Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Nathaniel Conley

Alien and Sedition Acts

A culmination of political battles between Democratic-Republicans and Federalists while Philadelphia served as capital of the United States, the federal Alien and Sedition Acts imposed stringent new rules governing political speech and writings, immigration rights, and non-naturalized immigrants. They also had an immediate impact on the political life of Philadelphia as they inflamed passions in the region, resulted in charges against many newspaper publishers, and contributed to the outbreak of Fries Rebellion.

[caption id="attachment_18332" align="alignright" width="257"]A painted portrait of President John Adams The Alien and Sedition Acts triggered a political backlash against Congress and President John Adams, depicted here in a 1793 portrait by John Trumbull. (National Portrait Gallery)[/caption]

When President John Adams (1735-1826) assumed office in 1797, relations between France and the United States had deteriorated, leading to the Quasi-War of 1798-1800. Though the U.S. in 1793 had taken a position of neutrality in France’s war with Great Britain, the French seized American shipping and rejected Adams’s efforts to negotiate peace. In what became known as the XYZ Affair, the revolutionary French government demanded a large loan, bribe, and official apology from Adams before negotiations could begin. The American mission rejected these terms and news of the XYZ Affair created a political firestorm across the United States, especially in Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_18327" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of the original seat of the U.S. Congress. Built to be the County Courthouse for Philadelphia, the building in the foreground was occupied by the U.S. Congress while Philadelphia was the Capital of the United States between 1790 and 1800. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In response to concerns about invasion by the revolutionary French government, the Federalist-dominated Fifth U.S. Congress enacted legislation in 1798 to shore up national defense from both foreign and domestic threats, including an increase in military spending for the army and navy. In addition, the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, four laws dealing with perceived domestic threats, including criticism by Democratic-Republicans that the Federalists thought undermined national security.

Naturalization Act

The first of the Alien and Sedition Acts was the Naturalization Act, which increased the residency requirement for American citizenship from five to fourteen years. The Federalists intended to stop newly arrived immigrants from voting because they were a major constituency for the Democratic-Republican Party. The second law was the Alien Act, which allowed the president to imprison or deport aliens considered dangerous to the United States at any time. The third was the Alien Enemies Act, which allowed the president to deport any male citizen of a hostile nation during times of war.

The last of these laws, the Sedition Act, was perhaps the most controversial. The Sedition Act outlawed actions or conspiracies against government policies and banned false or malicious publishing against federal officials, including members of Congress and the president. This represented one of the strongest attacks on the First Amendment in American history and created a major political backlash against President Adams and the Federalists in Congress. Notably absent from the protections of false or malicious publishing was the vice presidency, at the time occupied by Vice President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the leader of the Democratic-Republican Party.

The Sedition Act, despite attacking the First Amendment rights of newspaper editors and contributors, substantially liberalized the law of seditious libel. Under English common law, the truth of a published allegation was no defense from accusations of sedition, indeed, it could be worse if it was true. Under the new Sedition Act, the truth could be used as a defense against the charge of sedition. Regardless of this liberalization, the Sedition Act was wildly unpopular to Americans.

Sedition Act

[caption id="attachment_18328" align="alignright" width="300"]A political cartoon satirizing the Democrtatic-Republican societies of the time. A political cartoon of the era satirizes the views of the Democratic-Republican societies. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Sedition Act was particularly important to the Federalists because it allowed them to clamp down on rival political newspapers. Throughout the 1790s, newspapers were by far the most important political battleground particularly in Philadelphia, the nation’s capital. The Democratic-Republican press, spearheaded by editors such as the grandson of Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), Benjamin Franklin Bache (1769-98) at the Philadelphia Aurora, had been gaining on their Federalist rivals. Indeed, by 1800, Democratic-Republican-leaning newspapers far outnumbered Federalist newspapers despite the Sedition Act. Bache was one of seventeen publishers jailed under the provisions of the act; he died of yellow fever in 1798 awaiting trial. Bache’s successor at the Aurora, William Duane (1760-1835), was tried but acquitted. Matthew Lyon (1749-1822), a Democratic-Republican member of the House of Representatives from Vermont was also jailed under the Sedition Act. He was later reelected from jail by his constituents.

The Alien and Sedition Acts helped incite Fries Rebellion in rural Pennsylvania counties northwest of Philadelphia. With passage of the 1798 war program, including new taxes and the Alien and Sedition Acts, German-Americans of the region protested. President Adams declared the area in rebellion and sent troops to arrest the insurgents.

Democratic-Republican leaders James Madison (1751-1836) and Thomas Jefferson opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts by authoring, respectively, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions passed by the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures in 1798. The Virginia Resolutions called upon other states to declare that the Alien and Sedition Acts violated the First Amendment while the Kentucky Resolutions went further and asked the states to declare “these acts void and of no force.” None of the other state legislatures agreed. Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey discussed but rejected the resolutions, which are widely seen as precursors to later nullification principles espoused during the antebellum period.

