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Terri Diane Halperin

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798: Testing the Constitution

Historian Terri Diane Halperin, on her new book, The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798: Testing the Constitution, which considers the passage of these unpopular laws just ten years after the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

What happens to democracy when dissent is treated as treason?

In May 1798, after Congress released the XYZ Affair dispatches to the public, a raucous crowd took to the streets of Philadelphia. Some gathered to pledge their support for the government of President John Adams, others to express their disdain for his policies. Violence, both physical and political, threatened the safety of the city and the Union itself. To combat the chaos and protect the nation from both external and internal threats, the Federalists swiftly enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts. Oppressive pieces of legislation aimed at separating so-called genuine patriots from objects of suspicion, these acts sought to restrict political speech, whether spoken or written, soberly planned or drunkenly off-the-cuff. Little more than twenty years after Americans declared independence and less than ten since they ratified both a new constitution and a bill of rights, the acts gravely limited some of the very rights those bold documents had promised to protect.

In The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, Terri Diane Halperin discusses the passage of these laws and the furor over them, as well as the difficulties of enforcement. She describes in vivid detail the heated debates and tempestuous altercations that erupted between partisan opponents: one man pulled a gun on a supporter of the act in a churchyard; congressmen were threatened with arrest for expressing their opinions; and printers were viciously beaten for distributing suspect material. She also introduces readers to the fraught political divisions of the late 1790s, explores the effect of immigration on the new republic, and reveals the dangers of partisan excess throughout history.

Touching on the major sedition trials while expanding the discussion beyond the usual focus on freedom of speech and the press to include the treatment of immigrants, Halperin’s book provides a window through which readers can explore the meaning of freedom of speech, immigration, citizenship, the public sphere, the Constitution, and the Union.

[Recorded on February 10, 2022.]

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      Terri Halperin is an historian of the Early American Republic with a particular interest in the formation of governmental institutions and the relationship between those institutions and the people. She is the author of The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798: Testing the Constitution. She received her undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University and earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia. She was for many years an adjunct professor in history at the University of Richmond and is on the faculty of the James Madison Memorial Foundation Summer Institute. Her current project is a history of the United States Senate from 1789 to 1833 for which she has received support from the Dirksen Congressional Center.


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