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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Echoes of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

The resolution introduced into the House of Representatives for debate along with other condemnations of the press for reporting on bank spying brings this to mind. From the Wikipedia entry for Thomas Jefferson:

With a quasi-War with France underway (that is, an undeclared naval war), the Federalists under John Adams started a navy, built up the army, levied new taxes, readied for war and enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798.

The background for the act is:

With many Federalists advocating war against a major power, France, Federalists in Congress, in 1798, passed the laws which they asserted would protect national security in the United States and which sought to silence internal opposition. ... Jeffersonians, however, recognized that the laws were to be used as a tool of the ruling Federalist party to extend and retain their power, silencing any opposition. ... Under the Alien and Alien Enemies Acts, the president could deport any "dangerous" or "enemy" alien — a law that is still in effect in 2006.

Here's a shortened version of the act itself from an April entry in the Republican Study Committee blog:


SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That if any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or publishing, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or ... for opposing or resisting ... any act of the President of the United States, ... or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act, or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against the United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years. ...

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That this act shall continue and be in force until the third day of March, one thousand eight hundred and one, and no longer...

JONATHAN DAYTON, Speaker of the House of Representatives. THEODORE SEDGWICK, President of the Senate, pro tempore.

APPROVED, July 14, 1798: JOHN ADAMS, President of the United States.

The language and meaning of the Acts:

Under the Sedition Act, anyone "opposing ... any act of the President of the United States" could be imprisoned for up to two years. It was also illegal to "write, print, utter, or publish" anything critical of the president or Congress. It was notable that the Act did not prohibit criticism of the Vice-President. Jefferson held the office of Vice-President at the time the Act was passed so the law left him open to attack. ...

Jeffersonians denounced the Sedition Act as a violation of the First Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights, which protected the right of free speech. ... Subsequent mentions of the Sedition Act in particular in Supreme Court opinions have assumed that it would be unconstitutional today. For example ..., 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).

From the Wkipedia entry for Jefferson:

Jefferson interpreted the Alien and Sedition Acts as an attack on his party more than on dangerous enemy aliens. He and Madison rallied support by anonymously writing the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions that declared that the Constitution only established an agreement between the central government and the states and that the federal government had no right to exercise powers not specifically delegated to it. Should the federal government assume such powers, its acts under them could be voided by a state. The Resolutions' importance lies in being the first statements of the states' rights theory that led to the later concepts of nullification and interposition.

And, back to the Wikipedia entry on the Alien and Sedition Acts:

At the time, the redress for unconstitutional legislation was unclear and the Supreme Court openly hostile to the anti-federalists. The Alien and Sedition Acts were not appealed to the Supreme Court for review...

In order 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, calling on the states to nullify the federal legislation. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions reflect the Compact Theory, which states that ... States ... 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, states can determine if the federal government has violated its agreements, including the Constitution, and nullify such violations or even withdraw from the Union. ...

Although the Federalists hoped the Act would muffle the opposition, many Democratic-Republicans still "wrote, printed, uttered and published" their criticisms of the Federalists. Indeed, they strongly criticised the act itself, and used it as an election issue. The act expired when the term of President Adams ended in 1801.

Ultimately the Acts backfired against the Federalists; while the Federalists prepared lists of aliens for deportation, and many aliens fled the country during the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts, Adams never signed a deportation order.

Twenty-five people, primarily prominent newspaper editors but also Congressman Matthew Lyon, were arrested, but it appears only eleven were tried (one died while 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 ensuing years Congress repeatedly apologized for or voted recompense to victims of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

It all sounds very familiar. Déjà Vu, Again and Again.

    Posted by on Thursday, June 29, 2006 at 01:14 AM in Iraq and Afghanistan, Politics, Terrorism | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (6)


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