John Adams - The alien and sedition acts

The Federalist majority in Congress also erected defenses against domestic enemies and thereby hoped to cripple the Republican party. It became Federalist doctrine that the spread of French radicalism in the United States was largely the work of revolutionaries from Great Britain and the Continent. To many, the most conspicuous symbol of this pernicious influence was Albert Gallatin, a Swiss immigrant who now headed the opposition in the House. But in the "democratic societies" or "Jacobin clubs," which had mysteriously sprung up around 1794, and in the unrestrained opposition press, it was believed, were concentrated less respectable foreigners. These undesirables had fled their inhospitable native lands only to corrupt the foundations of the free republic that had given them asylum. During five weeks in June and July 1798, Congress extended the naturalization period to fourteen years, provided for the control of enemy aliens in a declared war, and gave the president for two years the power to deport any foreigner he suspected of being engaged in subversive activity.

Without being enforced, the Alien Acts intimidated a few foreigners but otherwise had slight consequences. Infinitely more serious was the Sedition Act, passed on 14 July. Since the beginning of party warfare under Washington, the Federalist and Republican newspapers had increased their levels of vituperation. Even after the XYZ revelations, Republican editors had continued the abusive attack on Adams, Hamilton, and their party as tools of England seeking to drag the United States into an unnecessary and destructive war against a loyal ally to whom gratitude for past aid was due. They asserted that the president had repeatedly deceived the people into supporting a war for commerce that would harm the farmers, who formed the heart of the country. How, they asked, could a party that in 1794 had sold the nation's soul to Britain in the shameful Jay's Treaty now appeal to national honor as an excuse for a war against France?

Such language, interspersed with personal vilification, was treason to many Federalists. When it proved impossible to define treason as words alone, they turned to the English common-law doctrine of seditious libel. After the bitterest debate of this heated session, a sedition act was passed by a narrow majority formed almost entirely of northern legislators. The act, to remain in force until the end of the current presidential term, included a provision for a fine of as much as $2,000 and imprisonment not exceeding two years for "writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing" with unlawful intent against the president or Congress.

President Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. His attitude toward them at the moment of signing went unrecorded. He had not recommended such measures to Congress, although some of his replies to the addresses had condemned foreign influences and the "thousand tongues of calumny" that threatened the country. Thus, he could be charged with having helped to create the climate in which the bills were written. In July 1798 he had not yet seen clearly his duty in this national crisis. He had set as his life's goal the achievement of fame, which in the eighteenth-century concept meant acting through disinterested public service to shape history in such a way as to win the approbation of future generations. He lost a great opportunity to increase that fame by not vetoing the most severe restrictions on freedom of expression ever passed by Congress.

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Why was Adams initially reluctant to sign the Sedition Acts into law

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