Terri Diane Halperin
The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798
Testing the Constitution
Johns Hopkins University Press 2016
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in LawNew Books in National SecurityNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in PoliticsNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network September 26, 2016 Ian J. Drake
In The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798: Testing the Constitution (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), Terri Diane Halperin has provided a political history of the 1790s and explained the origins of one of the most contentious free speech events in American history. The Alien and Seditions Acts, which were actually four laws enacted in 1798, dramatically tested the principles of free speech in the young republic. Halperin explains the political origins of the controversy, which began in the earliest days the George Washington’s administration. Although the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and John Adams, and the Democratic-Republicans (or Jeffersonians), led by Jefferson and James Madison, had already established their differences on the national stage regarding the Constitution, foreign affairs would create further cleavages between these groups. Halperin investigates and analyzes how the French Revolution was celebrated and feared in America. When France descended into civil war and instigated European wars, the United States feared being drawn into the conflicts. The Federalists developed an affinity for Britain’s rejection of the Terror and resistance to France, while the Democratic-Republicans celebrated the promise of the French Revolution, even though most deplored the violence of the Terror. French and Irish immigrants were welcomed by the Jeffersonians and feared by the Federalists.
Halperin demonstrates how dissent against American foreign policy, usually through the many newspapers published in America, was viewed as subversive and threatening to America’s reputation and national security. The Federalists, who dominated the national government during the 1790s, conceived of federal criminal laws to quash dissent. Halperin explains how both sides had their dearly held beliefs: the Federalists thought Jeffersonian newspaper editors would encourage rebellions against federal power or foreign powers efforts to acquire land in the New World; the Jeffersonians claimed that dissent was legitimate and pointed to the First Amendment’s free speech clause as a right that allowed criticism of government. My conversation with Halperin covers all of these events and reveals the importance of the debate over free speech in the early Republic.