Monday, June 1, 2009

Adams' Alien & Sedition Acts

This Ain't No
Fairness Doctrine Here!

In an earlier post, one of our guest bloggers attempted to connect the arguments behind the Fairness Doctrine with the controversial 1798 bill known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. I believe that this comparison is completely and totally misleading and incorrect. Here is why:


One of the major criticisms from the historical community of David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, John Adams is that he repeatedly downplays the significance of the Alien & Sedition Acts (for a link to these critics click here). In HBO's John Adams miniseries, the birth of the Alien & Sedition Acts are portrayed as being the idea of several cabinet members, and not from John Adams himself. And while it is true that his cabinet played an influential role in the development of the Alien & Sedition Acts, it is important to remember that both John and Abigail Adams were instrumental in creating these acts as well, and in fact were central to the creation of the Alien & Sedition Acts as opposed to being mere spectators as McCullough suggests.

First off, nobody can or should doubt the magnitude of the John Adams Presidency. As the successor of Washington, Adams faced challenges that would have toppled most leaders. The mere fact that Adams was following a living legend would have toppled almost any other successor. In addition, Adams was burdened with a mounting crisis with France over the seizure of American ships and sailors, not to mention the fact that the United States was still strapped with several economic and domestic problems at home. Needless to say, Adams' plate was full. It's no wonder why Washington [allegedly] whispered to Adams at the conclusion of his oath of office, "Ay, I am fairly out and you fairly in. Let's see which of us will be the happier."

It was because of this scrutiny that John Adams -- with the help of others -- created the Alien & Sedition Acts. Under these acts, the Federalists hoped to endow the President with the power to, "expel any non-naturalized persons of foreign birth whom the President judges to be of danger to the peace and safety of the United States without a hearing and without specifying any reason.” In addition, these laws called for the punishment of citizens who, "unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States…or to impede the operation of any law of the United States." They also stated that "any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government…or either the house of the Congress of the United States; or the President…with intent to defame" was punishable by imprisonment of up to five years"

Needless to say, the Democratic-republican reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts was extremely swift. Recalling the guaranteed protections of the First Amendment, Thomas Jefferson stated that, "this bill [the Sedition Act] and the Alien bill are both so palpably in the teeth of the constitution," that it was irrational for the Federalists to, "shew they mean to pay no respect to it." Jefferson went on to label the supporters of the Alien & Sedition Acts as, “monarchists,” “Tories,” “anti-republicans,” and “monocrats.”

In response to the passage of the Alien & Sedition Acts, Thomas
Jefferson -- along with the help of James Madison -- set out on a crusade to not only destroy the acts, but to also obliterate any chance for John Adams to win reelection. In what became known as the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, Jefferson made the claim that:
The several States composing the US. Of America are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government…and one of the Amendments to the constitution having also declared, that the powers not delegated to the US. by the constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people, therefore the act of Congress…are altogether void and of no force.
As the election of 1800 drew closer, President Adams found himself in a political mess that virtually consumed him. The Dem-Republicans had labeled the President as a tyrant, and called the Alien and Sedition Acts, "the most abominable and degrading Executive act that could fall from the lips of the first magistrate of an independent people." In an effort to demonstrate just how "tyrannical" the Adams Administration had become, Jefferson called on renowned pamphleteer James Callender, a long-time enemy to the Federalists who had attacked the likes of Alexander Hamilton by exposing his affair with Maria Reynolds to the public. This time, Callender was to turn his sights on the president himself. In his popular pamphlet, The Prospect Before Us, Callender pulled out all the punches by boldly proclaiming that John Adams had become little more than a tyrant:

The reign of Mr. Adams has been one continued tempest of malignant passions. Indeed, the president has never opened his lips, or lifted his pen without threatening and scolding; the grand object of his administration has been to exasperate the rage of contending parties to culminate and destroy every man who differs from his opinions.
The Federalist response to Callender's "treason" was swift. Callender was quickly jailed in Richmond and sentenced by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase to five years imprisonment. As a result, Callender quickly became a poster boy of sorts for the Jefferson campaign. Callender's imprisonment illustrated to the common man just how far Adams had gone. In essence, Callender became Jefferson's 19th century version of "Joe the Plumber."

