When the leadership of the Federalist party in Congress heard about the XYZ Affair, it decided the time had come to get the political opposition under control. Some believed that the Republicans truly presented a threat to the stability of the United States, while others saw a golden opportunity to destroy their political opponents. The result was the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
The Alien and Sedition Acts consisted of four separate laws. The first three dealt directly with immigrants in one way or another. The last one, the Sedition Act, defined any criticism of the national government (whether based on fact or not) as seditious libel. British law had recognized seditious libel as dangerous to the stability of the government. However, the spread of newspapers in the eighteenth century had weakened this concept in Great Britain. The attempt to put the concept of seditious libel into American law through the Sedition Act created a furor and sparked the first widespread debate over freedom of expression in American history. In many ways, this debate has continued ever since.
The Republicans charged that the Sedition Act infringed on people’s rights by violating the First Amendment. The Federalists responded that no one really believed that the concepts of freedom of speech and liberty of the press were intended to protect vicious criticism of the government. This debate continued for more than a year in the party newspapers. As it continued, American politicians slowly developed a broad definition of freedom of expression which allowed, and even expected, criticism of the government as a normal part of a successful republic.
But, before the debate subsided and the Sedition Act was allowed to expire on March 3, 1801, 14 people were indicted for seditious libel. Numbers of other people were arrested, but not charged, under the Sedition Act. Almost everyone arrested or charged was a Republican newspaper editor, and