XYZ Affair/ Alien & Sedition Act
The Alien and Sedition Acts
Fear of opposition to the war within the United States prompted many Federalists to call for a way to punish dissidents, chiefly those in the Anti-Federalist Party. This took the form of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
“Alien” refers to someone who is not from the country, and the Alien Act was created to allow the federal government to deport non-citizens who were a threat to national security. Sedition means to write or speak in a way as to get people to rebel against the authority of a government. The Sedition Act, however, was created as a way to punish American citizens who criticized the American government during the war with the intent to harm the government’s position.
Under the Sedition Act, the government charged and prosecuted several printers who spoke against the United States and the war. Even Matthew Lyon, a Democratic-Republican Congress member, was jailed for criticizing President Adams in a Republican newspaper.
The Kentucky and Virginia resolutions
The Federalist Party supported the Alien and Sedition Acts, but the Democratic-Republican Party criticized them. They argued that the Alien and Sedition Acts gave too much power to the federal government.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, leading Democratic-Republicans, each wrote a resolution that were later adopted by Kentucky and Virginia, respectively. These resolutions pushed for a strict interpretation of the Constitution when it came to powers granted to the federal government. They also claimed that states had the power to ignore and disregard federal laws if they considered them outside of the bounds of their powers as described in the Constitution.
Debate about the balance between federal and state power would continue until the Civil War, remerging in issues like the Nullification crisis.
Adams' Midnight appointments
Arguably, Adams’ most influential act as president happened as he was leaving office. In his last moments as president, the night before his successor (Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican) took office, Adams attempted to appoint as many Federalists as possible into empty positions as justices of the peace. These "midnight judges" were a ploy to stack the courts against the incoming Democratic-Republican party.
Although Adams signed the judicial appointments, he failed to make sure they were delivered on time. When Jefferson took office, he refused to arrange for the delivery of the remaining appointments. One of the disappointed would-be judges, William Marbury, sued for his appointment. The Supreme Court case that followed, Marbury v. Madison, established the principle of judicial review: that the Supreme Court has the power to strike down laws if it judges that those laws violate the Constitution.What do you think?
Did You Get it?
1. What amendment to the Constitution did the Sedition Act potentially violate? Why?
2. Why did the Adams administration pass the Alien and Sedition Acts?
3. What was the most important issue dividing the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans?