- The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798: Testing the Constitutionby Terri Diane Halperin
In this highly charged political time, it is perhaps more relevant than ever that we remember America's complicated political past. Terri Diane Halperin's rather slim volume, The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798: Testing the Constitution, does just that. As students come to terms with today's changing political climate, a work such as Halperin's helps remind readers that the United States has faced complicated political situations in the past and has survived.
Perhaps no issue divided Americans in the 1790s as much as the issue of immigrants coming from the war-torn countries of Europe. Many Americans regarded these migrants with extreme suspicion. One of the questions these newcomers aroused that was foremost in citizens' minds was "Did they pose the [End Page 669]same apparent danger to the established government as they did in their native countries?" (p. 7). Skillfully, Halperin demonstrates that this concern, among others, was set against the backdrop of America's infancy. The new nation was facing one of its first real international problems. President John Adams was forced to navigate between his own recalcitrant party (the Federalists) and a stalwart minority party (the Democratic-Republicans). All took place in the shadow of the French Revolution. The populace of America struggled with events such as the XYZ Affair and Adams's Quasi-War in the Caribbean. While the two major parties struggled with how to understand these issues and still uphold the new Constitution, the general population also struggled to understand their own loyalties. In the end, the Federalists could not retain control. Their attempt to rein in the opposition through the titular Alien and Sedition Acts proved unpopular, especially under the watchful eye of the Democratic-Republicans. Not only did Adams fail to earn reelection, but also the entire Federalist Party fell out of power and eventually collapsed.
In general, this is a very important book. Halperin's writing is accessible, and her research is not only convincing but also highly relevant to the topic. This latter point is one of the greatest strengths of this work. There is an impressive mix of primary sources (for example, newspaper articles and letters between major figures of the time) and secondary sources. This extensive research lends the book even greater significance. Overall, this work will appeal to a wide audience, primarily students and those seeking a deeper understanding of this significant, although often overlooked, event in American history. In addition, this work holds valuable information for students of early American law. The House of Representatives, in amending the law, "allowed juries to decide questions of both fact and law" (p. 63). Although only a minor detail, this occurrence moved the incident out of the sole realm of politics and into the realm of the law.
Overall, Halperin has succeeded admirably in explaining a somewhat obscure event in American history. Although the Alien and Sedition Acts figure into nearly every survey course in U.S. history, this book allows the reader to gain a much deeper understanding.