“The British are coming, the British are coming.” Like these famous words of Paul Revere and the Minute Men, Americans have always been willing to sound the alarm at a moment’s notice. The problem with this is that at times fear rules over logic and leads Americans to act in haste. Two such examples are the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the USA Patriot Act. At times, the United States has lost its bearings when confronted by an enemy. In a state of crisis or even panic, the government has implemented measures that have been since been viewed as regrettable.
From 1798 to 1800, the French were considered terrorists by pirating ships and making things uncomfortable for the fledgling American republic. The Federalist Party led a backlash against the French, and Thomas Jefferson and his Republican Party were seen as Francophiles. American reaction to the threat posed by France came in the form of the Alien and Sedition Acts which were championed by the Federalists, passed by Congress, and signed by President Adams in 1798.
The Alien Act required immigrants to reside in the U.S. for 14 at least years rather than only 5 in order to qualify for citizenship. The act also gave the President the legal right to expel those the government considered “dangerous.” In certain circumstances, aliens remaining in the United States could be imprisoned “so long as, in the opinion of the President, the public safety may require.” The Sedition Act punished “false, scandalous, and malicious” writings against the government with fines and imprisonment. Most of those arrested under the Sedition Act were Republican editors, and instead of sending boatloads of aliens back to France, it resulted in no one’s deportation.
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The Alien and Sedition Acts were the federal government’s first direct assault on American civil liberties. This legislation made a mockery of the First Amendment and deprived aliens of basic due process of law. From this assault, we can learn lessons relevant to our own time. The tragedy of September 11 and the threat of terrorism against America have prompted the passage of the USA Patriot Act.
The USA Patriot Act is infringing on similar civil liberties as The Alien and Sedition Acts did in the 1700s. Under the Patriot Act, anyone suspected of terrorist affiliations can be arrested and detained without solid evidence to prove their relationship American citizens and foreign nationals have been detained on U.S. soil indefinitely and without access to legal counsel, notwithstanding the fact that the writ of habeas corpus has not even been suspended.
President John Adams only claimed such power over aliens, not American citizens. Under today’s USA Patriot Act, government investigators can more easily invade personal privacy. The FBI is charged with gathering domestic intelligence in such ways as tracking internet activity, monitoring book buying and books borrowed from libraries, along with other activities. Treasury Department officials are charged with creating a financial intelligence-gathering system. The CIA, once banished from the field of domestic intelligence because of abuses in the Vietnam era, is once again allowed to resume domestic operations.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison understood that even during a national crisis like the threat of war, civil liberties should not be infringed upon. The people of the United States should look at the Alien and Sedition Acts and the USA Patriot Act in the same light. Knee jerk reactions are not what is needed when dealing with civil liberties.
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