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August 8, 2004 - It's always the French, isn't it? The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

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William J. Watkins, Jr., is an attorney practicing in Greenville, South Carolina, and we see, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, and the author of the recently released Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and their Legacy (Palgrave MacMillan, 2004).

In the August 2, 2004 issue of The Independent Institute he offers this.

The Revolution of 1800 and the USA PATRIOT Act

The argument is straightforward.  There are a whole lot of similarities between Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 – and he runs them down.  His main point seems to be that when people really found out what the Alien and Sedition Acts said, they voted in such a way as to make the go away.  Poof.  Gone.  He says we cannot do that with this new Patriot Act.  Both Bush and Kerry support it, just to greater and lesser degrees.  We don’t have that choice.  He doesn’t like that at all.

Be that as it may, his reminding us of certain details is pretty cool, like here on the 1798 direct parallels with the 2001 Patriot Act -


In the summer of 1798, the United States Congress passed and President John Adams signed similar legislation. At base, the Alien and Sedition Acts prohibited criticism of the federal government and gave President Adams the power to deport any alien he viewed as suspicious. Americans found guilty of sedition faced prison terms of up to five years and hefty fines. In certain circumstances, aliens remaining in the United States could be imprisoned “so long as, in the opinion of the President, the public safety may require.”


Yeah, yeah.  History is a cycle and we’ve come to the same place again.  History does repeat itself and so forth and so on.

But the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were bad - everyone knows that.  They were a threat to everything we stand for.  They made most of our basic freedoms - of speech, of assembly and of the press – just plain null and void.  A terrible idea.

Now?  Everything changed since 9/11 of course.  John Adams didn’t have to face Islamic radical fanatics with weapons of mass destruction, provided by a sly but brutal madman and his two awful sons in Iraq, and a madman who was sitting on the second largest reserve of oil in the world – a critical resource the importance of which John Adams couldn’t even begin to understand.  Different times, now.  We have to do this.

Watkins also points out that the Bush administration unsuccessfully argued to the Supreme Court that it could detain American citizens and foreign nationals on US soil indefinitely and without access to legal counsel – “all when the writ of habeas corpus has not even been suspended.”  And he notes that even John Adams only claimed such a power over aliens, not citizens.

Different times, now.  We have to do this.

But what was it John Adams and his crew so afraid of back then? The French of course -


… In the 1790s, a number of Americans feared the democratic excesses of the French Revolution would be exported to the United States. They believed that French agents were plotting the destruction of the Constitution and the overthrow of the Adams administration. Rumors abounded in Philadelphia that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison planned to assist a French invasion force that was sailing across the Atlantic. Some expected a guillotine would be set up to deal with patriotic Americans. In this environment, Adams and the Federalists pushed for legislation that would secure the home front in the face of invasion and that would also, they hoped, secure Federalist political hegemony.


Why are the French always the bad guys?  Must be the cheese or something.

Well, now the French are only secondary bad guys.  And Churchill and his British buddies hadn’t invented Iraq yet, hadn’t carved it out of the rotting Ottoman Empire and found Hashemite tools to become fake, then real kings, then be overthrown by ambitious generals and wild-eyed clerics.  That wouldn’t come for more than a hundred years.  The French had to suffice for Adams and the Federalists.

Watkins notes that “fearing revolutionary France,” most Americans at first supported the Alien and Sedition Acts.  At first, but Jefferson became a pain in the ass.  He spoke up. And James Madison joined him.


In Thomas Jefferson’s words, the people were “made for a moment to be willing instruments in forging chains for themselves.”

… To combat the Acts, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. In these Resolutions, Madison and Jefferson accused Congress of exceeding its powers and declared the Alien and Sedition Acts void. Times were so tense that Madison and Jefferson hid their authorship because they feared prosecutions under the dreaded Sedition Act. The Acts were seen as such a danger to liberty that there was also some discussion of resisting the measures by force and secession.


Folks got up a head of steam.  We got the “Revolution of 1800."  Jefferson’s guys - the Republicans (ha!) won a wide majority in the House of Representatives. Jefferson was elected to the presidency.  And what did he do?  He suspended all pending prosecutions under the Sedition Act and pardoned those previously convicted of being uppity and critical of those in power.

