The Alien & Sedition Acts Of 1798 and Their Irony

The United States finally ratified the Bill of Rights in 1791, a compromise to appease the Anti-Federalists who were concerned about individual rights.

It is widely thought that their opposition to a Constitution lacking a Bill of Rights was merely a political ploy. Nonetheless, James Madison went to work on a set of amendments that enumerated specific rights, but did not mean that rights not enumerated were not valid.Thomas Jefferson The first of these, and considered by many the most important is the First Amendment to the Constitution. It states,

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

This was not the first draft, by any means. There were multiple drafts regarding the freedoms that should surround religious and speech expression.

An earlier draft, spread out over two amendments, read,

"(3)Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed. (4) The freedom of speech, and of the press, and the right of the People peaceably to assemble and consult for their common good, and to apply to the Government for redress of grievances, shall not be infringed."

It is difficult for many to get around the strong language of the Amendment, which seems to provide the strictest form of protection for speech and the press. Still, there is great controversy over just how much protection this provides.
A mere seven years later the U.S. Congress passed the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798. There are political explanations of why these Acts were passed which center primarily around the state of foreign relations.
The two parties of the day, the Democrat-Republicans and the Federalists were strictly opposed two one another. The Federalists were initially in support of a constitution that did not require a Bill of Rights, and only conceded in order to aid in the ratification of the Constitution.

The Democrat-Republicans, with whom Thomas Jefferson was numbered were heavily fearful of a strong central government, and so were generally opposed to the Constitution as a whole, but eventually would support ratification.

The Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 was equally debated. The Federalists, under President John Adams, and in control of Congress, passed the act with little opposition. The Democrat-Republican's felt they were unconstitutional.

Still, given opportunity, Thomas Jefferson was willing to allow the law to be used to his political advantage. Thomas Jefferson would later prosecute Federalist editors under this legislation, though he would allow the legislation to expire during his administration. Jefferson's solution for correcting opposing newspapers was predictable for the party press era. "The restraints provided by the laws of the states are sufficient for this if applied . . . I have long thought that a few prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the presses." Jefferson not only felt that the law, if it became too oppressive, could be curtailed by the powers of the states, but that it might serve to clean up the press a bit to suit his needs.

It is important to understand the compromising nature of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Jefferson and Madison were centrally active in the drafting of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and history has shown them to demonstrate ultimate compromise between the concepts of a strong and a weak central government. With this in mind it is much easier to accept that the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions were drafted with the idea of creating a safety net for personal rights should the Executive Branch become abusive in exercising the laws. They cannot have been drafted as means of objecting to the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Another consideration is the fact that the Sedition Act, and the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions each emanated from members of the same Congressional body. The Alien and Sedition Acts, which potentially restricted the rights of the individual, passed Congress with no problems. Likewise, the safety net resolutions drafted by Jefferson and Madison, which potentially could negate any affect acts of Congress \might have, also passed their respective state houses unfettered. Congress saw fit to police itself and in effect police the entire Federal government through the sharing of powers and responsibilities among the branches of government, while they also saw fit to allow the government to protect the Nation from enemies from without and from within.