December 15, 2004  ·  Geof Stone

Lots of interesting comments and questions. Let me go back to the beginning, to a time less than a decade after the United States adopted our Constitution. In 1798, there was a bitter political division in the young nation between the Federalists (led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton) and the Republican (led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison). In the elections of 1796, the Federalists had retained control of both houses of Congress and Adams had defeated Jefferson by a scant three electoral votes. It’s important to understand that at this time in history Americans were deeply uncertain about the nation’s future. Would democracy work? There was no good precedent. It was truly an experiment, and no one was sure the nation wouldn’t simply fall apart. The Federalists represented the propertied class. They were very concerned about stability and security, and were very anxious about the passions and irresponsibility of the common man. The Republicans exalted liberty over security and were deeply suspicious of the Federalists.

At this time, a war raged in Europe between England and France. The United States tried to maintain its neutrality so it could both avoid war and continue to engage in commerce with both all sides. But in 1798 the United States entered into a treaty with England that infuriated the French. Adams put the nation on war footing. The Federalists gave him a larger army and a larger navy. We were on the brink of declaring war. The Republicans were furious. They were much more sympathetic to the French (who had overthrown their monarchy) and much more hostile to the English (who were still ruled by a monarch). It was in this context that the Federalists enacted the Alien and Sedition Act.

The Alien Act empowered President Adams to arrest, detain, and deport any non-citizen he found to be a danger to the security of the nation. The individual was given no right to a hearing and no right to present evidence in his defense. The Republicans objected that this was unconstitutional; the Federalists responded that aliens had no rights under the United States Constitution because they were not part of “We the People.” The Sedition Act effectively made it a crime for any person to criticize the President, the Congress or the Government of the United States. The Republicans vehemently object that the Act violated the First Amendment; the Federalists argued that in time of war it was essential to stifle criticism of the government because if the People lost confidence in the government they would not make the sacrifices war demands.

The Federalist prosecutors and judges used the Sedition Act exclusively against Republicans, especially against Republican congressmen and editors who criticized the President. Although the Federalists argued that this legislation was necessary because the nation was on the brink of war, the real reason the Federalists wanted it was to silence Republican criticism and thus to ensure that Adams would defeat Jefferson in the election of 1800.

The plan backfired. The American people rose up in protest against these Act and elected Jefferson. This led to the demise of the Federalist Party. Jefferson pardoned all those who had been convicted under the Act. Fifty years later, Congress declared that the Sedition Act of 1798 was unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court has never since missed an opportunity to declare that the Act was unconstitutional in the “court of history.”

There are (at least) two lessons we can learn fro this episode: First, clever politicians will often take advantage of a wartime atmosphere to enact policies that will serve their partisan ends. Second, it will often fall to the People themselves to protect their civil lliberties. They cannot always rely on elected officials or judges to protect them for them.

Do you think any of this is relevant to the present?

  • Alexander Wehr

    I would say the climate matches exactly.

    Bush’s campaign speeches reminded me of a kkk rally. Replace the comon n words with “liberals” and we have the same thing.

    this historic tie between conservatism and propertied interests also explains why, at the same time people are arrested for wearing shirts which say “give peace a chance”, copyright cartels are also gaining increased support through bills which erode civil rights.

    It makes much more sense when put into context.

  • Brentmeister General

    the only thing that counts is perception. wars are won in the mind. if people believe they have freedom of speech but they don’t, that’s all that matters. you don’t even need mass media to do that.

  • Fernando

    Indeed, the morals drawn are apt, congruently, to the present national context. Though, it�s rather fortunate that we now have a series of legislative committees and other government agencies that minimize the extent to which politicians utilize a wartime atmosphere to their strategic ends. If it�s one thing our government officials have learned over some 228 years of democratic experience it�s the use of clever mechanisms to introduce various checks-n-balances.

  • http://br DPG

    Responding to your two main points:

    1) There is no question that Pres. Bush used the War in Iraq and terrorism as a political tool akin to the Federalists. One got the sense that many voters, who were not overly impressed with Pres. Bush on his handling of the War in Iraq or on domestic issues, voted for Bush because “they didn’t want to change horses midstream.” What is so disconcerting about this is that Bush’s handling of the War in Iraq and Ashcroft’s handling of the War on Terror (zero terorist related convictions) pointed towards the need for change. No wonder the adminstration never takes responsibility for its mistakes, the public never calls them to task. And as you wisely note, this is often the only way to protect civil liberties.

