As President Trump treated the press to his epic tirade this afternoon, the question that tugged at what passes for our brain is this: What would John Adams do? He was the first president to discover that the press was riddled with sympathizers of France, which was maneuvering against us in what is known as the Quasi War. It was worse than what we’re confronting now with, say, Russia (or Iran or Red China), but not as bad as we’re now confronting with, say, the Islamic State.
Adams was caught between, on the one hand, an angry Congress (and Adams’ magnificent wife Abigail, played, above, by the also magnificent Laura Linney) and, on the other hand, the John Kerry-like Thomas Jefferson. Actually, it’s unfair to Jefferson to compare him to John Kerry; Jefferson never sent a C-130 full of $1.7 billion in large denomination bills to the French and the French, whatever their faults, had saved us during our own Revolution, in which Jefferson played a heroic rode. The press wheeled on the arch-Federalists so dangerously that Congress finally acted.
In 1798, Adams signed the four bills known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. They would be met with a famous attempt by states to nullify federal law. The Alien Friends Act gave Adams the power to jail or deport dangerous aliens. The Sedition Act outlawed making false statements that put the government in a poor light. And before you could say 9th United States Circuit Court of Appeals (it didn’t exist back then), the government was throwing editors in jail. What it might have done with CNN boggles the mind.
It was actually pretty awful for the press, not that the editors back in the day were anything to write home about. Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, known as “Lightning Rod Junior,” was editor of the Aurora and an abject sympathizer of the French — and a sardonic cuss (“All governments are more or less combinations against the people”). He was eventually jailed under the Sedition Act and probably would have drawn quite a stretch. While he was out on bail, though, he was delivered his just deserts by the yellow fever.
The fight against the government was carried not by the States of Washington and Minnesota (they didn’t exist back then) but by Virginia and Kentucky. They sought to nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts by passing the resolutions saying, in effect, that the laws just wouldn’t apply in Virginia and Kentucky. In Virginia, Madison advanced the idea that states could interpose themselves between the federal government and the people. In respect of Kentucky, Jefferson flirted with secession (which bordered on treason).
Why, one might ask, were not the Alien and Sedition Acts put paid by the Supreme Court? Back then it was the opponents of federal law who thought they’d lose at the Supreme Court, which hadn’t yet even established the Court’s authority to negate unconstitutional laws and, anyhow, was packed with Federalist judges. Today, of course, what President Trump loses sleep over is the prospect that a divided Supreme Court might fail to muster the backbone to overrule the joeys of the 9th United States Circuit.
The Alien and Sedition crisis was defused by the election of 1800, in which Vice President Jefferson trounced Adams and after which some of the laws were repealed and some left to lie fallow. The Alien Enemies Acts stayed on the books in various forms up through World War II (FDR relied on them in World War II). And as recently as 2015, Candidate Donald Trump and his allies were citing the precedents. Adams’ biographer James Grant tells us that Jefferson didn’t get any relief from the press once he was president. Serves him, say we, right.