A critical analysis of historical interpretations of federalist theory of government as reflected in the Alien and Sedition Laws

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1971

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Current interpretations of the Alien and Sedition laws rest primarily upon studies by Frank Maloy Anderson, John C. Miller, and James Morton Smith, but examination of historiographical background, legal sources and recent studies indicates that these monographs are insufficient in at least four principal areas: the motivation of the Federalists in passing the laws, the reasons for the Republican reaction against them, their effect on the election of 1800, and the practice and theory of opposition parties at that time. This critical review suggests that the Bolingbroke idea of non-party government as a guide to honorable conduct and ethical political behavior operated with considerable strength among both parties well in the nineteenth century. Factional strife hr the late 1790's was more a case of regionalism versus centralism than of democracy versus elitism or of lower class against upper class. The election of 1800 shows that the Federalists hi many ways ran stronger in 1800 than in 1796, but Aaron Burr's successful mobilization in New York City deprived John Adams of twelve electoral votes which were not offset by gains hi Pennsylvania and North Carolina. It seems that in their pursuit of public office, the Republicans displayed as much partisanship as the Federalists, if not more. Republican arguments of the day concentrated not on individual liberties of speech and press but on the doctrine of "implied powers." They argued that the states had original, complete, and sufficient jurisdiction over First Amendment freedoms and denied that the federal government possessed any powers concurrent with the states. The voting record of the Fifth and Sixth Congresses reveal strong sectional cohesion on issues that tended to augment the federal powers at the expense of the states; the Alien and Sedition laws were merely one aspect of federal extension of jurisdiction about which the Republicans complained. There is some indication that one underlying concern of the Republicans was that the federal government might, by practice or precedent, acquire power to interfere with slavery. [...]

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