It is impossible to conceal from ourselves or the world what has been before observed, that endeavors have been employed to foster and establish a division between the Government and people of the United States. To investigate the causes which have encouraged this attempt is not necessary; but to repel, by decided and united councils, insinuations so derogatory to the honor and aggressions so dangerous to the Constitution, union, and even independence of the nation is an indispensable duty.
—From John Adams—Special Message to the Senate and the House, May 16, 1797 on the EDSITEment resource The Avalon Project
As the end of the 18th century drew near, relations between the United States and France were deteriorating. President John Adams wanted to preserve American neutrality in conflicts between Britain and France. He sent a minister to France who was not received. President Adams then addressed a joint session of Congress on May 16, 1797, expressing his concern about the possibility of war with France and dissension at home caused by France and its supporters. In October, three commissioners appointed by Adams arrived in Paris in hopes of "restoring mutual confidence" between the countries. French Prime Minister Talleyrand's agents—known only as X, Y, and Z, and assumed to be acting on Talleyrand's orders—refused to receive the diplomats. They demanded a bribe, presumably for Talleyrand himself, and a large loan for France. The American people were incensed. War with France seemed inevitable; in fact, the U.S. is often described as being in an undeclared war with France following the XYZ affair.
At the same time, two opposing political parties were developing in the U.S. Tending to sympathize with France in foreign policy were the Thomas Jefferson-led Democratic-Republicans. Their loyalty was called into question by the Federalists, who dominated Congress during Adams's administration. It was a dangerous time both for the security of the young Republic and the freedoms its citizens enjoyed.
The Federalists clashed frequently with Democratic-Republicans who disagreed sharply with what they regarded as a philosophy of "huge public debt, a standing army, high taxes, and government-subsidized monopolies" (The Birth of Political Parties, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website History Matters). Could the Federalists, the party in control, wield the power necessary to protect America against those who opposed it without wielding that power against those who opposed them?
The Sedition Act touched off a lively debate about the right of free speech. It also presented an early test case to the citizens and government of the United States. In times of war or imminent danger, how do you balance the need for security with the rights of individuals? How can partisan politics affect the process of shaping security policies?
The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, supported a strong central government that favored industry, landowners, banking interests, merchants, and close ties with England. Opposed to them were the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, who advocated limited powers for the federal government. Adams's Federalist leanings and high visibility as vice president positioned him as the leading contender for President in 1796…
The Adams presidency was characterized by continuing crises in foreign policy, which dramatically affected affairs at home. Suspicious of the French Revolution and its potential for terror and anarchy, Adams opposed close ties with France. Relations between America and France deteriorated to the brink of war, allowing Adams to justify his signing of the extremely controversial Alien and Sedition Acts. Drafted by Federalist lawmakers, these four laws were largely aimed at immigrants, who tended to become Republicans. Furious over Adams's foreign policy and his signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Republicans responded with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which challenged the legitimacy of federal authority over the states.
Republicans were equally incensed by the heavy taxation necessary for Adams's military buildup; farmers in Pennsylvania staged Fries's Rebellion in protest. At the same time, Adams faced disunity in his own party due to conflict with Hamilton over the undeclared naval war with France. This rivalry with Hamilton and the Federalist Party cost Adams the 1800 election. He lost to Thomas Jefferson, who was backed by the united and far more organized Republicans.
Several of the leading Republican publicists were European refugees. The threat of war with France sharpened hostility to aliens and gave Federalists an opportunity to impose severe restrictions…
25 June (1798) The Alien Act authorized the president to order out of the U.S. all aliens regarded as dangerous to the public peace and safety, or suspected of "treasonable or secret" inclinations. It expired in 1800…
14 July. Sedition Act made it a high misdemeanor, punishable by fine and imprisonment, for citizens or aliens to enter into unlawful combinations opposing execution of the national laws; to prevent a federal officer from performing his duties; and to aid or attempt "any insurrection, riot, unlawful assembly, or combination." A fine of not more than $2,000 and imprisonment not exceeding 2 years were provided for persons convicted of publishing "any false, scandalous and malicious writing" bringing into disrepute the U.S. government, Congress, or the president; in force until 3 March 1801.
The Sedition Act was aimed at repressing political opposition…
Republicans attacked the Alien and Sedition Acts as unnecessary, despotic, and unconstitutional.