    2) Is the forum we are currently using, the web, now the medium that the public must use to protect itself? Is the tradional media now so caught up in seeming objective that it has lost its place as the vehicle toward truth? The lead up to the Iraq war seems to suggest yes. Or, in your opinion, is the media really no different than in the past?



  • Meghan

    All I have to say is: Patriot Act. This act was passed immediately following Sept. 11, without being read by most Senators and Representatives, because it had the word “patriot” in the title. Several of its provision seriously intrude on our civil liberties, and it is being used by the federal goverment to “fight the war” (read: “combat terrorism”) with very little accountability. Not enough people are even aware of this legislation, much less worried about it.

  • Max Lybbert

    Fred, I can’t think of any speech where Bush used the “liberal” word. Could you provide me a sample? And did he really say something like “liberals are degenerate quasi-humans that must not be allowed to marry conservatives; let’s burn a cross on their front yards and hang a couple to keep ‘em in line”? I somehow missed all that.

  • Max Lybbert

    Meghan, sorry, but the various parts of the Patriot Act were debated for months before it was put together as a single bill. I seem to remember Bush using the way Democrats were slowing things up in those debates against the party during the mid-term elections: “They keep saying vote for me, but we’ll talk about security later, I don’t understand that.”

    Regarding the actual article, I wonder if the Democratic push for a draft that the military doesn’t want falls under the statement “clever politicians will often take advantage of a wartime atmosphere to enact policies that will serve their partisan ends.”

  • Max Lybbert

    OK, correction to my previous correction of Meghan: the Patriot Act was Passed in late October. That means Congress had the ability to debate it for a month and a half, not two months. Since Congress is in charge of its own schedule, I’m sure that debate lasted for a while. Bush’s comments were meant to keep campaigning congressmen on their toes. Yes, the election was a year away, but some campaigning was going on.

  • Benjamin Rosenbaum

    Fred, I think it’s quite relevant. At issue is whether the Bill of Rights extends rights to all people (“human rights”), or only to Americans. The Bush Administration has argued extensively before the courts that it can deprive anyone who is not an American citizen of the rights of habeas corpus, due process, search and seizure, etc. It has argued that it can hold “enemy combatants” indefinitely without charges, access to counsel, or appeal. It has argued that it can use confessions produced by torture to determine who is an “enemy combatant.” (References in this post: Read the recent Supreme Court decisions (Padilla, etc) to see conservative justices like Souter and Rehnquist using quite strong language equating the Bush administration’s position with the tyranny the Constitution is designed to protect against.

    So I certainly see a great deal of parallel between the Alien Act and the Patriot Act and the uses to which it is being put. The parallel with the Sedition Act is less blatant, but certainly there is reason to fear that things will head in that direction.

  • Alexander Wehr

    to Max Lybbert:

    “Fred, I can’t think of any speech where Bush used the “liberal” word. Could you provide me a sample? And did he really say something like “liberals are degenerate quasi-humans that must not be allowed to marry conservatives;”

    in not so many words, yes. Alas, i dont tape the news, but you can be guaranteed that will soon change. Next time i post something regarding this ill be sure to back up what i say with video so the proverbial naysayers can then say i faked that too.

  • Ed Lyons

    I do think we should all reflect on the alien and sedition acts, but I don’t think there is a current analog. I believe that the a & s acts were entirely partisan (including things like lengthening naturalization to prevent new immigrants from voting for the Republicans). Plus, the real threat from French saboteurs and Republican writers was probably zero at that time. This legislation was nakedly political and I doubt any rational person then thought otherwise.

    However, while there are political actions here at home in the war on terror, I know of no evidence that shows that the Repulicans wanted to use legislation to decrease the power of the Democrats. (Which is much different than making fear a campaign issue to win races) Even the Patriot Act had broad bi-partisan support in Congress. The alien and sedition acts did not.

    We do have legislation aimed at political ends (gerrymandering, the motor voter act, help america vote act) but I don’t know of any recently that preyed on fears of attack.

  • Alex

    I thought that Thomas Jefferson was the founder of the Democratic party. Wasn’t the Republican party founded in the mid 1850′s?

  • vince polley

    See my blogspot Thomas Jefferson quote on the Alien-Sedition act —

  • Geof Stone

    Reply to Alex:

    Actually, Jefferson’s party was the “Democratic Republican” party. It evolved into the Democratic Party. The Federalist Party crashed after the 1800 election, but its remnants became the Whigs and then rather indirectly the Republicans. Thus, Jefferson’s party ultimately became the Democratic Party of Stephen Douglas, and the party of Adams and Hamilton ultimately became the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. Sort of.

