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The Alien and Sedition Acts

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The Alien and Sedition Acts

The debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 revealed bitter controversies on a number of issues that had been developing since the penning of the Constitution. The writers of the document knew that over time the needs of the nation and its people would change, and therefore provided for its amendment. But by not expressly delegating powers to specific organizations, whether the federal government, state governments, or the people themselves, they inadvertently created a major problem in the years to follow:

Constitutional interpretation.

Shortly after the Constitution's ratification, two distinct camps formed, each believing in opposite manners of interpretation. One group, the Federalists, led by the newly appointed Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, thought that the Constitution should be interpreted very loosely. He claimed that the Constitution contained powers other than those delegated or enumerated. These unspecified powers were implied powers. To explain these powers, Hamilton said it would be natural - or implied - that the federal government would gain control over any territory gained through conquest of purchase, although the Constitution made no mention of territorial control. In essence, Hamilton wished to use the implied powers to build a strong and authoritative central government.

In 1789, the Minister to France Thomas Jefferson, to Francis Hopkinson of Pennsylvania, protesting that "I am not of the party of the federalists. But I am much farther from that of the anitfederalists." However, the situation was so sensitive that he could not help but chose a side. In 1795, Jefferson wrote to a congressman from Virginia, William Giles, that he "held "t honorable to take a firm and decided part." The group he sided with, the Democratic-Republicans, favored a strict interpretation. As their leader, Jefferson argued that all powers not enumerated by the Constitution belonged to the States. The basis for his argument was the old English "compact" theory. This theory stated that various individuals, in this case the states, joined together in a formal agreement of government. Since the states had drawn up the contract and given power to the federal government, it should be up to them to decide who received the power, not the body they created.

This debate over interpretation thus sparked one of the first and major issues that eventually led to the Alien and Sedition Acts: should a strong central government be formed (federalist desire), or should the individual states have control. And wild attacks of the ensuing debate also ignited the second issue, public defamation, which led to the Sedition Act. In a letter to his Vice-President, John Adams, President Washington spoke of the problem that immigration produced. He wrote that incoming immigrants would have an unwelcome effect on the nation, as they would "retain the language, habits and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them." This same problem was noted nine years earlier by Thomas Jefferson. It was his belief that "nothing can be more opposed than the maxims of absolute monarchies." Immigrants leaving nations where such governments existed, would, as Washington would later state, bring to the United States those very ideals. And regardless of whether or not they publicly professed their beliefs of monarchial systems, Jefferson noted that they would surly "transmit these principles to their children." Being Americans, theses same people would also have a share in government, and would "infuse into that spirit, warp and bias its directions, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass." Yet perhaps the person who best displayed the American attitude toward immigrants was John Adams.

In 1797, during a speech to a special session of Congress, Adams implied that people from foreign countries were enemies of the nation as their leaders had taught them impressed upon then undemocratic principles. Said Adams, "The speech of the President [ of the French Directory]...evinces a disposition to separate the people of the United States from the government...whom they themselves have chosen to manage their common concerns." Such distrust of immigrants led to the passing of the Alien act in the summer of 1798. The Alien act required a fourteen year residency period for aliens prior to naturalization as a citizen allowed the restraint and removal in time of war of resident adult aliens of the hostile nations, and gave the President the power to deport "all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United Sates." Most Americans had little problem with the first part of the Act, but the latter parts were controversial. The Republicans viewed this bill as nothing short of an attempt to strengthen the federal government and subvert the power of the States. Edward Livingston, a Republican congressman from New York, in a speech to the House of Representatives on June21, 1798, remarked: " this act the president alone is empowered to make the law, to fix in his mind what acts, words, what thoughts or looks, shall constitute such a crime." The Congressional allowance of such a delegation and the Supreme Court's collaboration (via not condemning the Act) "comes completely within the definition of despotism - a union of legislative, executive, and judicial powers." ...

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