Monday, June 16, 2003
Many Americans are suggesting that the Patriot Act (and its proposed
"improvements" in Patriot II) is totally new in the experience of
America and may spell the end of both democracy and the Bill of Rights.
History, however, shows another view, which offers us both warnings and
Although you won't learn much about it from reading the "Republican
histories" of the Founders being published and promoted in the corporate
media these days, the most notorious stain on the presidency of John
Adams began in 1798 with the passage of a series of laws startlingly
similar to the Patriot Act.
It started when Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin
and editor of the Philadelphia newspaper the Aurora, began to speak out
against the policies of then-President John Adams. Bache supported Vice
President Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party (today called
the Democratic Party) when John Adams led the conservative Federalists
(who today would be philosophically identical to GOP Republicans). Bache
attacked Adams in an op-ed piece by calling the president "old,
querulous, Bald, blind, crippled, Toothless Adams."
To be sure, Bache wasn't the only one attacking Adams in 1798. His
Aurora was one of about 20 independent newspapers aligned with
Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans, and many were openly questioning
Adams' policies and ridiculing Adams' fondness for formality and grandeur.
On the Federalist side, conservative newspaper editors were equally
outspoken. Noah Webster wrote that Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans
were "the refuse, the sweepings of the most depraved part of mankind
from the most corrupt nations on earth." Another Federalist
characterized the Democratic-Republicans as "democrats, momocrats and
all other kinds of rats," while Federalist newspapers worked hard to
turn the rumor of Jefferson's relationship with his deceased wife's
half-sister, slave Sally Hemmings, into a full-blown scandal.
But while Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans had learned to
develop a thick skin, University of Missouri-Rolla history professor
Larry Gragg points out in an October 1998 article in American History
magazine that Bache's writings sent Adams and his wife into a
self-righteous frenzy. Abigail wrote to her husband and others that
Benjamin Franklin Bache was expressing the "malice" of a man possessed
by Satan. The Democratic-Republican newspaper editors were engaging, she
said, in "abuse, deception, and falsehood," and Bache was a "lying wretch."
Abigail insisted that her husband and Congress must act to punish Bache
for his "most insolent and abusive" words about her husband and his
administration. His "wicked and base, violent and calumniating abuse"
must be stopped, she demanded.
Abigail Adams followed the logic employed by modern-day "conservatives"
who call the administration "the government" and say that those opposed
to an administration's policies are "unpatriotic," by writing that
Bache's "abuse" being "leveled against the Government" of the United
States (her husband) could even plunge the nation into a "civil war."
Worked into a frenzy by Abigail Adams' and Federalist newspapers of the
day, Federalist senators and congressmen - who controlled both
legislative houses along with the presidency - came to the defense of
John Adams by passing a series of four laws that came to be known
together as the Alien and Sedition Acts.
The vote was so narrow - 44 to 41 in the House of Representatives - that
in order to ensure passage the lawmakers wrote a sunset provision into
its most odious parts: Those laws, unless renewed, would expire the last
day of John Adams' first term of office, March 3, 1801.
Empowered with this early version of the Patriot Act, President John
Adams ordered his "unpatriotic" opponents arrested, and specified that
only Federalist judges on the Supreme Court would be both judges and jurors.
Bache, often referred to as "Lightning Rod Junior" after his famous
grandfather, was the first to be hauled into jail (before the laws even
became effective!), followed by New York Time Piece editor John Daly
Burk, which put his paper out of business. Bache died of yellow fever
while awaiting trial, and Burk accepted deportation to avoid
imprisonment and then fled.
Others didn't avoid prison so easily. Editors of seventeen of the twenty
or so Democratic-Republican-affiliated newspapers were arrested, and ten
were convicted and imprisoned; many of their newspapers went out of
Bache's successor, William Duane (who both took over the newspaper and
married Bache's widow), continued the attacks on Adams, publishing in
the June 24, 1799 issue of the Aurora a private letter John Adams had
written to Tench Coxe in which then-Vice President Adams admitted that
there were still men influenced by Great Britain in the U.S. government.
The letter cast Adams in an embarrassing light, as it implied that Adams
himself may still have British loyalties (something suspected by many,
ever since his pre-revolutionary defense of British soldiers involved in
the Boston Massacre), and made the quick-tempered Adams furious.
Imprisoning his opponents in the press was only the beginning for Adams,
though. Knowing Jefferson would mount a challenge to his presidency in
1800, he and the Federalists hatched a plot to pass secret legislation
that would have disputed presidential elections decided "in secret" and
"behind closed doors."
Duane got evidence of the plot, and published it just after having
published the letter that so infuriated Adams. It was altogether too
much for the president who didn't want to let go of his power: Adams had
Duane arrested and hauled before Congress on Sedition Act charges. Duane
would have stayed in jail had not Thomas Jefferson intervened, letting
Duane leave to "consult his attorney." Duane went into hiding until the
end of the Adams' presidency.
Emboldened, the Federalists reached out beyond just newspaper editors.
When Congress let out in July of 1798, John and Abigail Adams made the
trip home to Braintree, Massachusetts in their customary fashion - in
fancy carriages as part of a parade, with each city they passed through
firing cannons and ringing church bells. (The Federalists were, after
all, as Jefferson said, the party of "the rich and the well born."
Although Adams wasn't one of the super-rich, he basked in their approval
and adopted royal-like trappings, later discarded by Jefferson.)
As the Adams family entourage, full of pomp and ceremony, passed through
Newark, New Jersey, a man named Luther Baldwin was sitting in a tavern
and probably quite unaware that he was about to make a fateful comment
that would help change history.
