The Bill of Rights was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791. But it only took seven short years for the U.S. Government to attempt its first assault on citizen’s rights.
And the U.S. Government won.
The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in 1798; just in time to protect the Federalist party from any criticism. Newspaper editors were jailed, fined, or both. And it all depended upon what side of the political fence you stood on. Newspapers praising the policy of the Federalist Party were untouched while those criticizing the same policies were chastised.
Today, it’s slightly different — no one goes to jail and no one is fined. Not yet at least. But criticizing government, if you’re a journalist or not, gets your reputation smeared for not being on the bandwagon with the popular political narrative of the day.
The alien side of the Alien and Sedition Acts raised the citizenship requirement from five to 14 years and gave the president the power to deport any alien deemed “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.’’ Although no one was deported, the law forced thousands to voluntarily leave the country.
The Sedition side of the acts was a direct infringement on the First Amendment, and attempted to protect John Adams’s campaign for a second term.
Not that Adams and his administration were showing any hypocrisy. After all, he and the rest of the founders were just men of the Enlightenment, the political philosophy that emphasized government was meant to protect the rights of the citizens.
With the Alien and Sedition Acts, the U.S. Government passed a law to protect itself from the citizens. This is where tyranny begins.
James Madison and Thomas Jefferson stepped in at this point. Together, they wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in response to a law they thought was unconstitutional. Their reasoning was based on the government overstepping its power. In Jefferson’s Political Writings, he stated the Tenth Amendment: “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution,…are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.’’
The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions argued that the states had the right to nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts, although Madison and Jefferson didn’t push to have the resolutions passed in their respective states.
On one hand this could have been an important precedent by giving the states the right to invalidate an unconstitutional law. To this day, only the Supreme Court has this right, which is called judicial review.
Another perspective is that this could have divided the states bitterly right before the election of 1800, considered by historians to be one of the most contentious elections in American history. If Virginia and Kentucky passed these resolutions at the state level, more states could have followed.
The U.S. was still a young country, not entirely unified. Prior to the Constitution being written, the states acted independently of each other: trade wars and embargoes took place between some states and other states actually printed their own currencies. So, for individual states to be able to nullify a federal law would not have been the wisest decision on a road to trying to create unity among a small group of still-fragmented states.
Ultimately, Jefferson won the election of 1800, and Adams lost his attempt at a second term as president. And the Alien and Sedition Acts were allowed to expire.
Today, these issues are still important.
An open border from Texas to California has millions incensed who believe jobs and government entitlements are going to foreigners. Where the Alien Act tried to keep foreigners out that would vote for the Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson’s party), people today argue that the door is wide open to allow those who will vote for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party. This was the main reason why Donald Trump has become the darling of conservative voters.
Free speech has been limited by political correctness for years. Look at college campuses for examples. In 2012, congress passed H.R. 347, limiting protests to “Free Speech Zones’’ which are out of sight and earshot of anyone considered important enough to hear the protest. Newspaper and television reporters wiretapped; TEA Party groups were targeted by the IRS to silence them; and offensive speech, which is protected by the First Amendment, is now a crime, depending on the group being offended. When the other side of any issue cannot be heard, then free speech is dead.
All of these laws, both then and now, are passed to protect politicians and their parties, not the rights of Americans. This should make Americans think — why are we electing politicians who are only looking out for themselves?
- The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson
- Our Documents