American Politics – 1798

After George Washington signed the Jay Treaty with England, France was furious. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that the US would not pay back the loans France had extended during the American Revolution. They argued that the loans were from the King and now that France was a Republic the loans were null and void.

In 1798 France began engaging in ‘hostile’ actions: i.e. rejecting American envoys and capturing American ships. These actions unleashed a wave of anti-French sentiment. It was feared there would be a war with France, “Millions for defense and not one cent for tribute” became the rallying cry.

This leads me to the Alien and Sedition Acts passed in the summer of 1798 by the Congress dominated Federalist (like our current Republicans). It became harder for an immigrant to become a citizen, allowed the President (Adams at this point who was also a Federalist) to imprison or deport non-citizens who were considered dangerous, and criminalized making critical statements about the federal government (this was the Sedition Act). The Federalists claimed this was to prevent anarchy.

The Republican-Democrats rose up in opposition, particularly the Republican-Democrat run newspapers. Under the new law many of the editors were imprisoned and fined.

James Thomas Callender called the Adams administration “a continual tempest of malignant passions” and the President a ‘repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor”. He was sentenced to nine months in jail and fined $200.00.

Benjamin Franklin Bache called the President “the blind, bald, crippled, toothless querulous Adams” of nepotism and monarchial ambition.

Many aliens fled the country. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, hoping to prevent the worst effects of the new laws, prepared a resolution declaring them null and void and giving the States the right to refuse to follow these laws. (This was done in secret and seems somewhat treasonous to me. Anyway, the resolution prepared by Jefferson and Madison ended up being important during the Civil War when the argument of States Rights gave the South a legal reason for secession – and also showing the importance of consequences. But I digress.)

There was tremendous opposition to the laws. Jefferson repealed some of them during his presidency and pardoned all who had been jailed under the law. Congress paid their fines. In fact, there was so much opposition, there were more Republican-Democratic editors afterward than before, in a kind of referendum on repression.
The law against seditious libel (calling a President blind and ambitious) was repealed and the during the following years the Supreme Court decided the it was in direct opposition to the First Amendment.

Several parts of the law, however, such as the sections relating to Alien Enemies, were NOT repealed. During WWII, FDR used the law to send Japanese descendants (62% who were citizens) to the internment camps. As late as 1947 Ellis Island continued to hold ethnic Germans.

These laws have not been repealed even now and Trump could use them, as he promised to do in 2015, to expel or imprison Muslims.

I don’t know why people think History is boring. Discouraging, maybe, because we fight the same battles over and over, but to me history always has lessons that reflect upon the present.

 

 

 

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