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Alien and Sedition Acts (1798)

The Federalist-controlled Congress passed these laws which made it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish” anything critical of the government. President John Adams claimed that the laws were needed as a war measure, although they were considered by many to be an unconstitutional violation of First Amendment protections of free speech and press. Adams wished to avoid war, and he argued that it was necessary to quell support for the French during the French Revolution. However, the laws were politically motivated, as evidenced by the fact that the only people charged or imprisoned were Republicans (Adams’s rival political party). The first person charged under these laws was Matthew Lyon.

In opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions which argued that states had the power to nullify unconstitutional federal laws. The laws unified the Republican Party and almost certainly contributed to many Federalists being turned out of office in the election of 1800. The Republican-controlled Congress allowed the laws to expire in 1801.