A History Lesson

Totally and completely unrelated to any current political platform being offered up by any major American political party, I offer up this brief history lesson.  As you may recall, my day job is teaching social studies, and historians (yes, I call myself a historian.  Yes, it’s pretentious as all get-out.  No, I’m not going to stop) like to think that, if folks bothered to actually listen to us once in a while and learn the lessons of the past, maybe we could stop repeating the dumb mistakes our great-great-great-great-grandparents made.  Or maybe we’d still make the same mistakes, but we’d make them with more interesting fashion choices or something, I don’t know.

Today, we’re going to talk about the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, a set of laws so wrongheadedly-awful that they actually killed an entire major political party.

The United States in 1798 was in a weird situation.  Under President John Adams, the country had some major decisions to make about foreign and domestic policy.  Britain and France were having a bit of a to-do over in Europe, and the United States wanted to sell stuff to both of them but didn’t want to get dragged into the conflict.  To that end, President George Washington had made a statement of neutrality one of his last major acts as Commander-in-Chief.  Washington was no fool, of course: he knew the US wasn’t up for a major conflict so close on the heels of the Revolution.  Neutrality allowed the US to keep selling things to both countries without having to pick a side.

Adams and the Federalists would try to take things further, though.  Using their win in 1796 as some sort of mandate to draft policies of isolationism and anti-immigrant fear-mongering, the Federalists in Congress created a series of laws, the Alien Acts, that gave the president the power to deport immigrants for (essentially) whatever reason he wanted, prohibit new immigrants from entering the country, and make it vastly more difficult for immigrants to become naturalized citizens (the less-discussed Naturalization Act, as part of the laws collectively called the Alien and Sedition Acts by most history textbooks, lengthened the time you had to be a legal resident of the nation from seven years to 14 years…two years longer than most immigrant worker visas lasted at the time).

The Sedition Act was even weirder.  It made it illegal for newspapers – or, well, anyone – to criticize the government in any way, punishable by jail time and fines and all sorts of lovely stuff.  All the sort of stuff you’d expect from a group that definitely thought it was doing the right thing, right?

Now, there are some ulterior motives behind laws.  The Alien Acts were designed to keep out “undesirables,” such as the Irish, who were not sending their best (to hear the Federalists tell of it).  It was surely no coincidence that the Federalists’ political rivals, the Democratic-Republicans, included more immigrants in their ranks.  Surely these laws were just spite aimed at weakening their opponents?  No political party in the United States would ever do that!

Anyway, turns out those laws were seriously unpopular.  Adams and the Federalists lost the election of 1800 to Thomas Jefferson (with a little help from the only other major Federalist in the country other than John Adams, Mr. Alexander Hamilton), and the Federalists were basically a non-entity on the national level after that.  Hell, the next couple of decades saw nothing but Democratic-Republican candidates win the White House.  They didn’t call the 1810s the Era of Good Feelings because everyone liked how itchy their wool suits made them feel.  It wasn’t until the populist jackass Andrew Jackson took the office that another national political party, the Whigs,  would even emerge to challenge the Democratic-Republicans.  It didn’t help that Martin Van Buren was all mutton chops and no action, or that Jackson killing the Second Bank of the United States destroyed the only federal fiscal regulatory tool the government had and ended up precipitating the Panic of 1832 (the event that killed Van Buren’s presidency), but that’s all a story for another post.

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