Thursday, March 22, 2007

Teaching the Alien and Sedition Acts in the Age of 9/11....

Since I've been teaching American history survey courses, I've noticed very strong student reactions to three pieces of legislation that I always include in the primary sources for particular topics. They get agitated about The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, The Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1918, and The Korematsu decision.
The sedition act includes the following:
That if any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the constitution of the United States, or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act, or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

When I teach this document, I also have the students read excerpts from the newspaper "The Aurora," a partisan paper from Philadelphia whose editors were thrown into prison under the terms of the Sedition Act because of their opposition to the Adams administration. The "Alien Acts," of which James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson, On May 20, 1798, the "Alien bill proposed in the Senate is a monster that must forever disgrace its parents" gives the President the authority to deport people from nations with whom the US is at war, and also to deport "Alien Friends". Since there was no war between the US and France in the 1790s, it was actually against Irish and English supporters of Thomas Paine, who had fled Britain's suppression of the political clubs, that the Federalists used their handy law.
Three years ago, I recall that my entire class was united in opposition to the law, and that they were highly critical of the one person in the classroom who thought it was a valuable piece of patriotic legislation. Ironically, perhaps, the one person who supported the law was an immigrant. She may have been, as some anti-immigrant activists of the 1890s would have argued, unfamiliar with American "institutions" and therefore not appreciative of just how directly these laws undermined the basic freedoms provided in the Bill of Rights. She might have just been trying to impress her teacher, not realizing that advocating everything those in power have ever done was not the way to do so. Last Fall, when my classes were discussing the similar Espionage and Sedition Acts passed during WWI, my class was so unified in opposition to the laws that the only person creating controversy later admitted that he was just arguing for the laws to "stir things up, like in Professional wrestling."
Nonetheless, this semester, the balance of the class has shifted. While many of my current students found the sedition bill puzzling, and asked "how can they pass this law? Doesn't it violate the Bill of Rights?" several students responded by defending the laws, arguing that it was necessary to protect the government from "alien enemies" and to curtail the freedom of the press. One student, clearly thinking of present day issues, made a big point of hidden, alien subversion of the government. I wonder who he thought these alien enemies were in 1798? Would he have had the same reaction if he'd known the immigrants being subjected to interrogation and deportation were the Irish supporters of Thomas Jefferson?
Immigrant students tend to be the most vehement in their opposition to the laws, which they associate with current anti-Immigrant sentiment, while native born Americans seem more likely to support them. I find this all very interesting. I see it as a sign of the times that students, even in a school with a large percentage of immigrants, would be willing to deny rights to "aliens" as a matter of course, but I am shocked that they are so willing to trust the government wih the suspension of freedom of the press, even though I am aware that ACLU poll results sometimes show that about 60% Americans would probably scrap the First Amendment if they could.
Most of the time, I hold back from expressing my own views in the classroom when students are discussing documents, in order to let the conversation play itself out among the students. This time, however, partly due to time considerations, I had to just come out and say that OF COURSE the Sedition Act of 1798 violated the First Amendment. I wish I didn't have to come in and settle that particular question. These are indeed, strange times, and I may have to come up with some kind of lesson on the rest of the amendments that addresses this other problem that Americans seem to have with the Constitution.

1 comment:

George Entenman said...

Back in the 70s, I think, I remember reading about some people who copied the Declaration of Independence onto plain paper, giving people a place to sign it. Then they stood out in public places trying to get Americans to sign it. Guess whether they did or not!!