As Adams rode by, soldiers manning the Newark cannons loudly shouted the
Adams-mandated chant, "Behold the chief who now commands!" and fired
their salutes. Hearing the cannon fire as Adams drove by outside the
bar, in a moment of drunken candor Luther Baldwin said, "There goes the
President and they are firing at his arse." Baldwin further compounded
his sin by adding that, "I do not care if they fire thro' his arse!"
The tavern's owner, a Federalist named John Burnet, overheard the remark
and turned Baldwin in to Adams' thought police: The hapless drunk was
arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for uttering "seditious words
tending to defame the President and Government of the United States."
The Alien and Sedition Acts reflected the new attitude Adams and his
wife had brought to Washington D.C. in 1796, a take-no-prisoners type of
politics in which no opposition was tolerated.
For example, on January 30, 1798, Vermont's Congressman Matthew Lyon
spoke out on the floor of the House against "the malign influence of
Connecticut politicians." Charging that Adams' and the Federalists only
served the interests of the rich and had "acted in opposition to the
interests and opinions of nine-tenths of their constituents," Lyon
infuriated the Federalists.
The situation simmered for two weeks, and on the morning of February 15,
1798, Federalist anger reached a boiling point when conservative
Connecticut Congressman Roger Griswold attacked Lyon on the House floor
with a hickory cane. As Congressman George Thatcher wrote in a letter
now held at the Massachusetts Historical Society, "Mr. Griswald [sic]
[was] laying on blows with all his might upon Mr. Lyon...
Griswald.continued his blows on the head, shoulder, & arms of Lyon, [who
was] protecting his head & face as well as he could. Griswald tripped
Lyon & threw him on the floor & gave him one or two [more] blows in the
In sharp contrast to his predecessor George Washington, America's second
president had succeeded in creating an atmosphere of fear and division
in the new republic, and it brought out the worst in his conservative
supporters. Across the new nation, Federalist mobs and
Federalist-controlled police and militia attacked Democratic-Republican
newspapers and shouted down or threatened individuals who dared speak
out in public against John Adams.
Even members of Congress were not legally immune from the long arm of
Adams' Alien and Sedition Acts. When Congressman Lyon - already hated by
the Federalists for his opposition to the law, and recently caned in
Congress by Federalist Roger Griswold - wrote an article pointing out
Adams' "continual grasp for power" and suggesting that Adams had an
"unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish
avarice," Federalists convened a federal grand jury and indicted
Congressman Lyon for bringing "the President and government of the
United States into contempt."
Lyon, who had served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary
War, was led through the town of Vergennes, Vermont in shackles. He ran
for re-election from his 12x16-foot Vergennes jail cell and handily won
his seat. "It is quite a new kind of jargon," Lyon wrote from jail to
his constituents, "to call a Representative of the People an Opposer of
the Government because he does not, as a legislator, advocate and
acquiesce in every proposition that comes from the Executive."
Which brings us to today. The possible ray of light for those who oppose
the attempts of George W. Bush to emulate John Adams is found in the end
of the story of Adams' attempt to suborn the Bill of Rights and turn the
United States into a one-party state:
The Alien and Sedition Acts caused the Democratic-Republican
newspapers to become more popular than ever, and turned the inebriated
Luther Baldwin into a national celebrity. In like fashion, progressive
websites and talk shows are today proliferating across the internet, and
victims of no-fly laws and illegal arrests at anti-Bush rallies are
often featured on the web and on radio programs like Democracy Now.
The day Adams signed the Acts, Thomas Jefferson left town in protest.
Even though Jefferson was Vice President, and could theoretically
benefit from using the Acts against his own political enemies, he and
James Madison continued to protest and work against them. Jefferson
wrote the text for a non-binding resolution against the Acts that was
adopted by the Kentucky legislature, and James Madison wrote one for
Virginia that was adopted by that legislature. Today, in similar
fashion, over 100 communities across America have adopted resolutions
against Bush's Patriot Act, and, in the spirit of Matthew Lyon, Vermont
Congressman Bernie Sanders has introduced legislation to repeal parts of
Jefferson beat Adams in the election of 1800 as a wave of voter
revulsion over Adams' phony and self-serving "patriotism" swept over the
nation (along with concerns about Adams' belligerent war rhetoric
against the French). Today, even a minor appearance by Howard Dean or
Dennis Kucinich - both on record for repealing much or all of the
Patriot Act - draws a large crowd. There's a growing conviction across
the nation that Dean - or possibly another non-DLC Democrat - can defeat
Bush in 2004.
When Jefferson exposed Adams as a poseur and tool of the powerful
elite, the rot within Adams' Federalist Party was exposed along with it.
The Federalists lost their hold on Congress in the election of 1800, and
began a 30-year slide into total disintegration (later to be
reincarnated as Whigs and then as Republicans). Today, as the Tom Delay
and Roy Blount bribery scandals widen, tax cuts for the rich are
understood for what they are, and the corporate takeover of America is
alarming average citizens, the rot in the Republican Party is more and
more obvious. Americans are demanding representation for We, The People,
and non-DLC Democrats, Greens, and Progressives can offer it.
In what came to be known as "The Revolution of 1800" or "The Second
American Revolution," Thomas Jefferson freed all the men imprisoned by
Adams as one of his first acts of office. Jefferson even reimbursed the
fines they'd paid - with interest - and granted them a formal pardon and
apology. Today, undoing the Patriot Act and kicking corporate money out
of Washington D.C. have become popular progressive and Democratic
The history of John Adams' failed presidency gives hope and
encouragement to those committed to real democracy and genuine freedom.
History shows that when enough people become politically active, they
can rescue the soul of America from sliding into a corrupt, abusive
The future of our nation is now at risk just as much as it was in 1800:
It's time to wake up and work to elect and empower politicians
interested in real democracy. If we're successful, America may
experience a revival every bit as extraordinary as that brought about by
Jefferson's Second American Revolution.