The Alien Act and the Power of Government

In this lesson, students will compare the language and rhetoric of the Alien Act of 1798 with recent legislation whose purpose is to identify and deport undocumented resident aliens.

Historical Background

This lesson focuses on the power and scope the government has or should have in determining who should be allowed to participate in American society. Students will read about the Alien Act of 1798 in the context of the growing power of the Federal government following the passage of the Constitution and the exertion of such power during the Whiskey Rebellion. The Alien Act illustrates the conflict between the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties over the use of power by the Federal government. It also illustrates the distrust of foreign governments by the new nation and the laws the nation’s political leaders pass to ensure the safety of the nation. This fear and distrust was illustrated by the XYZ affair.

During the early years of the American republic, the major question that was debated was how much power should the government have? Determining the balance of governmental power vs. rights of the people became (and still is) one of the most important issues in making a democratic form of government work effectively and fairly.

In more recent times, there has been comparable legislation that has targeted resident aliens within the United States. The political motives for the passage of the legislation also include a distrust of foreign governments (national security) as well as concerns about the economy and jobs.

Lesson Objective

Students will be able to compare and contrast the Alien Enemies Act to 21st century state and federal policies regarding undocumented immigrants by completing primary source readings and a contextualization assessment.



  1. Day 1
  2. Activator: Show picture of alien/immigrant arrest or deportation. What is happening in this photo? What powers of the government are being enacted or enforced? Is this fair?
  3. Activating Prior Knowledge: How did the Whiskey Rebellion show the power of the new government under the Constitution? In your opinion, how much power should a government have compared to individual rights of its citizens?
  4. Review the differences between the Federalists vs. Democratic Republicans and the threat or perceived threat of the French after the XYZ affair. If necessary, review the XYZ affair by having students analyze the XYZ Affair cartoon.
  5. Students read and annotate the Alien Act and complete the context analysis graphic organizer.
  6. Assessment: Contextualization Beyond the Bubble
  7. Day 2
  8. Show activator picture from previous day. How does this photo connect to the Alien Act?
  9. Students read and annotate Arizona SB 1070.
  10. Students read and annotate Michael Gerson’s response to the legislation. Then complete a corroboration analysis of Livingston’s response to the Alien Act and Gerson’s response to Arizona SB 1070.
  11. Assessment: Students create a visual representation (symbol, image, political cartoon etc.) that answers the following: What is the limit of power the government should use in determining who is allowed to stay in the U.S., and who should be forced to leave?


Beyond the Bubble assessment: Contextualization of the Alien Act

Visual Representation (symbol, image, political cartoon etc.)


The Alien Act text is differentiated into two levels. The first is the entire text of sections 1 and 2. The second contains excerpts from both sections.


“Alien and Sedition Acts,” Annals of American History, Annals of American History Online, (accessed March 14, 2013).

“Arizona SB 1070,” Arizona legislature, State of Arizona, (accessed March 15, 2013).

Edward Livingston ” Against the Alien Act,” Annals of American History. (accessed March 14, 2013).

Michael Lacy, “Arizona Senate Bill 1070 criminalizes Mexicans.” City Pages [Minneapolis, MN] 6 June 2012, (accessed March 14, 2013).

Michael Gerson, “A Test of Arizona’s Political Character,” Washington Post [Washington, DC] 28 Apr. 2010, (accessed March 14, 2013).

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