1John Adams AdministrationThe presidential election of 1796 was America’s first hard fought and closely contested election. The Federalists put their hope in John Adams a moderate Federalist, rejecting the elitist ultracommercial Alexander Hamilton. In a close electoral vote, Adams defeated the Republican Thomas Jefferson, 71 to 68. Under the electoral rules, Adams became president and his bitter antagonist Jefferson became the Vice President.Before Adams could settle in as president, events continued to inflame relations between the two parties. Outraged by the Jay Treaty the French began seizing American ships carrying British goods. In an effort to deconflict relations between the two countries, Adams sent a delegation to France to negotiate a commercial agreement to protect American shipping. Upon their arrival thecommittee was unable to meet with the French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, instead he sent three agents Jean-Conrad Hottinguer (“X”), Pierre Bellamy (“Y”) and Lucien Hauteval (“Z”) to negotiate a bribe and a loan to the French government before negotiations could begin.The American commission kept the correspondence between them and agents XYZ until they returned home and promptly published it in American newspapers. The Jeffersonian Republicanswere shamed into silence as “pawns of the French,” and leading to an undeclared war. Adams sent a second delegation and successfully abrogated the 1778 treaty with the French.The Federalist saw this as an opportunity to deal a serious blow to the Republicans. Already suspicious of political dissenters and foreigners, in 1798 Congress passed a series four laws:a.The Alien and Sedition Act authorized the President to deport aliens deemed dangerous tothe peace and safety of the United States.b.The Alien Enemies Act authorized the President in case of war to deport aliens of an enemy country or subject them to important restraints if permitted to remain in the country.c.The Sedition Act made it a high misdemeanor for any person to conspire to oppose any measure or to impede the operation of any law of the United States. Furthermore, it was illegal to write, print, or publish “any false, scandalous and malicious writing against the United States government.d.The Naturalization Act lengthened the requirements for becoming a citizen from five years to fourteen years and ordered all aliens to register with the federal government.Not surprisingly, the Republicans condemned the law as unconstitutional. They were a violation of the “due process” clause of the Fifth Amendment, depriving individuals of their liberty. The laws also contemplated the imposition of penalties without judicial process upon persons not convicted of any offense.
2While President Adams administration never used the three of the four laws, however, the Sedition Act (1798) was another matter. Fifteen individuals were indicted and ten convicted under it. In the light of contemporary law, the Sedition Act was unconstitutional, seeking to punish people for mere political criticism.