Friday, December 4, 2009

Adams' Alien & Sedition Acts

This Ain't No
Fairness Doctrine Here!

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!***


Rebecca said...

Don't forget that Alexander Hamilton himself also played a significant part in attacking Adams that cost him any chance at re-election. Hamilton was a Federalist and essentially destroyed his own party by turning on Adams.

Brian Tubbs said...

Rebecca stole my thunder! :-)

I was going to say that Hamilton's attacks on Adams were the nails in the coffin of Adams' reelection chances.

yoshi said...

(just a side note - the autostarting of "Brad's" music when you hit this page is very annoying)

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