Talk of war from Washington? People afraid to communicate through the mail? Writers and editors threatened? Dissenters harassed? Foreigners attacked? We are not talking 2001 here – each of these things happened in the early days of our country.

Just seven years after the First Amendment was passed in 1791, President John Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Act. Thus came into being the first attempt to demonize those deemed by the powerful and in power to be a danger to their program.

Adams had prevailed in his effort to establish the Senate, which he saw as the “rightful arena of his ‘natural aristocracy.’” The class ferment, which was held (mostly) in abeyance during the revolution, was heating up.

Thomas Paine, the foremost radical of our revolution, had published “The Rights of Man.” It had been one of the key ideological documents that defended the successful French Revolution. In America, supporters of that revolution were called Jacobins and were those most involved in the struggle to extend and deepen the rights so recently won in the costly (in terms of human life) and bitterly contested War of Independence.

Adams and the Federalists identified as “aliens” recent French and Irish immigrants who were among the most fervent republicans. Indeed, these were people who had fought against monarchial suppression of their rights, successfully in the case of the French.

Today we are told by the administration “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists.” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told news organizations, and all Americans, that in times like these “people have to watch what they say and watch what they do.”

President Bush and his handlers have passed the USA Patriot Act, which echoes the efforts of Adams and the Federalists to stem the outcry of the “mobicity,” as Abigail Adams labeled those protesting the policies of the Adams administration.

Those policies had ignited the Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion. As a result of these popular protests, Adams established a federal army and allowed the creation of private militias. Both the army and militias were used to intimidate and physically beat “aliens,” opponents and protesters.

The newspapers of the time were not only the major vehicles of news but, through letters and essays, the main means of political dialogue. And the dialogue was bitter and personal.

The majority opinion was going against Adams and the Federalists. So much so that he enacted the Sedition Act, which says, “if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish … any false, scandalous, and malicious writing or writings against the Government of the United States,” with the purpose of, among other things, to “excite against them … the hatred of the good people of the United States … then such persons … shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.”

Putting editors in jail was not enough for the Federalists, though. When William Duane charged in The Philadelphia Aurora that Adams’ troops had violated the Third Amendment (quartering soldiers in private houses without the permission of the owners), 30 army officers dragged Duane and his 16-year-old son out into the street and beat them unconscious.

We worry about the privacy of our e-mail. Thomas Jefferson’s advisers were worried that Adams and the Federalists would attempt to use this law against him and advised him not to use the mail in organizing the opposition to these acts.

Where does war come in? Adams wanted to abrogate our treaty with France and take the side of England. In order to accomplish this he fomented much talk of a French threat and predicted a violent confrontation and was only kept from issuing a declaration of war through the efforts of his advisers. It was only when it became clear that maintaining this course of action threatened his reelection that he made peace with France.

Adams was defeated by Jefferson and left office in disgrace. He pushed through legislation that let him make last-minute appointments, which he used to appoint Federalists to office. He then made an early and ignominious departure from Washington and became the only president to leave office without attending the inauguration of his successor. May Bush’s departure be the same.

Allan Stoehr is a reader in New Jersey.

Comments

comments

MOST POPULAR