The Federalists argued that the bills strengthened national security during the Quasi-War, an undeclared naval war with France from 1798 to 1800. Critics argued that they were primarily an attempt to suppress voters who disagreed with the Federalist party and its teachings, and violated the right of freedom of speech in the First Amendment.
The Naturalization Act increased the residency requirement for American citizenship from five to fourteen years. At the time, the majority of immigrants supported Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, the political opponents of the Federalists. The Alien Friends Act allowed the president to imprison or deport aliens considered "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States" at any time, while the Alien Enemies Act authorized the president to do the same to any male citizen of a hostile nation above the age of fourteen during times of war. Lastly, the controversial Sedition Act restricted speech that was critical of the federal government. Under the Sedition Act, the Federalists allowed people who were accused of violating the sedition laws to use truth as a defense. The Sedition Act resulted in the prosecution and conviction of many Jeffersonian newspaper owners who disagreed with the government.
The acts were denounced by Democratic-Republicans and ultimately helped them to victory in the 1800 election, when Thomas Jefferson defeated the incumbent, President Adams. The Sedition Act and the Alien Friends Act were allowed to expire in 1800 and 1801, respectively. The Alien Enemies Act, however, remains in effect as Chapter 3; Sections 21–24 of Title 50 of the United States Code. It was used by the government to identify and imprison allegedly "dangerous enemy" aliens from Germany, Japan, and Italy in World War II. (This was separate from the Japanese internment camps used to remove people of Japanese descent from the West Coast.) After the war they were deported to their home countries. In 1948 the Supreme Court determined that presidential powers under the acts continued after cessation of hostilities until there was a peace treaty with the hostile nation. The revised Alien Enemies Act remains in effect today.
After the passage of the highly unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts, protests occurred across the country, with some of the largest being seen in Kentucky, where the crowds were so large they filled the streets and the entire town square. Noting the outrage among the populace, the Democratic-Republicans made the Alien and Sedition Acts an important issue in the 1800 election campaign. Upon assuming the Presidency, Thomas Jefferson pardoned those still serving sentences under the Sedition Act, and Congress soon repaid their fines. It has been said that the Alien Acts were aimed at Albert Gallatin, and the Sedition Act aimed at Benjamin Bache's Aurora.[better source needed] While government authorities prepared lists of aliens for deportation, many aliens fled the country during the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Adams never signed a deportation order.
The Virginia and Kentucky state legislatures also passed the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, secretly authored by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, denouncing the federal legislation. While the eventual resolutions followed Madison in advocating "interposition", Jefferson's initial draft would have nullified the Acts and even threatened secession. Jefferson's biographer Dumas Malone argued that this might have gotten Jefferson impeached for treason, had his actions become known at the time. In writing the Kentucky Resolutions, Jefferson warned that, "unless arrested at the threshold", the Alien and Sedition Acts would "necessarily drive these states into revolution and blood".
The Alien and Sedition Acts were never appealed to the Supreme Court, whose power of judicial review was not clearly established until Marbury v. Madison in 1803. Subsequent mentions in Supreme Court opinions beginning in the mid-20th century have assumed that the Sedition Act would today be found unconstitutional.
Prominent prosecutions under the Sedition Act include:
- James Thomson Callender, a British subject, had been expelled from Great Britain for his political writings. Living first in Philadelphia, then seeking refuge close by in Virginia, he wrote a book titled The Prospect Before Us (read and approved by Vice President Jefferson before publication) in which he called the Adams administration a "continual tempest of malignant passions" and the President a "repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor." Callender, already residing in Virginia and writing for the Richmond Examiner, was indicted in mid-1800 under the Sedition Act and convicted, fined $200, and sentenced to nine months in jail.
- Matthew Lyon was a Democratic-Republican congressman from Vermont. He was the first individual to be placed on trial under the Alien and Sedition Acts. He was indicted in 1800 for an essay he had written in the Vermont Journal accusing the administration of "ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice." While awaiting trial, Lyon commenced publication of Lyon's Republican Magazine, subtitled "The Scourge of Aristocracy". At trial, he was fined $1,000 and sentenced to four months in jail. After his release, he returned to Congress.
- Benjamin Franklin Bache was editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, a Democratic-Republican newspaper. Bache had accused George Washington of incompetence and financial irregularities, and "the blind, bald, crippled, toothless, querulous Adams" of nepotism and monarchical ambition. He was arrested in 1798 under the Sedition Act, but he died of yellow fever before trial.
- Anthony Haswell was an English immigrant and a printer of the Jeffersonian Vermont Gazette. Haswell had reprinted from the Aurora Bache's claim that the federal government employed Tories, also publishing an advertisement from Lyon's sons for a lottery to raise money for his fine that decried Lyon's oppression by jailers exercising "usurped powers". Haswell was found guilty of seditious libel by judge William Paterson, and sentenced to a two-month imprisonment and a $200 fine.
- Luther Baldwin was indicted, convicted, and fined $100 for a drunken incident that occurred during a visit by President Adams to Newark, New Jersey. Upon hearing a gun report during a parade, he yelled "I hope it hit Adams in the arse."
- In November 1798, David Brown led a group in Dedham, Massachusetts, including Benjamin Fairbanks, in setting up a liberty pole with the words, "No Stamp Act, No Sedition Act, No Alien Bills, No Land Tax, downfall to the Tyrants of America; peace and retirement to the President; Long Live the Vice President." Brown was arrested in Andover, Massachusetts, but because he could not afford the $4,000 bail, he was taken to Salem for trial. Brown was tried in June 1799. Brown pleaded guilty, but Justice Samuel Chase asked him to name others who had assisted him. Brown refused, was fined $480 (equivalent to $7,300 in 2020), and sentenced to eighteen months in prison, the most severe sentence imposed under the Sedition Act.