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What is the Alien Act of 1798? - Definition & Overview

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  • 0:00 Background to the…
  • 0:29 Federalists
  • 1:47 Political Opposition
  • 2:43 Alien and Sedition Acts
  • 4:21 Impact
  • 5:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The Alien Act of 1798 was a part of the larger Alien and Sedition Acts passed by the Federalists in Congress. It gave the president the authority to deport aliens based solely on his judgment.

Background To the Alien Act of 1798

In 1798 the world was in turmoil. The French Revolution was underway, throwing the order of the French government out the window and bringing about great violence and unrest in its stead. Across the Atlantic in the United States, the actions of the French were viewed with a wary eye, leading to drastic legislation passed to ensure the safety of the United States government. The Alien Act of 1798 was a part of that legislation.

Federalists

During the early years of the United States, there was a constant threat of outside forces that could bring the young nation to its destruction. Without a significant standing military force, the United States was quite vulnerable during the 1790s and early 1800s. When President John Adams took the oath of office in 1797, he inherited the unenviable task from his predecessor, George Washington, of keeping the U.S. out of entangling wars and difficult international situations. This would prove a tougher challenge than Adams ever expected.

During the latter 1790s, the French were angered over the Jay Treaty of 1795, which facilitated peaceful trade between the U.S. and Great Britain, and the friendly relations it helped foster between those two countries. The French had assisted the Americans during the Revolution and they now felt that the Americans were failing to do their part by assisting the French in their wars against Britain.

To stop this practice, Adams sent peace commissioners to France to negotiate. Several members of the French government asked the commission for bribes, and an international scandal known as the XYZ Affair exploded. This affair further damaged U.S. relations with the French.

Political Opposition

At home, politics were greatly affected by international events. The Democratic Republicans, a new political party, strongly opposed Adams and his Federalist allies in power, seeing them as a threat to the legacy of freedom and liberty carried on from the American Revolution. Some Democratic Republicans looked upon the French Revolution with pride and favor, believing it to be a direct result of the American Revolution. Political fights turned into brawls, and some Democratic Republicans threatened to break away from the nation, discussing secession and refusing to follow Federal law.

As a result, Federalists in Congress cracked down on the political opposition as well as those who were new to the United States. A series of four laws were passed in 1798 that dramatically impacted political discourse in the United States. These acts are all commonly known together in history as the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Alien and Sedition Acts

The ccts themselves were four separate pieces of legislation. The Naturalization Act lengthened the amount of time immigrants had to wait to become United States citizens. As many who were foreign-born typically leaned toward the Democratic Republicans, this was a means of eroding political support for the opposition and strengthening it for the Federalists. The Sedition Act made it a federal crime to slander the U.S. government, dramatically limiting the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and the freedom of assembly. The punishments were quite harsh.

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