The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were the first successful laws passed in the United States to repress freedom of speech and eject foreign-born citizens from the country. Sponsored by the Federalist Party, and signed into law by President John Adams, these measures were designed to silence the Republican Party and critics of the federal government during a period of hostility with France.
It was conflict in Europe between the young French Republic and monarchist Great Britain which set the stage for passage of these US laws. The pro-British Federalist Party had signed Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain, inciting the ire of the French Republic and that of the pro-French Republican Party. Crisis in Freedom follows the events, beginning with the signing of Jay’s Treaty. John C. Miller proceeds to elucidate the use of the Alien and Sedition acts as an instrument of repression. Newspaper editors and writers were jailed; Americans born in Europe were deported; and several papers ceased to publish. He also examines resistance to these measures that led to the downfall of Adams and the Federalists in the following elections. Subsequently, one witnesses the decline and extinction of this once dominant party in the young USA.
It is a story with a happy ending, which the author presents in story form. Professor Miller’s dedication of his book reveals a decided preference for storytelling: “To Samuel Eliot Morison, in whose hands history becomes enduring literature.” This is not to say that Miller plays loosely with the facts. His narrative is comprehensively researched. The political nuances of the time, and intentions of the players, are fully discussed. Both the structure of the events, and the presentation of the historical figures, reveal the author’s desire to produce a work of history that also has artistic merit. The chapters are numbered in the manner of some novels, rather than titled with subjects. Miller presents the opportunistic villainy of the Federalists, and the heroism of their opposition, in a dramatic genre. In spite of this depiction, one will come away from Crisis in Freedom with an understanding that all is not black-and-white. There were honorable intentions among some Federalists, as well as disreputable behavior by some of their victims. But it’s hard not to cheer for those forces fighting for our First Amendment rights.
Not just the structure of the tale, but also the style of the writing is worth examining. Sometimes Miller is a bit self-conscious that he is creating historical “literature,” and not just plainly representing the past. As a result, he can get carried away with the drama of his narrative. For example, regarding the potential war between France and the US, he says of the Federalists “they resolved to fight gamely to the end…they proposed to show that at least the gentlemen of the United States knew how to die.” (Miller, p. 23). Blinded by the fluidity and passion of his own creation, Miller fails to recognize that the Federalist leaders knew they had no fear of personal bodily injury in combat. Then, as now, politicians sent working-class people into the rain of bullets to defend the brave words of national leaders. Information can become a casualty in historical writing where artistry is prized above empiricism. Fortunately, extravagant flights of words are made infrequent by the author’s conflicting dedication to relate history accurately.
Despite the occasional friction between art and fact, this is a well-told history of events. Miller achieves enough balance between his intentions regarding historical literature and presenting what actually happened. Despite some human error, he generally shows that these factors need not be in conflict. His study of the Alien and Sedition Acts is predominantly told accurately and well.
Miller, John C. Crisis in Freedom. The Alien and Sedition Acts. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.