Part of the most serious crackdown on peacetime dissent in U.S. history, mounted amid the most threatening crisis that the young nation ever faced, the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1790s also comprised the most prominent “headline event” in U.S. history to be directly and openly rooted in fears of conspiracy.
The XYZs of Political Paranoia in the 1790s
Although the young American republic was theoretically more stable and centralized than ever before, the first decade under the Constitution ratified in 1789 was fraught with political fears arising from both genuine threats and overreactions to wholly unexpected developments.
Perhaps the most important of these unexpected developments was the rapid emergence of political divisions that matured into parties competing to name the nation’s chief executive, a circumstance unprecedented in world history. Although parties are now considered a basic aspect of U.S. democracy, this was far from intended by the founders.
Believing that a republic could never survive the strain of constant battles for power, and that good, trustworthy leaders would never want to engage in those battles, the framers of the Constitution intentionally designed the new system to prevent the development of political parties or any other kind of organized competition for control of the national government. The hope was that the increased size and diversity of the territory being governed, coupled with a multilayered structure of representation that included an appointed senate and an indirectly elected president, would make it impossible for the country’s many local political factions and interests to organize themselves sufficiently to control the national government. Without the need to please or compete for public favor, learned, enlightened statesmen would be able to deliberate more or less in peace at the national capital, making wise, well-reasoned decisions for the good of all.
To the founders, parties and other forms of organized opposition to government were inherently conspiratorial, especially when a legitimate republican government existed. When the people already ruled, efforts to defeat or stymie their chosen leaders were considered plots against the people themselves by cabals of “artful and designing men” out for private gain, tyrannical power, or some other sinister purpose. Those who followed such evil leaders showed themselves to be mere “tools” or “dupes,” unworthy of the rights of independent citizenship. In a comment that somewhat hyperbolically reflected the feelings of many colleagues, Thomas Jefferson expressed revulsion at the very idea of joining a political party: “Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”
Despite this deep aversion to parties, the choices facing the young nation were simply too momentous and too divisive to be contained by the makeshift structure that the framers had devised. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton came into conflict immediately over financial policy and broader matters such as the basic structure of the new government and the future character of the nation. Jefferson became convinced that Hamilton was the leader of a “corrupt squadron” who sought “to get rid of the limitations imposed by the constitution” with the “ultimate object” of “a change, from the present republican form of government, to that of a monarchy” modeled on Great Britain’s (Jefferson, 986). Hamilton, for his part, was equally certain that Jefferson and his lieutenant James Madison led “a faction decidedly hostile to me and my administration, and . . . subversive of. . . good government and . . . the union, peace and happiness of the Country” (Hamilton, 738). Believing that they were fighting for the very soul of the new nation, Jefferson, Hamilton, and their respective allies instinctively reached out for support among their fellow politicians and the citizenry at large, eventually spawning a party conflict whether they intended to or not.
Unfortunately, U.S. politicians of the 1790s engaged in party politics without really ever learning to approve of the practice. They saw themselves as taking necessary if sometimes distasteful steps to save the republic, and their opponents as conspirators against it, plain and simple. Especially among the Federalist supporters of the Washington and Adams administration, there was no sense that there could be any such thing as a “loyal opposition,” and it was perhaps inevitable that steps would be taken to curb opposition to the government when the opportunity arose.
Political paranoia became far worse in the latter half of Washington’s presidency, when the French Revolution grew more radical and war broke out between France and Great Britain. The question of which side to take in the conflict, if any, came to define U.S. politics, and pushed foreign subversion to the head of the list of fears. Although highly exaggerated in practice, fears of foreign subversion in this period were probably more plausible than at any other time in U.S. history. The United States was no world power in the 1790s, but occupied a situation much closer to those of developing or Third World nations during and after the cold war: small, weak, and subject to harsh buffeting by political, economic, and cultural winds coming from the more developed world.
Revolutionary France expected U.S. support as a sister republic and in return for France’s aid to the U.S. during the American Revolution. Beginning with “Citizen” Edmond Genet’s arrival in 1793, French envoys did their best to draw Americans into the conflict with Great Britain and influence American politics in favor of the French cause. Genet greeted crowds of well-wishers, handed out military commissions, and outfitted privateers, while later French ministers fed politically calculated information through friendly newspaper editors. The British kept a lower profile, but successfully pressed to keep the United States militarily neutral and commercially dependent on British trade (by means of the controversial Jay Treaty), while staying in secret, sometimes illicit, conflict with various U.S. officials. Republicans generally took the side of France, or opposed closer ties to Great Britain; the Federalists generally took the opposite approach, and increasingly regarded France as a dire threat to U.S. independence, the Christian religion, and everything else they held dear.
