The Ugly Politics Surrounding the Alien and Sedition Act

(A longer article about this quote appeared on

Given this nasty campaign period, I thought this quote from Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power would remind us that politics has always been ugly.

“It was not the most sophisticated of strategies, but it worked. On Monday, February 25, 1799, the Republicans in the House planned to take up petitions against the alien and sedition laws. The Federalists, with a bare but sufficient majority, caucused beforehand and decided, Jefferson told Madison, ‘that not a word should be spoken on their side in answer to anything which should be said on the other.’

“On the floor, when Albert Gallatin, the Swiss-born Pennsylvania Republican House leader, addressed the Alien Act and Virginia congressman John Nicholas the Sedition, the majority sabotaged the proceedings in the most elemental of ways: by drowning out the speakers. The Federalists ‘began to enter into loud conversations, laugh, cough, etc.’

“The din of the House was disorienting and dispiriting. The Republicans felt powerless. ‘It was impossible to proceed,’ Jefferson said.


“The debate [about a standing army] turned violent. In the House, John Randolph of Roanoke, a Jefferson cousin and lawmaker, attacked the idea of a standing military establishment, referring to regular soldiers as ‘mercenary forces’ and ‘ragamuffins.’ The next evening two marines accosted Randolph at the New Theatre; he was, Jefferson, said, ‘jostled and [had] his coat pulled.'” (321-22)

Join other dedicated readers of Thinking and Believing and subscribe to the email list. You'll receive every new post in your inbox, so you never have to worry about missing a post. Click here to subscribe.