    Geof Stone

  • Benjamin Rosenbaum

    Ed, that’s a good point, and I wasn’t arguing that the Patriot Act is nakedly and solely partisan in the manner of the A & S acts. But history and the courts have not condemned the A & S acts only for being partisan; they have also condemned them for being antithetical to the spirit of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and liberty. In that regard I think the analogy holds, and in that regard it is irrelevant whether one party or two support legislation designed to destroy civil liberties, create a climate of intimidation and centralized control, stifle dissent, and remove all limits on the power of the executive.

    It’s also clear that much of the Patriot Act and its implementation has little to do with terrorism, but is aimed at other issues, like economic protectionism — Indian computer science grad students and Mexican day laborers seem unusal groups to target in an attempt to decrease terrorism.

  • Alex

    To max

    “OK, correction to my previous correction of Meghan: the Patriot Act was Passed in late October. That means Congress had the ability to debate it for a month and a half, not two months. Since Congress is in charge of its own schedule, I’m sure that debate lasted for a while. Bush’s comments were meant to keep campaigning congressmen on their toes. Yes, the election was a year away, but some campaigning was going on.”

    Youll need to understand that unless the act was already drawn up BEFORE 9/11 that they needed some time to write it as well. Parts of it obviously seem to come from acts that have been attempted to be passed over the last 20 years that were deemed ‘unconstitutional’ but if you were to say that none of it came from outside sources, then you are telling me that they managed to put together a hundred peoples minds on a singular purpose, and wrote 342 pages of lawyer speak ammending a list of atricles as long as my arm, as well as adding a few extra powers to the president. Then got it passed in only 43 days?

  • Jim

    Read the Sedition Act of 1798 if you want to know how full of shit this blog author is. Its very clear the need was to create a Unified Country. The founders were by all measures of todays standards ULTRA conservatives. Today they would have been branded as Far Right Wing NEO CONS. They did not want to set up an environment in which the King of England or any other country for that matter, could get agents of their foreign Government involved in our affairs, giving them the ability to torpedo the formation of our union from within.

    Hopefully most people reading this have lived through this very environment just going through High School. Can you imagine what would happen to anyone in High School who openly rooted against their own school teams(I can see them using liberal rhetoric, Im a real school pride person because I speak against our school weeeeeee! what a loser!…how long would they last, before being beaten mercilessly by every athlete, and joined in by every person in the school who wore school colors for one event or another. Its called Team/School spirit. You would never hear them say Down with our school, we suck…but this is the every day mantra of the liberals..every single day. And they claim thats patriotism…what a bunch of losers.

    I have a prediction, one day all these seditious bastard liberals will go too far, and they will meet with a messy end. Its the liberals who want to take company profits, Its the liberals who want to redistribute wealth, Its the liberals who want to take your constitution right to bear arms away..the very amendment put in place so We The People could keep our elected officials in check…Dont forget our founders fought with the country they fled from…they spilled blood to get these rights…and libs want to take them all away…they are nothing more than socialists…by definition. No Socicialist nation has ever come close to the succusses of free enterprise and the United States of Americas capaitalist society..ever!
    People who know who our founders were, brave warrior soldiers, not afraid to fight a WAR (unlike my pussy liberal friends, who live in an alternate reality in which no war should ever exist)…Hint: Not a single nation on the planet came into being without WAR. it is the nature of things, and liberals are able to be ignorant of that..the FACTS.

  • irrelevent

    actually i do think it compares to the prestent, because i have to do a social studies project on the question what is the patriot act and how dose it compare to the alien sedition act and obviuosly it compares alot!

  • jim

    Ok, it is three years later, but I want to correct a one inaccuracy in this post:

    >> But in 1798 the United States entered into a treaty with England that infuriated the French.

    No. You are referring to the Jay Treaty, which was signed in 1794 and went into effect in early 1796. The main reason it infuriated the French is that the Directory was hoping for war between the US and Britain, which the treaty averted. And the treaty infuriated the anti-British, pro-French Republicans almost as much as the French.

    I realize it is just a blog post, but you massively over-simplified the causes of the Quasi-war with France. The Jay Treaty was only one element that contributed to the growing suspicion and hostility on both sides. The Citizen Genet incident, the XYZ affair, and, above all, French attacks on US merchant ships that were trading with the British were the more prominent factors.

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