More important than what the French or British actually did was the growing conviction, within each of the emerging parties, that the other side was working, out of greed or fanaticism, in treasonous collusion with a foreign aggressor. Republicans regarded the Federalists as the “British party” and their leader Jefferson infamously labeled Washington, Hamilton, and Adams as traitors (in an inadvertently published letter), “men who were Samsons in the field & Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England” (Jefferson, 1037). However, the Federalists gave far more than they got in this respect, calling their opponents “Jacobins” after the most radical, conspiratorial, and ultimately bloodthirsty faction of the French Revolution. This was equal parts a venomous partisan label and a sincere statement of who and what many Federalists thought was driving the opposition to their policies, an international revolutionary conspiracy.
Through the battles over Hamilton’s financial system, the French Revolution, and the Jay Treaty, the incipient party conflict had matured to the point of a contested presidential election by 1796, pitting Vice-President John Adams against former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Deteriorating relations with France in the wake of the Jay Treaty, including attacks on U.S. shipping, French threats, and the distinct possibility of war, put the Federalists in a strong position. Adams won, and soon after the XYZ Affair inflamed the country against France and set up the belligerent national mood that made the Alien and Sedition Acts possible.
The Press, Immigration, and the Origins of the Alien and Sedition Acts The Alien and Sedition Acts were the domestic planks of an aggressive national security program passed by the Federalists in preparation for an all-out war against France that many of them desired but never managed to make happen. A military build-up was also put in motion, including the construction of a fleet of war-ships and a vastly enlarged army that included forces designed to rapidly mobilize against rebellious Americans as well as foreign invaders. This early homeland security legislation’s specific targets were determined by two aspects of the party conflict that disturbed the Federalists most: the role of the press and the role of immigrants in the growing popular opposition to the policies of Washington, Hamilton, and Adams, and in the democratization of U.S. political culture more generally.
The press was seen as a powerful political weapon that had fallen into the hands of conspirators, mercenaries, and fools. As the founders and other U.S. politicians perceived it, the press was the “great director of public opinion” and capable of destroying any government by turning its own people against it. “Give to any set of men the command of the press, and you give them the command of the country,” declared an influential Pennsylvania Federalist (Addison, 1798, 18-19). Although still a relatively primitive medium by modern standards—a standard U.S. newspaper featured only four pages, filled haphazardly with a seemingly random assortment of miscellaneous material without real headlines or illustrations— newspapers (along with pamphlets) were thought to have been instrumental in bringing about both the American and French Revolutions, as well as numerous political developments in Great Britain. Founders on both sides of the 1790s political spectrum, including Jefferson, Hamilton, John Adams, and Samuel Adams, had relied on the press as their “political engine” during the movement for independence from Great Britain.
The founders began their new nation assuming that, with British tyranny defeated and republican government established, the press would now serve a more passive political role. It would build loyalty to the new regime, chiefly by providing the people with basic information about their government’s activities, such as copies of the laws that had been passed. As the first Washington administration gathered, it seemed more than enough when Boston businessman John Fenno showed up in the national capital and started the Gazette of the United States (the G.U.S.), a would-be national newspaper intended to “endear the general government to the people” (Pasley, 57) by printing documents and congressional proceedings, along with letters, essays, and even poetry hailing President Washington and Vice-President John Adams as gods among men.
When fundamental disagreements broke out among the leading founders, however, the press was quickly drawn into the growing partisan conflict. To those who saw Hamilton as a not-so-hidden hand guiding the country toward monarchy and aristocracy, the G.U.S. began to seem positively sinister, an organ for government propaganda that might be able to overbear the voters’ better judgment. Jefferson and Madison sought to counter the influence of the G.U.S. by helping create a new Philadelphia newspaper, the National Gazette, to lead the public charge against Hamilton’s policies. The editor, the poet Philip Freneau (a college friend of Madison’s), was given a no-work job in Jefferson’s office. The newspaper provided Jefferson with a surrogate that would fight in the war for public opinion and still allow him to remain above the fray and within the administration. When he was exposed as the National Gazette’s sponsor and confronted by President Washington, Jefferson claimed that Freneau’s paper had “saved our constitution” from Hamilton (Pasley, 72)
Although the National Gazette folded in 1793, it set a number of important precedents. In some places, it was the birthplace of the party system, since it was in the National Gazette’s pages that the very idea of an opposition political party (as opposed to a mere group of like-minded legislators) was first floated. Again and again in the following century, politicians and parties looked to newspapers as their primary public combatants in the bruising battles that followed the Jefferson-Hamilton split. The Philadelphia Aurora, founded by a grandson of Benjamin Franklin, took over as the leading Jeffersonian paper, and around it developed a loose national network of local newspapers that spread the opposition movement’s ideas around the country by copying from each other. Such newspaper networks became the primary means through which nineteenth-century U.S. parties sought to influence the U.S. public and a vital component of their campaigning.