In the end, the Alien & Sedition Acts helped to solidify the popular message of the Democratic-republicans, which, in turn, led to the election of their beloved Thomas Jefferson. The popularity of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, combined with the "mud-slinging" efforts of James Callender, helped to ensure the demise of the Adams Administration. For the Federalists, this was a blow that caused a severe setbacks to their cause. For John Adams, the Alien & Sedition Acts became the darkest stain of his presidency, one which continues to stick with him to this day.

Though often considered to be the biggest blunder of his presidency, it is important for us to understand why John Adams embraced the Alien & Sedition Acts
. To be certain, his goal was not to become a tyrant. Instead, Adams was trying to protect the presidency -- and the nation for that matter -- from what he deemed to be a serious threat to the country's security. This is in no way an excuse for the Adams Administration. The Alien & Sedition Acts were, after all, entirely unconstitutional. With that said, it is still important for us to understand the motives behind these acts.

Here is a clip from the HBO miniseries, John Adams, which presents and interesting perspective behind the passage of the Alien & Sedition Acts:

***On a side note, it's worth mentioning that upon his election to the presidency, Thomas Jefferson pardoned James Callender for his "slanderous" acts against President Adams. However, Callender was not satisfied. Upon his release, Callender petitioned the president for an appointment to the Postmaster General of Richmond. President Jefferson did not acquiesce to his demands. As a result, Callender turned his attack on Jefferson. In a series of articles, Callender accused Jefferson of committing a "gross and vile affair" with one of his female slaves...the one and only Sally Hemmings! Oh the irony of history!***


Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, the Callender affair is beyond belief.

Callender was an anti-Federalist who made his bones torpedoing perhaps-future-president Alexander Hamilton's political career by revealing his extramarital affair.

Jefferson hired him to go after Adams. After Callender wasn't rewarded with the postmaster job, he revealed that Jefferson had financed him. Jefferson denied it, but Callender had the letters between him and Jefferson to prove it.

Then, according to Wiki,

"After the Hemings controversy ran its course, Callender then turned to publicizing Jefferson's attempt to seduce a married neighbor decades earlier, to which Jefferson later admitted...

President Jefferson, wary of the controversy generated by the Adams administration's sedition prosecutions, had begun a selective campaign against individual newspaper critics.

Despite his popularity among newspaper readers, Callender's situation was increasingly tenuous. Former allies had turned against him: in a surprise attack that occurred in December 1802, he was clubbed in the head with a walking stick by one of his former defense attorneys, George Hay, in retaliation for an article about an international incident to which Hay had ties.

In 1803, Callender's children joined him in Richmond, perhaps removed from Philadelphia due to the Jefferson controversy; consequently he had a falling out with the owner of the Richmond Recorder over money. In March, the offices of the newspaper were attacked by young Republicans from Hay's law firm.

On July 17, 1803, Callender drowned in two feet of water in the James River, reportedly too drunk to save himself."

Now, that's the kind of dirt I hope we get more of around here. That dirty dog, Jefferson, trying to bang the neighbor lady.

Mr. Atkinson tried a bridge too far in tying the A&S Acts to the Fairness Doctrine, but I think the baldly cynical "local content" ploy against conservative talk radio is still in play. We'll see.

But bridges too far are made around here all the time, like trying to tie the United Federation of Planets to the American Founding. Can't blame a guy for trying, I guess.


As for the constitutionality of the A&S Acts, I'm not sure it was ever tested, as they were repealed. Wiki again:

"They became a major political issue in the elections of 1798 and 1800. One act—the Alien Enemies Act—is still in force in 2009, and has frequently been enforced in wartime. The others expired or were repealed by 1802."

Woodrow Wilson threw labor activist and Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs in jail under the 1918 Sedition Act, upheld by the SC in Debs v. US.

Fascinating, Captain.

bpabbott said...

Regarding the "fairness doctrine" and acts of sedition, I do think there is a connection ... being that the former (in part) is intended to counter the latter.

Personally, I don't think an eye-for-and-eye approach is constructive.

Pehaps a different solution?

Magpie Mason said...

Respectfully, there is no comparison between the Fairness Doctrine and the Sedition Act.

