The Alien and Sedition Acts were four bills passed in 1798 by the Federalists in the 5th United States Congress during an undeclared naval war with France, later known as the Quasi-War. They were signed into law by President John Adams. Proponents claimed the acts were designed to protect the United States from alien citizens of enemy powers and to stop seditious attacks from weakening the government. The Democratic-Republicans, like later historians, attacked them as being both unconstitutional and designed to stifle criticism of the administration, and as infringing on the right of the states to act in these areas. They became a major political issue in the elections of 1798 and 1800.
There were actually four separate laws making up what is commonly referred to as the "Alien and Sedition Acts"
While Jefferson did denounce the Sedition Act as invalid and a violation of the First Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights, which protected the right of free speech, his main argument on its unconstitutionality was that it violated the Tenth Amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Jefferson more strongly argued the Federal Government had overstepped its limits in the Alien and Sedition Acts by attempting to exercise unjust powers. Virginia and Kentucky passed resolutions openly denouncing the acts; Federalist-dominated state legislatures rejected Jefferson's position through resolutions either supporting the acts or denying the ability of Virginia and Kentucky to circumvent them.
The judicial redress for unconstitutional legislation under the doctrine of judicial review was not established until Marbury v. Madison in 1803. The Supreme Court in 1798 was composed entirely of Federalists, all appointed by Washington. Many of them, particularly Associate Justice Samuel Chase, were openly hostile to the Federalists' opponents. The Alien and Sedition Acts were not appealed to the Supreme Court for review, although individual Supreme Court Justices, sitting in circuit, heard many of the cases prosecuting opponents of the Federalists.
To address the constitutionality of the measures, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sought to unseat the Federalists, appealing to the people to remedy the constitutional violation, and drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which called on the states to nullify the federal legislation. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions reflect the Compact Theory, which holds that the United States is made up of a voluntary union of states that agree to cede some of their authority in order to join the union, but that the states do not, ultimately, surrender their sovereign rights. Therefore, under the Compact Theory, states can determine if the federal government has violated its agreements, including the Constitution, and nullify such violations or even withdraw from the union. Variations of this theory were also argued at the Hartford Convention at the time of the War of 1812, and by the southern states just before the American Civil War.
The Sedition Act expired on March 3, 1801, coinciding with the end of the Adams administration. While this prevented its constitutionality from being directly decided by the Supreme Court, subsequent mentions of the Sedition Act in Supreme Court opinions have assumed that it would be ruled unconstitutional if ever tested in court. For example, in the seminal free speech case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Court declared, "Although the Sedition Act was never tested in this Court, the attack upon its validity has carried the day in the court of history." 376 U.S. 254, 276 (1964).
While the Alien and Sedition Laws were in force, John Adams, en route from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Quincy, Massachusetts, stopped in Newark, New Jersey, where he was greeted by a crowd and by a committee that saluted him by firing a cannon. A bystander said, "There goes the President and they are firing at his ass." Luther Baldwin was indicted for replying that he did not care "if they fired through his ass." He was convicted in the federal court for speaking "sedicious words tending to defame the President and Government of the United States" and fined, assessed court costs and expenses, and committed to jail until the fine and fees were paid.
In November 1798, David Brown led a group in Dedham, Massachusetts 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," referring to then-President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson. 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 wanted to plead guilty but Justice Samuel Chase wanted him to name everybody who had helped him or who subscribed to his writings. Brown refused, was fined $480, and sentenced to eighteen months in prison, the most severe sentence then imposed under the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Although the Federalists hoped the Act would muffle the opposition, many Democratic-Republicans still "wrote, printed, uttered and published" their criticisms of the Federalists. They strongly criticized the act itself and used it as one of their principal election issues. The controversy also had enormous implications on the Federalist party's later history and made a significant contribution to its demise. The act expired when the term of President Adams ended in 1801.
Ultimately the Acts backfired against the Federalists. 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. Twenty-five people, primarily prominent newspaper editors such as Benjamin Franklin's grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache and Congressman Matthew Lyon were arrested. Of them, eleven were tried, Bache died awaiting trial, and ten were convicted of sedition, often in trials before openly partisan Federalist judges. Federalists at all levels, however, were turned out of power, and over the following years Congress repeatedly apologized for, or voted recompense to victims of, the enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Thomas Jefferson, who won the 1800 election, pardoned all of those who had been convicted for crimes under the Alien Enemies Act and the Sedition Act.