As home to the federal government and a large, partisan press corps, Philadelphia in the 1790s stood at the center of political and legal battles over the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Democratic-Republicans gained support in the city and state as Federalists used severe tactics against publishers Bache and Duane, and sent troops to arrest the protesters of Fries Rebellion. This Federalist overreach in southeastern Pennsylvania and Philadelphia in large part hastened the splintering and decline of the Federalist Party before the election of 1800.

Nathaniel Conley is a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas whose research focuses on the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania with emphasis on the lower class and the border between slavery and freedom.

Philadelphia (Warship)

[caption id="attachment_18397" align="alignright" width="300"]Illustration of Tripolitan gunboats firing upon the USS Philadelphia. During the blockade of Tripoli, the USS Philadelphia saw heavy battle. One of the battles is illustrated here as Tripolitan gunboats fire upon the U.S. warship. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Inspired by patriotic fervor during the Quasi-War with France, the people of Philadelphia raised money in one week during June 1798 to build the USS Philadelphia to help increase American naval power to protect commerce. Completed in 1799, the Philadelphia served in both the West Indies and the Mediterranean Sea, where it was captured in the Barbary campaigns and then sunk by an American force in a valiant but unsuccessful effort to free the ship.

The impassioned atmosphere that led to construction of the Philadelphia followed the outbreak of war between France and Great Britain in 1793. Despite a declaration of neutrality by President George Washington (1732-99), the French government authorized seizure of American shipping. When United States efforts to negotiate peace failed, the U.S. and France entered a period of naval conflict known as the Quasi-War in which both sides seized merchant vessels and naval warships. The political temper in the United States became very tense as the Federalists whipped up hyperpatriotism against the French. Philadelphians joined a larger movement in American cities to construct ships for the United States Navy, and their fundraising campaign quickly raised the money needed for the USS Philadelphia. Josiah Fox (1763-1847) designed the ship and in 1798-99 Samuel Humphreys (1778-1846), Nathaniel Hutton, and John Delavue supervised construction.  

[caption id="attachment_18396" align="alignright" width="300"]Drawing from 1855 by Felix Octavius Carr Darley (1822-88) shows Decatur and his men fighting hand-to-hand on board a Tripolitan gunboat during the First Barbary Wa This drawing from 1855 by Felix Octavius Carr Darley shows Stephen Decatur Jr. and his men fighting hand-to-hand aboard a Tripolitan gunboat during the First Barbary War. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Philadelphia was then a preeminent commercial port in America and home to the federal government. As a shipbuilding center since before the American Revolution, the city served as a hub for the U.S. Navy.  It contained shipbuilding facilities that not only constructed the USS Philadelphia but also the USS United States, one of the first three frigates built for the U.S. Navy.

Captain Stephen Decatur Sr. (1751-1808), a Philadelphian, received command when the USS Philadelphia was commissioned in 1800. The ship was then stationed in the West Indies, where it seized five French ships and recaptured six merchant vessels from the French. 

The USS Philadelphia returned to Philadelphia in 1801, then participated in two tours in the Mediterranean to combat the Barbary corsairs, or pirates, from the North African states of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Morocco, who preyed on American and other ships. The USS Philadelphia cruised near Gibraltar and blockaded the coast of Tripoli. In 1803, with Captain William Bainbridge (1774-1833) of New Jersey in command, the USS Philadelphia recaptured an American warship from a Moroccan vessel and blockaded Tripoli. When the ship ran aground on an uncharted reef, Captain Bainbridge and the crew were taken captive. In February 1804, Stephen Decatur Jr. (1779-1820) led a dangerous mission to free the USS Philadelphia from Tripoli harbor, but ended up setting the ship on fire to prevent its use by the enemy.

The USS Philadelphia’s history highlights the importance of Philadelphia as a national commercial and military center where private citizens swiftly raised funds for its construction. The ship had a prominent role in the early actions of the U.S. Navy against France and the Barbary states. Stephen Decatur Jr.’s bold destruction of the ship in Tripoli harbor was memorable though unfortunate, described in a report to the United States Congress as “one of the brightest ornaments of our naval escutcheon.” 

Nathaniel Conley is a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas whose research focuses on the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania with emphasis on the lower class and the border between slavery and freedom.


Philadelphia, as capital of the United States during the 1790s, played a central role in the conflict called the Quasi-War, an undeclared war, between the United States and France during the years 1798 to 1800. Philadelphia became a hotbed of public displays for and against the Federalists’ response to this conflict and served as a base for naval operations against French forces in the West Indies.

After war began between Great Britain and France in 1793, relations between France and the U.S. became tense, particularly when the French Revolutionary government known as the Directory came to power and U.S.-British relations stabilized with the Jay Treaty in 1795. The U.S. attempted neutrality in the war, formalized in the Proclamation of  Neutrality (1793) of President George Washington (1732-1799). After the Jay Treaty, which settled outstanding issues between Great Britain and the United States and seemingly abrogated America’s Revolutionary era treaty obligations with France regarding mutual defense, the French Directory authorized seizure of U.S. shipping, which soured relations by March 1797 when President John Adams (1735-1826) took office. The conflict with France was especially serious for Philadelphia, a primary commercial port in the United States, as its merchants and ship-owners were hard hit.