The Federalists of the 1790s thought of themselves as the nation’s rightful ruling class, “the wisest and best” rather than a political faction that had to compete for public favor and control of the government. The development of an opposition party and an opposition press was threatening, offensive, and patently a conspiracy. During the congressional debates on the Sedition Act, arch-conservative congressman John Allen of Connecticut read from a New York newspaper in which the strongest words used against President Adams were that he was “a person without patriotism, without philosophy” and “a mock Monarch.” Allen flatly declared that, “If this be not a conspiracy against Government and people,” he did not know what a conspiracy was (Debates and Proceedings in Congress).
The opposition press was doubly or triply bad because of the fact it was largely manned by men that the aristocratically minded Federalists considered thoroughly unfit to “undertake the high task of enlightening the public mind.” Whereas in colonial times most newspaper writing was done by men of education and social prestige—the lawyers, ministers, and merchants of the major towns—the political writing of 1790s fell increasingly to much lesser sorts of men, especially the generally self-educated artisan printers who produced the hundreds of new journals that popped up across the country. “Too many of our Gazettes,” lamented Rev. Samuel Miller, “are in the hands of persons destitute at once of the urbanity of gentlemen, the information of scholars, and the principles of virtue” (Pasley, 198). The Alien and Sedition Acts’ strongest supporters feared a kind of social and political subversion, in which worthy officials stood to lose their stations and reputations to upstarts and nobodies who would sling mud and rouse the rabble. “It is a mortifying observation;” Judge Alexander Addison wrote in one of many published charges to his grand jury, “that boys, blockheads, and ruffians, are often listened to, in preference to men of integrity, skill, and understanding” (Addi-son, 1800, 202-203).
Even more threatening than the printers were the immigrants. The British government harshly repressed the radical democracy movements that had grown up in England, Scotland, and Ireland in response to the French Revolution. Working-class journalists were among the most influential activists in those movements, and many of them were forced into exile during the mid-1790s to avoid mobs and jail. Not a few of these transatlantic “Jacobins,” including the Alien and Sedition Acts victims James Thomson Callender, William Duane, and John Daly Burk, ended up in the port cities of the United States, doing the work they knew best, for Democratic Republican newspapers. Duane became editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, the Republicans’ most widely read journal, and thus in many respects the national voice of the party.
Along with the refugee journalists came a politically noticeable number of other immigrants whom the Federalists found suspicious, especially the Irish who became a major presence in the capital city of Philadelphia during the 1790s. In the spring of 1797, Federalists tried to impose a tax on certificates of naturalization, hoping to keep out what Rep. Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts called the “hordes of wild Irishmen” who might “disturb our tranquility” (Debates and Proceedings in Congress). The Federalists’ prejudice ensured that the Irish and other recent immigrants would become an important voting bloc for their opponents.
Federalists feared that continued open, liberal policies on immigration, naturalization, and political dissent would allow the struggling monarchies of Europe to export their political troubles to the United States. As Otis put it, “the mass of vicious and disorganizing characters who could not live peaceably at home, and who, after unfurling the standard of rebellion in their own countries, might come hither to revolutionize ours” (Debates and Proceedings in Congress). Although it was true that men like Duane were having a tremendous political impact here, the Federalists envisioned the country as threatened with nothing less than anarchy, to be engineered by hardened Jacobin cadres and carried out by wild Irish mobs. Acerbic editor William Cob-bett, as reactionary in the United States during this period as he was progressive in his later British years, painted the threat in his typically lurid palette:
From various causes these United States have become the resting place of ninety nine hundredths of the factious villains, which Great Britain and Ireland have vomited from their shores. They are all schooled in sedition, are adepts at their trade. . . . Nothing short of a state of rebellion can content these wretches. All governments are to them alike hateful. Like Lucifer, they carry a hell about with them in their own minds; and thus they prowl from country to country. (Cobbett, 253, 256)
Although Federalist worries were usually expressed in terms of generalized xenophobia, some full-blown conspiracy theories began to circulate as well. It was almost assumed that Republican politicians and editors, from Jefferson on down, were allies or catspaws of the French, especially the most radical elements of the revolution. Federalist ministers in New England promoted the idea that the refugees and their allies were agents of the Bavarian Illuminati, accused in Europe of masterminding the French Revolution.
