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The United States’ Crisis of 1798: Sedition

France and United States were on the verge of war during the 1798 summer, a situation which put the U.S at the greatest point of worry bearing in mind that her enemy was among the superpowers at that time (Sharpe 59). It was not just the overseas enemy which the United States faced around this period but also the souring political situation back home. However, the Federalist Party was determined to confront both the enemy abroad and also the emerging opposition within the country. In order to achieve this, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by the ruling party. It was a total of four pieces of legislation. Alexander Hamilton had a strong belief that these laws would harness national cohesion. This paper explores the intrigues of the 1798 political crisis in which the United States found itself.

The Legislations

Similar to most 18th century Americans; Hamilton asserted that the presence of political movements was a big threat to the realization of peace and stability in the country. Nevertheless, pro-parties were already being formed even before the first Congress could hold its session. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were among the top Republican members who daringly opposed the economic strategies of Hamilton. The common voters were on the other hand heavily influenced by newspaper campaigns that were launched by Hamilton’s antagonists. Editors of the emerging newspapers took the centre stage in identifying themselves with political heavyweights. The difference which existed among the proto-parties was well highlighted during the mid-1790s when the lack of agreement over the U.S foreign policy was rife at home. The desire to be supreme in continental Europe was a matter of concern to England and France (McKitrick & Eric 65). This was also the time when French Revolution was at its best. As a result, the opposing parties in the United States also entered into political alliances with some of the rivals in Europe. This was taken as the best move to fight political rivals back home.

The French Revolution appeared to be real anarchy to the United States. Hence, President George Washington took the initiative to seek lasting peace through a diplomatic approach to the matter. Consequently, John Jay was dispatched to England in 1794 to play the diplomatic role of restoring the warm cordial relationship of the U.S with England. The Jay Treaty was not received kindly by the Republicans. France was perceived by Republicans as an old friendly nation to the U.S which had been made possible by the Revolution values of the Republicans. Consequently, the United States found itself in a “war” with France amid the worsening diplomatic crisis by 1796. A peaceful resolution diplomatic team was then dispatched to France by President John Adams in a bid to prevent the outbreak of any war. However, a bribe was demanded by the French as a pre-condition to avoid war with the United States.

By mid-1798, the Federalists made a move in Congress and suggested that the Alien and sedition Acts were necessary if the country was to manage the growing opposition from the Republicans as well as the anti-French statements. Immigrants who were not yet citizens in America were addressed by three of the four Acts proposed by Federalists. This was due to the fact these aliens heavily supported the Republicans. The public was also not safe because the aliens were perceived as possible assistants of France in attacking the U.S. The new legislation governing aliens attempted to put in place ways and means of keeping vigil and monitoring all the non-citizens living in the U.S.

For instance, all the aliens were registered under this Act. Aliens who would be perceived as threats to national security would be deported by the president (Schudson 62). The Alien Acts were however not used by President Adams. The residence age as provided for by the Naturalization Act was increased to fourteen years from five. The opposition politics were further curtailed by the Sedition Act. As a result of this Act, a lot of controversies emerged, a move that was seen by the Republicans as undemocratic and dictatorial. According to this Act, it was against the law and equally seditious to write any untrue or malicious material which would jeopardize the U.S government at large. On the same note, Congress and the institution of the Presidency were equally protected by the Act. The legislation was very categorical on those people who would exhibit any element of contempt to the government or any person who would excite or spread hate speech to the peace-loving citizens of the United States. Moreover, those who would assist an enemy to attack the United States were considered to be seditious by the Act and the strong arm of the law would catch up with them. Fines totaling up to 2,000 dollars would be imposed on those individuals who violated the Sedition Act and alternatively, they could also be imprisoned for a period not less than two years (Smith 158).


Republican editors had already faced the wrath of being prosecuted by the Federalists before 1798. The Republicans were mainly favored by the Juries and the state judges although the Judiciary which was being controlled by the Federals was majorly dominated by Federalists or those who were considered to be sympathizers to the Federal policy (McKitrick & Eric 103).

At one time, fourteen Republican editors were indicted by the judges drawn from the Federal judiciary bearing in mind that the Sedition Act was being partly applied. The newspapers which were leaning towards the Republicans were about fifty and were largely used by the Republicans to press their agenda. The trial episodes which included Journalists who were in favor of the Republicans saw the arrest and prosecution of John Burk and Duane William among other journalists.

The Sedition Act was continually despised even as the Federal government made all the attempts to reinforce it. The Republican values as well as the basic rights could best be offered by the states according to Jefferson who maintained that the Constitution was being subverted by the Federalists in their favor (Sharpe 144).

As time went by, the Alien and Sedition Acts together with the administration patterns which were being used by the Federalists failed and backfired. The public nod for the Acts slowly went down especially after some degree of calm between the U.S and France was restored (Schudson 121). The 1800 campaigns by the Republicans received a major boost following the outrage against the legislation. Thomas Jefferson won the presidential elections and this led to the re-emergence of the Republicans as the majority in the Legislative assembly. In 1802, the Naturalization Act was repealed by the Republicans. The beginning of the new century also witnessed the quick disappearance of most of the provisions contained in the Alien and Sedition Acts although much of the concerns which had earlier been voiced over the Acts remained outstanding.


McKitrick, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800. London: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Schudson, Michael. The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Sharpe, James Rogers. American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Smith, James Morton. Freedom’s Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1956.


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