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Formation of the Union By Albert Bushnell Hart Characters: 3887

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

[Sidenote: Triumph of the Federalists.]

[Sidenote: Alien Act.]

For the first and last time in his administration John Adams found himself popular. From all parts of the country addresses were sent to the President approving his patriotic stand. The moderate Republicans in the House were swept away by the current, and thus there was built up a compact Federalist majority in both houses. It proceeded deliberately to destroy its own party. The newspapers had now reached an extraordinary degree of violence; attacks upon the Federalists, and particularly upon Adams, were numerous, and keenly felt. Many of the journalists were foreigners, Englishmen and Frenchmen. To the excited imagination of the Federalists, these men seemed leagued with France in an attempt to destroy the liberties of the country; to get rid of the most violent of these writers, and at the same time to punish American-born editors who too freely criticised the administration, seemed to them essential. This purpose they proposed to carry out by a series of measures known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. A naturalization law, requiring fourteen years residence, was hurried through. On April 25 a Federalist introduced a temporary Alien Act, for the removal of "such aliens born, not entitled by the constitution and laws to the rights of citizenship, as may be dangerous to its peace and safety." The opposition, headed by Albert Gallatin, made a strong appeal against legislation so unnecessary, sweeping, and severe. The Federalists replied in panic fear: "Without such an act," said one member, "an army might be imported, and could be excluded only after a trial." To the details of the bill there was even greater objection. It conferred upon the President the power to order the withdrawal of any alien; if he refused to go, he might be imprisoned at the President's discretion, Nevertheless, the act, limited to two years, was passed on June 25, 1798.

Adams seems to have had little interest in it, and never made use of the powers thus conferred.

[Sidenote: Sedition Act.]

[Sidenote: Sedition prosecutions.]

The Sedition Act was resisted with even greater stubbornness. It proposed to punish persons who should conspire to oppose measures of the government, or to intimidate any office-holder. The publishing of libels upon the government, or either house, or the President, was likewise made a crime. Against this proposition there were abundant arguments, on grounds both of constitutionality and expediency. It introduced the new principle of law that the United States should undertake the regulation of the press, which up to this time had been left solely to the States. That its main purpose was to silence the Republican journalists is plain from the argument of a leading Federalist: the "Aurora," a Republican organ, had said that "there is more safety and liberty to be found in Constantinople than in Philadelphia;" and the "Timepiece" had said of Adams that "to tears and execrations he added derision and contempt." It is impossible to agree with the member who quoted these extracts that "they are indeed terrible. They are calculated to freeze the blood in the veins." The Sedition Act was to expire in 1801. It was quickly put into operation, and one of the prosecutions was against Callender, known to be a friend of Jefferson; he was indicted and convicted for asserting among other things that "Mr. Adams has only completed the scene of ignominy which Mr. Washington began." So far from silencing the ribald journalists, the Act and its execution simply drew down worse criticism. On the other hand, the Federalist press, which had been hardly inferior in violence, was permitted to thunder unchecked. The Alien and Sedition Acts were party measures, passed for party purposes; they did not accomplish the purposes intended, and they did the party irreparable harm.

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