Alien and Sedition Acts
The passage of a series of acts in 1798, commonly referred to as the Alien and Sedition Acts, caused an uproar in Kentucky. These acts were designed to promote national security and control opposition in the United States to government policy, especially with respect to a possible war with France. The acts gave the government power to imprison or deport aliens in time of war and deport aliens believed to be dangerous, even in time of peace; extended the time required to become a naturalized citizen; and made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious” writing about the President and Congress.
To get a sense of the controversy that arose in Kentucky, read the December 14, 1798, letter from John Adair to General James Wilkinson in which he reports that Kentuckians consider “the Alien and Sedition Bills a[s] unconstitutional” and remarks that he believed the bills were “agitated by the advocates of Governmental power.” Gabriel Nourse, in a political address to the people of Kentucky, defended the passage of the acts and called upon Kentuckians to stand with the government of the United States:
…Unanimity ought to take possession of every mind, be strongly depicted on every countenance, and mark the character of every lover of his country. Charity almost debars me from esteeming any man, as a member of the community, who, at the present period, can be so lost to his country’s weal, as to prompt the innocent and well disposed to murmur disaffection and contumacy.
The 1799 correspondence between George Nicholas of Kentucky and Robert Harper, member of the House of Representatives from South Carolina, delves into Nicholas’ basic disagreement with the Alien and Sedition Acts and common law. Nicholas’ letters serve as a political tract exploring the propriety of congressional legislation in reaction to foreign policy issues and the possibility of war with France.
- How did Gabriel Nourse use patriotism as an argument for support of the acts? How is this argument similar to and different from arguments made about strategies used in the War on Terror?
- According to Nicholas, was the Sedition Act justified? What was Representative Harper’s response to these arguments?
- What are the observations expressed by Judge Addison in the Appendix on Freedom of the Press?
- Overall, do you find the arguments for or against the Alien and Sedition Acts more compelling? Give reasons supporting your answer.
In 1798 the Kentucky and Virginia assemblies passed resolutions condemning the Alien and Sedition Acts. Representative John Breckinridge introduced Kentucky’s version of the declaration, a document he had received from his friend Thomas Jefferson and which he had slightly modified. James Madison authored Virginia’s decree. Jefferson and Madison drafted the resolutions as part of a strategy to unseat the Federalists who were in power at the time. Neither Madison’s nor Jefferson's role in creating the documents was revealed until many years later. Read the Kentucky Resolution of 1798.
- What arguments are used to renounce the Alien and Sedition Acts?
- According to Jefferson, what rights do states have to nullify laws passed by the federal legislature?
Several Northern states repudiated the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (note that the judiciary’s right to judicial review—to strike down unconstitutional laws—was not established until 1803 in the case of Marbury v. Madison). In response to the Northern states, the Kentucky legislature passed a second act (Resolution of February 1799), which proposed the right of states to determine infractions of the Constitution and claimed the right of states to nullify acts of Congress.
- Identify the advantages and the disadvantages to giving states the right to nullify acts of Congress.
- How would this policy apply to events that would occur in the United States in the nineteenth century?
Do you think Madison and Jefferson supported the policy with respect to later attempts by states to nullify acts of Congress? Why or why not?