In Philadelphia, some Federalists accused the United Irish Society, a pan-religious group devoted to republicanism and Irish nationalism, of plotting revolution against the United States. In the critical interval between the XYZ revelations and the formulation of the Sedition Act, William Cobbett published a pamphlet, Detection of a Conspiracy, Formed by the United Irishmen: with the Evident Intention of Aiding the Tyrants of France in Subverting the Government of the United States, accusing the group’s just-organizing U.S. chapters of planning to gain critical positions in the government, so that the country might be simply handed over to the invading French. In Ireland, the United Irishmen really did conspire with the French, and the Philadelphia Irish community really did contain a number of sympathizers and exiled activists. Yet while these radical Irish republicans certainly hated the British and blamed the Federalists for seeming to side with Ireland’s oppressors, there is little evidence to suggest that they had any more sinister designs on the United States than the soon-to-be all-American goal of throwing the Federalist rascals out of office.
The majority of Congress in 1798 did not make this distinction between opposition politics and conspiracy. As they saw it, the Republicans were following exactly the formula that had turned France into “a general slaughterhouse.” At the beginning of the revolution in France, John Allen recounted in arguing for the sedition bill, “those loud and enthusiastic advocates for liberty and equality took special care to occupy and command all the presses.” By this means, the diabolical French revolutionaries gained control over “the poor, the ignorant, the passionate, and the vicious; over all these classes the freedom of the press shed its baneful effects, and the virtuous, the pacific, and the rich, were their victims.” Now that this “plague” had reached the United States, the majority of the Fifth Congress vowed not to meet the same fate as the ancien regime in France: “The Jacobins of our country, too, sir, are determined to preserve in their hands the same weapon [the press]; it is our duty to wrest it from them” (Debates And Proceedings in Congress).
The Federalist “Reign of Terror”: Enactment and Enforcement of the Domestic Security Program
The details of laws themselves can be found in many other sources. The three bills dealing with immigrants came first. The Naturalization Act, passing 18 June 1798, lengthened the period needed for citizenship (and full political rights) from five to fourteen years. The Alien Act and Alien Enemies Act, passing 25 June and 6 July respectively, gave the president sweeping powers to summarily imprison or deport suspicious aliens. The first Alien Act was perhaps the most appalling of the whole package. Even in peacetime, the law allowed the president to eject any alien he judged “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” or had “reasonable grounds to suspect are concerned in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof.” No trial or evidence was required, and the alien’s only recourse was to apply to the president for a license allowing him or her to stay. Getting a license could require evidence showing and a bond guaranteeing “that no injury or danger to the United States will arise from suffering such alien to reside therein.” Fortunately, President Adams took a narrower view of his powers than Congress did, and never issued an order under the Alien Act.
The most infamous piece of the domestic security package came last. Although the transatlantic radicals working in the Republican press were the clear targets of the Alien Acts, the Sedition Act that finally passed on 14 July 1798 was even more blatantly political. Clearly intended to minimize Republican chances in the 1798 and 1800 elections by shutting down their most effective form of campaigning, the law was set to expire at the end of Adams’s term. It imposed penalties of up to $2,000 and two years in prison on anyone who should “write, print, utter, publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered, or published . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States . . . with intent to defame the said government… or the said President, or to bring them . . . into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them the hatred of the good people of the United States.” The Federalists were careful to incorporate the most progressive legal standards available into the law, following the position laid down in the famous Zenger case from the colonial period. No one would be barred from saying or publishing anything before the fact; afterwards all bets were off. “The freedom of the press and opinions was never understood to give the right of publishing falsehoods and slanders,” John Allen explained, “nor of exciting sedition, insurrection, and slaughter, with impunity.”