[caption id="attachment_16856" align="alignright" width="300"]A British satirical drawing about Franco-American relations after the XYZ Affair in May 1798 depicts five Frenchmen plundering female "America," while five figures representing other European countries look on. A British satirical drawing about Franco-American relations after the XYZ Affair in May 1798 depicts five Frenchmen plundering female "America," while five figures representing other European countries look on. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Adams sent a mission to France to seek an agreement that would prevent war, stop confiscation of American shipping, and obtain compensation for seizures of American ships.  French agents (named X, Y, and Z in dispatches) relayed the French Directory’s demand, before negotiations could begin, for a bribe, a loan, and an apology for a speech critical of France that Adams had made to Congress.  News of the XYZ Affair, as it was later known, created a storm of anti-French feeling in the United States.

Philadelphia experienced a tumult of both anti-French and anti-Federalist sentiment.  Protests broke out demanding war with France in a city that was bitterly divided after almost a decade of partisanship over the French Revolution.  The Federalists especially used the war with France to stoke fears of the French Revolution spreading to America and of a French invasion to follow. Arguing for increased national security, the Federalist-controlled Congress beefed up the military and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which targeted foreign nationals and also made it a criminal offense to criticize the government. Their purpose was to quash Jeffersonian (Democratic-Republican) criticism of Federalist policies and silence the opposition press. The  political divide was especially evident in the Philadelphia press, as newspapers sided with the Federalists or Democratic-Republicans.  Particularly vociferous was Benjamin Franklin Bache (1769-1798), who was jailed for his anti-administration attacks under the Sedition Act. Federalist judges in the Mid-Atlantic region were especially aggressive in seeking prosecutions under the act, which actions later led to efforts to impeach one Supreme Court justice and to restrict the authority of the judiciary because of their partisanship and supposed abuse of power.

The United States had a relatively small navy at the beginning of the Quasi-War.  In 1794, Congress passed the Naval Act, choosing Philadelphian Joshua Humphreys (1751-1838) to design six frigates.  Philadelphia shipbuilders constructed several ships, including the USS United States (1797) and the USS Philadelphia (1799), the latter built and outfitted with subscriptions by the citizens of Philadelphia.  These ships came under the control of the Navy Department, a special department created by Congress in 1798 as part of the broader program to increase military strength.  Privateers also operated out of Philadelphia, preying on French shipping, of which the most famous case was the Louisa.  Carrying a letter of marque, Louisa operated as a well-armed privateer in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, where its crew successfully defended against attack by French privateers and took refuge in Gibraltar. 

[caption id="attachment_16858" align="alignright" width="300"]This scene painted by Rear Admiral John William Schmidt (Ret.) (1906-1981) depicting the action of February 9, 1799, when the USS Constellation, commanded by Captain Thomas Truxtun, captured the French frigate L'Insurgente. This scene painted by Rear Admiral John William Schmidt (Ret.) depicting the action of February 9, 1799, when the USS Constellation (left), commanded by Captain Thomas Truxtun, captured the French frigate L'Insurgente. (Navy History and Heritage Command via Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Military operations during the Quasi-War involved encounters between the U.S. Navy and French privateers, first along the Atlantic coast but then mostly in the West Indies. Early in the conflict, the USS Delaware, captained by Philadelphian Stephen Decatur Sr. (1751-1808), captured La Croyable off Egg Harbor, New Jersey. The U.S. Navy commissioned the French privateer, which was attacking merchant ships at the Delaware capes, as the USS Retaliation. It remained in U.S. service until the French recaptured the ship four months later, the only U.S. warship captured during the Quasi-War. In two major naval battles, the USS Constellation engaged two French ships in the Caribbean, capturing l’Insurgente and severely damaging la Vengeance.  The USS Enterprise, USS Eagle, and USS Experiment were among the most successful U.S. ships, capturing twenty-five French privateers. Despite these effective U.S. military operations, however, the French seized some 2,000 U.S. vessels during this conflict. 

The Quasi-War officially ended with the Convention of 1800, or Treaty of Mortefontaine, which formally ended the alliance of 1778 between the United States and France, but made provisions to reestablish trade and avoid further conflict.  Depredations on American shipping continued, however, until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The Federalist party also suffered because of the war when it became evident that it had exaggerated fears of French invasion and used the war to threaten the press and repress political opposition. The hotly contested elections of 1800 led to Federalist losses in the state and nation and redrew the political map thereafter in favor of the Democratic-Republicans.

Nathaniel Conley is a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas whose research focuses on the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania with emphasis on the lower class and the border between slavery and freedom.

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