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.

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)

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.

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)

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

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)

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. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


Photograph of Congress Hall

Library of Congress

Built by the County of Philadelphia between 1787 and 1789 to serve as the County Courthouse, the building in the foreground was occupied by Congress from 1790 to 1800, when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital. This was the building where the Alien and Sedition Acts were approved. These acts were viciously opposed and caused political controversy throughout Philadelphia. Tensions had risen to the point where Benjamin Franklin Bache, a relative of Benjamin Franklin and a local printer, was arrested under the acts.

A Peep into the Antifederal Club (1793)

Library Company of Philadelphia

This political cartoon satirizes the Democratic-Republican clubs that had sprung up in response to the Federalist agenda of policies. This cartoon also illustrates the level of opposition directed at the government. New to the idea of republican government, and faced with threats from overseas, domestic opposition was perceived as a genuine threat to the national security of the United States. This led to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts by Congress to attempt to unify the country through the force of the federal government. The image shows Thomas Jefferson (atop table), who would have been secretary of state at the time, speaking to a body of controversial and debased figures of the era, including Edmund Genet (in the right of the image, standing below the African American man), the French ambassador who attempted to get the United States involved in the wars of the French Revolution. Genet was a figure that received particular hatred in Federalist sectors. He accomplished this through his appeals to the people where he attempted to go around the authority of President Washington to get Americans involved in the French Revolution. His actions strained U.S. relations with France for the better part of the 1790s.

John Adams, Second President of the United States

National Portrait Gallery

During his presidency John Adams, depicted here in a 1793 portrait by John Trumbull, was plagued by rising international tensions. The XYZ Affair and the continued raiding of American ships by the French led to the Quasi-War with France. In order to fight the French, and to prepare for war with other European powers, Adams sought a larger military. The funding for this was provided by the 1798 House Tax law, which taxed land and residences. He also sought to strengthen the federal government against domestic dissent. In the same year, he signed into law four bills collectively called the Alien and Sedition Acts. These limited the rights of immigrants and prohibited criticism of the current government. The new laws fueled animosity towards the federal government among residents of Bucks, Montgomery, and Northampton Counties, especially among German immigrants, and ultimately led to Fries Rebellion.

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Related Reading

Brooke, John L. “Chapter 3, Part 1: Print and Politics,” in A History of the Book in America, Volume 2: An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790-1840 edited by Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelley. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Burstein, Andrew and Nancy Isenberg. Madison and Jefferson. New York: Random House, 2010.

DeConde, Alexander. The Quasi-War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War with France, 1797-1801. New York: Scribner, 1966.

Elkins, Stanley and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Ferling, John. John Adams: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Miller, Randall M. and William Pencak, eds. Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2002.

Newman, Paul Douglas. Fries’s Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Pasley, Jeffrey L. “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.

Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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