This was state-of-the-art free press theory, but wholly inadequate for the functioning democracy that was trying to emerge in the 1790s. Although the Sedition Act was more lenient than similar laws in Europe, it nonetheless criminalized almost any criticism that might be made in protesting government policy or campaigning against an incumbent officer. It opened editors of opposition newspapers to court actions for almost any political essay or comment they might print, even a report of a public meeting, whether they wrote it or not. The Sedition Act allowed defendants to exonerate themselves in court by proving their assertions were true, but as Republican critics soon pointed out, political interpretations and opinion were almost impossible to conclusively prove or disprove. How would a Republican defendant prove in court, for instance, that John Adams was a man “without patriotism or philosophy”?
In practice, few Sedition Act defendants had much opportunity to try serious legal defenses under the act. The federal and northern state courts were dominated by Federalist judges, and they conducted the proceedings in a bitterly partisan manner. Judges interrupted the defense attorneys and often disallowed evidence and witnesses when defendants tried to prove their accusations were true. Orations denouncing the Republicans and warning about the dangers of unchecked political criticism were given from the bench, with juries present.
Although falling a good deal short of a “reign of terror,” as the Republicans called it, the Sedition Act was vigorously enforced. Every major Republican newspaper was hit in some fashion, along with many of the minor ones. Some twenty-five people were arrested under the Sedition Act, and they and other Republican journalists and speakers were harassed in other ways as well, including boycotts, beatings, private lawsuits, and in one case a contempt of Congress charge that forced editor William Duane into hiding.
Secretary of State Timothy Pickering nominated himself the “scourge of Jacobinism,” and began implementing the laws even before they were passed, forcing the deportation of John Daly Burk, a United Irishmen turned New York Republican editor and playwright, as the law was being debated. Pickering and others then began searching the Republican press avidly for comments that could be prosecuted. Another early target was Benjamin Franklin Bache, founding editor of the Philadelphia Aurora. The administration had earlier tried and failed to convict Bache of treasonous dealings with the French, but on 26 June 1798, federal judge Richard had him arrested on a common-law charge of seditious libel, despite a Supreme Court ruling just three months earlier that the federal courts had no jurisdiction. Bache was forced to post $4,000 bail, an enormous sum for those days, but died of yellow fever before he could come to trial.
The first victim of the Sedition Act proper was Republican congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont, who was particularly hated for having spit on a Federalist in retaliation for an insult and later fought back with fire tongs when the spat-upon gentleman tried to cane him on the House floor. Lyon got a $1,000 fine and four months in a jail kept by his worst enemy, all for reading a letter against Federalist foreign policy during his campaign for reelection.
Similar or even harsher punishment was given to ordinary citizens who spoke out. In Massachusetts, a drifter and former sailor named David Brown, a sort of village radical who gave speeches in taverns and occasionally wrote pamphlets, committed the awful crime of erecting a liberty pole with a political sign on it: “No stamp act, no sedition and no alien acts, no land tax. Downfall to the tyrants of America: peace and retirement to the President: long live the Vice President and the minority” (Smith, 260). Although he confessed and apologized, the penniless Brown was fined $450 by Judge Samuel Chase and sentenced to eighteen months in prison.
Despite its eager enforcement, the Sedition Act must be judged a failure, even on its own terms. Although the prosecutions forced a few newspapers to suspend their operations, the Republican press more generally never missed a beat. The effect was quite the opposite in fact, as the Republicans filled their newspapers with horrifying accounts of their and others’ persecutions. Politically this was highly effective material that documented the Republican visions of the Federalists as tyrants and closet monarchists in league with the British. The refugee radicals were careful to point out the similarities between Federalist repression and the British government crackdown that had forced so many of them into exile. At the same time, the Sedition Act politicized many young printers, often turning even neutral developers into active Republicans once it became clear that printing both political sides would not be tolerated by the authorities. The ironic end result of the Sedition Act was more Republican newspapers, not fewer, with seven or eight new journals a month popping up as the election of 1800 approached.
This hydra effect actually reinforced the Federalists’ conviction that conspiracy was afoot, but if so it was a conspiracy to which many of them had conceded defeat by 1800. By means of the expanding Republican press, wrote one Federalist writer in the Hartford Connecticut Courant, “people from the highest to the lowest” achieved “a perfect union of opinion” (Pasley, 188). Two of those opinions were that the Federalist crusade against Jacobin conspirators had to end, especially once the “Quasi-War” with France died in 1800, and that a different set of leaders needed to be given command of the national government. Both of those things came to pass when Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams in the presidential election, and took office 4 March 1801.