In 1798, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. This was a set of four laws, namely the Naturalization Act, The Alien Friends Act, the Alien Enemies Act, and the Sedition Act. The three alien acts were meant to manage perceived ‘dangerous’ foreigners in the build-up to a possible war with France while the Sedition Act sought to penalize anyone who spoke or published anything that the state considered offensive (Neuman 52). The various issues of debate that arose from the laws were due to the oppressive objective of the government.
This paper discusses the issues in the debate that arose from the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798). The Naturalization Act made the residency period for any alien seeking citizenship longer-to fourteen years up from the previous five years. The Alien Friends Act, on its part, enabled the government to expel any alien that it felt was dangerous or was a threat to peace in the absence of war. The Alien Enemies Act, on its part, made it possible for a foreigner to be imprisoned or expelled if thought to be a threat to peace in times of war.
The Act, however, was never implemented, although the fear of its repercussions made many French people to leave America for France. The Sedition Act, on the other hand, prescribed imprisonment or fines for people who were critical of the president, congress and government, whether in print or in speech (Neuman 52). The first issue of debate was the actual reason for passage of the laws. The Federalist authorities and their supporters claimed that the laws were motivated by the need to protect the nation against destabilizing foreign factors in such a revolutionary era (Neuman 54).
However, the Republican opposition thought that the true reason was domestic politics. At the time, the split of politics to the federalist and democratic sides made the government uncomfortable, especially considering that immigrants were also political. The Naturalization Act for instance was therefore meant to deal with French and Irish immigrants who tended to engage themselves a lot in republican political activity (Neuman 53). The other alien acts were also supposed to intimidate foreign critics and the Sedition Act to suppress the media and therefore protect the federalist government.
There was the issue of whether the laws were right or wrong (Roth 102). Opponents argued that the laws were contrary to the First Amendment, which protects citizens’ freedoms of press and speech. The supporting side however felt that print media had especially exceeded its limits, so that many newspapers for instance wrote unfair, defamatory stories about leaders and institutions. Some outrageous, inflammatory information written could also destabilize the country if not checked. Publicly known attempts to spy on the US and the obvious signs that the country could go to war with France created the need for action to secure the country.
It was argued that the Alien Enemies Act had clearly spelt out the procedure to evaluate foreign citizens to see if they were trustworthy or not. The Alien Friends Act was justified on grounds that the president did not have to gather proof of guilt before deporting any foreign spy because spies typically know how to destroy evidence and could therefore fool authorities. The constitutionality of the acts was a major issue. It was argued to be against the 10th Amendment according to which states were entitled to evaluate any acts of Congress to see whether they were constitutional before adopting them (Roth 102).
In this case, they were free to reject the Alien and Sedition Acts if they considered them objectionable. By then, rights under the First Amendment did not restrict states (Roth 103). The federal government had therefore gone beyond its jurisdiction, as it did not have the right to exercise any power that it was not granted specifically in the constitution. State legislatures possessed the power of interposition. Principally, there was the argument that the various states in the Union were not united by any provision to totally submit to the federal government.
The laws were therefore accused of having been formulated to stifle critics, were unconstitutional and especially an infringement of the rights of states to act (Roth 102). The press was ideally not supposed to be under any legislative control, as this would open it up to manipulation by the powerful. Conventional wisdom demanded that the press should never be restrained at all. Even with all the criticism, supporters of the laws had their understanding of constitutionality. They countered it by adopting a narrow definition of the freedoms, drawn from English law.
Here, the freedoms only existed prior to expression of an idea (Neuman 52). After one had spoken words or published information, people could however still be punished by government if proven to have defamed the government or king. Proponents argued that speech could naturally qualify to be seditious irrespective of the amount of sincerity or truth in it. Limitation of speech could also be justified basing on the priorities of the government at the time. For instance, according to the sedition act, there has to be a scandalous, false, or malicious element in the writing or speech.
In conclusion, the Alien and Sedition Acts were pushed by a federalist administration that was keen on minimizing immigrant support for the republican side. The reason informing the law was by itself a major debate issue. Other issues included their constitutionality, whether they were right or wrong, as well as whether limitation of speech could ever be justified. While the federalist administration argued that the legislations were best for the nation, the democratic republican opposition thought that everything was unfair and unnecessary.