In 1798 the American Republic was faced with the threat of war by a foreign power, France. In an atmosphere of fear, the Federalist dominated Congress, along with Federalist President John Adams, passed four laws in an effort to strengthen the federal government. These laws, known as the Alien and Sedition acts, were the government’s first real effort to suppress basic constitutional rights. This was, in fact, the Federalists’ attempt to suppress the dissent of the opposition Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson.
The four laws were as follows:
The the Naturalization Act, required aliens to be residents for 14 years instead of 5 years before becoming U.S. citizens;
The Alien Act, authorized the President to deport aliens who were dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States during peacetime;
The Alien Enemies Act, allowed the wartime arrest, imprisonment and deportation of any foreign alien;
The Sedition Act, made “any false, scandalous and malicious writing” a high misdemeanor punishable by fine and imprisonment.
The alien acts were never enforced, but the Sedition Act was. About 25 Republican newspapermen were arrested and fined and saw their papers shut down under this legislation.
Jefferson, along with James Madison and several Virginians, penned the historic Virginia Resolutions which declared the Alien and Sedition acts unconstitutional. The attacks on the silenced Republicans, and Jefferson in particular, were rampant in the Federalist dominated media. Federalist pundits proclaimed that the election of Jefferson would cause the “teaching of murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest.” The Sedition Acts actually turned out to be a factor in the Federalists’ undoing. One of the newspapermen charged and arrested was Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin. He was charged with “libeling the President and the Executive Government in a manner tending to excite sedition and opposition to the laws.” Bache had referred to the president as “old, querulous, bald, blind, crippled, toothless Adams.” Bache’s arrest caused such public outrage that Adams was defeated within his own party by Aaron Burr in the election of 1800. No candidate was able to secure a majority of electoral votes and it was left to the House of Representative to elect the president. Finally, on the 36th ballot, Jefferson was elected. One of the first acts of President Jefferson was to pardon all those convicted under the Sedition Act and Congress restored all fines with interest.
Today, with the Bush administration’s zealous support of the Patriot Act and the arrest without charge of U.S Citizen Jose “Enemy Combatant” Padilla, the threat to the Constitution is real. Bush and his cronies love to throw around words like “patriot” and “freedom” and act as if they represent these ideals. American patriotism isn’t expressed by loyalty to the “king,” but by the preservation of a political ideal. Encroachments on privacy, the arbitrary arrests of American citizens, paranoid secrecy and fear of dissent is behavior that is completely un-American and leaves the Bush administration, not its opposition (Democrats, Libertarians, Naderites, Greens, independents, , disillusioned Republicans, etc.), an un-patriotic enemy of freedom.