).
  7. Bruce A. Ragsdale, The Sedition Act Trials (Washington, D.C. : Federal Judicial Center, 2005), PDF at 1 ( : accessed 19 Jan 2017).
  8. Ibid., PDF at 3.
  9. Ibid., PDF at 4.
  10. Frank M. Anderson, “The Enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Laws,” Report of the American Historical Association, 1912 (Washington, D.C. : US Govt. Printing Office, 1914), 120-121; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 19 Jan 2017).
  11. Ibid., at 121-122.
  12. Patrick J. Gallo, The American Paradox: Politics and Justice (Washington, D.C. : Howard University Press, 2001), 37.
  13. George Santayana, The Life of Reason, vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), 284.
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