Constitutional Crisis (1798- 1800)

January 6, 2018 | Author: Anonymous | Category: History, US History
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Alien & Sedition acts

President John Adams The controversial foreign policy of the Federalists prompted domestic protest and governmental repression. Presentation created by Robert Martinez Primary Source Content: America’s History Images as cited.

As the U.S. fought an undeclared maritime war against France, immigrants from Ireland attacked Adams’s pro-British foreign policy.

To silence the critics, the Federalists controlled Congress enacted three coercive laws that threatened individual rights and the fledgling party system.

The Naturalization Act lengthened the residency requirement for American citizenship – and so the right to vote – from five to fourteen years.

The Alien Act authorized the deportation of foreigners.

The Sedition Act prohibited the publication of insults or malicious attacks on the president or members of Congress.

“He that is not for us is against us,” read the Federalist Gazette of the United States.

It was the Sedition Act that generated the most controversy. Prosecutors arrested more than twenty Republican newspaper editors and politicians, accused them of sedition, and convicted and jailed a number of them.

Political cartoon of Congressman Lyon (holding tongs), and later arrested under the Sedition Acts,brawling with Congressman Roger Griswold.

What developed was a constitutional crisis. With justification, Republicans charged that the Sedition Act violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Republicans did not appeal to the Supreme Court because the Court’s power to review congressional legislation was uncertain and because most of the justices were Federalists.

Instead, Madison and Jefferson looked to state legislatures for a solution. At their urging, the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures issued resolutions in 1798 declaring the Alien and Seditions Acts to be “unauthoritative, void, and of no force.”

The resolution set forth a states’ rights interpretation of the Constitution, asserting that the states had a “right to judge” the legitimacy of national laws.

The debate over the Sedition Act set the stage for the presidential election of 1800.

With Republicans strongly supporting Jefferson’s bid for the presidency, President Adams reevaluated his foreign policy.

Rejecting Hamilton’s advice to declare war against France, President Adams put country ahead of party and entered into diplomatic negotiations that ended the fighting.

Alexander Hamilton

Despite Adams’s statesmanship, the campaign of 1800 degenerated into name-calling. The Federalists attacked Jefferson’s values, branding him an “irresponsible proFrench radical....”

Thomas Jefferson

…. and because he opposed state support of religion in Virginia, “the arch-apostle of irreligion and free thought.”


Thanks to a low Federalist turnout in Virginia and Pennsylvania and the threefifths rule (which boosted electoral votes in the southern state), Jefferson won a narrow 73 to 65 victory over Adams in the Electoral College.

However, the Republican electors also gave 73 votes to Aaron Burr of New York, who was Jefferson’s vice presidential running mate.

The Constitution specified that in the case of a tie vote, the House of Representatives would choose the president.

For thirty-five ballots, Federalists in the House blocked Jefferson’s election, prompting a new rumor that Virginia was raising a military force to put Jefferson in office.

Ironically, it was arch-Federalist Alexander Hamilton who ushered in a more democratic era by supporting Jefferson.

Calling Burr an “embryo Caesar” and the “most unfit man in the United States for the office of president,” he persuaded key Federalists to allow Jefferson’s election.


Jefferson called the election the “Revolution of 1800.” The bloodless transfer of power demonstrated that governments elected by the people could be changed in an orderly way, even n times of bitter partisan conflict.

In his inaugural address in 1801, Jefferson praised this achievement, declaring, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

Defying the predictions of European conservatives, the republican experiment of 1776 had survived a quarter-century of economic and political turmoil.


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