The Fairness Doctrine has its roots in the early years of the FCC, when many media markets consisted of only a single radio station. The federal regulators thought it best to set rules that allowed the listening public to hear more points of view than whatever was offered by the owner of the lone local radio station.

In 2009 there is no need for this. FD's obsolesence is another case of free markets and technology outpacing bureaucratic regulation. FD was abolished in 1987, before any of today's political talk shows went on the air, before satellite, before webcasting, etc.

bpabbott said...


I agree that the comparison is a poor one.

Regarding "In 2009 there is no need for this", I don't like the FD solution at all. However, I do think the justification for such reamains strong, and will remain so as long as our political system favors binary perspectives.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yeah, we already dragged through this one in Dan Atkinson's guest post below, Brother Magpie.

Ben, if you can give me a coherent definition of "sedition" that justifies a Fairness Doctrine, or is in anyway consistent with your previously stated opinions, I'll give you a dollar.

I'll return to the point that nobody has gone near---once the government is the judge of content and becomes the "balancer" of it, speech is no longer free.

Free speech---the First Amendment---is the last goddam thing we have left that makes America different. Not in Britain, not in Canada, and although Australia is holding the line in practice, it's without explicit constitutional protection.

Perhaps Mr. Atkinson was right afterall in his way, but didn't articulate his argument well enough. Once the government---which will always be partisan, this way or that---judges the content of speech, the other side will be shut up by hook or by crook. Count on it, like the sun rising.

When an honest man like Ben Abbott says that a Fairness Doctrine is needed to counter sedition---and you did, Ben:

"Regarding the "fairness doctrine" and acts of sedition, I do think there is a connection ... being that the former (in part) is intended to counter the latter."

...surely, we can see where this leads, because only the opposition to the government can be seditious.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "only the opposition to the government can be seditious."

Although it may be your defintion, it is not mine. I thought the link I posted would have clarified this.

In general the idea is that Sedition includes subversion with the result inciting discontent in society.

Thus the context is that more than oppositon is needed and that the government need not be the target.

To be honest I think the FD is a band-aid for the problems of a two party system. As I've said before, I think the FD is a poor solution, but I don't see how the presence of a diversity of opinion is harmful either.

Tom Van Dyke said...

In general the idea is that Sedition includes subversion with the result inciting discontent in society.You're kidding, right, Ben?

No dollar yet. Keep at it.

bpabbott said...

A dollar Tom?

Keep it dude. If that's all you can afford to lose ... no doubt you need it more than I ;-)

jimmiraybob said...

Sedition: What the other side is doing that I oppose.

Can I get the dollar?

bpabbott said...

JimmyRayBob: "Sedition: What the other side is doing that I oppose."

Perfect! ;-)

If Tom doesn't follow throught, email me, and I'll send you $10!

Brad Hart said...

TVD writes:

***"Callender was an anti-Federalist who made his bones torpedoing perhaps-future-president Alexander Hamilton's political career by revealing his extramarital affair."***

Actually, Hamilton never would have been able to run for the presidency, being that he was born outside of the United States.


After writing this I realized that I had completely ignored the ALIEN component of these acts. In many ways that's the more interesting part of the A&S Acts in that it gave the President the freedom to deport anyone (not a born citizen) without cause. One of the motivations behind this was a growing fear of European immigrants who shared an allegiance with the ideals of the French Revolution. Federalists feared (rightfully so I guess) that the guillotine might make its appearance in America. As a result, the A&S Acts served to "save their necks." Or at least that's what they hoped.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, JRB, you get the dollar, altho I'd rather Ben send you ten. Altho yours is an expansive definition, it fits Ben's assertion the Fairness Doctrine is needed to counter sedition.

The issue has been clarified: The ruling party, of course, will control the mechanism of judging the content of speech, what is "seditious." That is not "fair" right out of the blocks.

Further, any "balance" the government demands will necessarily squeeze out criticism of the regime, an abridgment of free speech by definition. Limited speech---even quantitatively---is not free speech.


Brad, I was going to withdraw my Hamilton comment and give you a shoutout because your argument made sense. Unfortunately, I was wrong about being wrong, and as usual, I was right.

Hamilton was "grandfathered in" and was eligible for the presidency.

Article II, Clause V of the US Constitution:

"No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States."