But this was done by voting for a new crew.

Watkins notes that Jefferson would later boast how this revolution was brought about not by the sword, “but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people.”

This is unlikely to happen now.  Kerry did vote in favor of the Patriot Act and, in fact, he authored some of its provisions.  Watkins listened to the very same Kerry speech from Boston we all heard - keep the powers in place and trust Kerry with these powers that Kerry admits have been abused.  The problem is Ashcroft.  And Bush.  Not the Patriot Act.

Watkins concludes the problem is this very legislation, that Kerry has it wrong, and we’re screwed -


The ballot box is a powerful weapon in the people’s hands when they have real choices. With the franchise the people can defend their liberties and reform the government. To paraphrase Jefferson, they can effect a bloodless revolution. However, when both parties offer the people candidates with indistinguishable views on issues relating to fundamental liberties, the franchise is an impotent weapon. And if democracy so falters, the people are left with few attractive options in defense of their freedoms.



1. A revolution – an actual one – and one that doesn’t have anything to do with ballots and voting. This would be to restore democracy, or establish one if you will. That’s not going to happen. There are a whole lot of folks who like things just as they are, for good reason, and don’t mind the Patriot Act or anything like it. That’s probably most folks. The freedoms they lose are not something they miss. Who cares? Those freedoms don’t pay the bills or get you a good life-partner or help you lose weight or any of that day-to-day stuff. Join the revolution? Why?

2. Leave. Find a place where people care about such things. France? Mon dieu ! l'Horreur ! Ne pensez pas de telles pensées !




A footnote on Jefferson’s guys - the Republicans (ha!)…


Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta adds …


… it's an irony of American history that Thomas Jefferson, the man who founded what early on was known as the "Republican" party but is now the "Democratic" party, spent all his life hating the word "democrat," which was not applied to his party until some time after he was away from public life.  (I forget when exactly, but I think the party adopted the name during the Jackson administration, which would have been the decade following Jefferson's death.)


Not that Jefferson didn't like the concept of "self-rule," which is our modern-day synonym for democracy - in fact, it was because the people would be ruling themselves that he fought for a free public education, up through college, in Virginia - it's just that he didn't use the word "democracy" to describe it.


I have no argument with what you say about the Alien and Sedition Acts, nor the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, but I fail to see what this has to do with Jefferson's "Republican" (later "Democratic") party.


What am I missing here?


Well, I told Rick that as I understood the business, Jefferson and Madison, facing the Federalists and their acts that, in essence, claimed the supremacy of the "federal entity" over the free speech, free press rights of individuals, persisted in using the name Republicans for their side in these matters - thinking, one assumes, that such Federalist ideas were counter to the idea of representative democracy (as in a republic) where folks could participate a bit more freely by electing folks who wouldn't tell everyone to just shut up and stop griping.  You guys believe in this big important government that needs to stomp on those who ask questions?  We believe in the "republic" kind of idea - where you don't do that - as that is how we all started out in 1776 or so.  Late eighteenth century political positioning by way of loaded labels?  Something like that.


The key is "as I understood the business."  As Dennis Miller says all the time (but doesn't seem to believe any longer) - "I could be wrong."


Rick replied –


Who am I to refute this? (I may be older than you, but I wasn't there either.)  But here's my take:


As I understand it, Jefferson at some point uttered something to the effect that if the only way he could get into heaven was to be a member of a political "faction" (their word for party, back then), he wouldn't go - and shortly after that, he founded one.  (Talk about flip-flopping politicians!)  Still, this apparently took place around 1792, when Washington was still president, which means it was before the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were signed into law by President Adams.


And true, since a faction back then was a somewhat formless, inside-government thing (there not being much of a popular vote to speak of in those days), the two groups were often referred to as the "Jeffersonian" faction and the "Hamiltonian" faction.  Then again, it was also sometimes referred to as a contest between the "Republicans" and the "Federalists," based on the belief that the Federalists were all closet monarchists and that you couldn't get any more anti-monarchy than being a member of the party named in honor of those Cromwellians that briefly ruled England without a king a century and a half before.  It's also worth remembering that the Republican Jefferson had been in France during the ratification fight but had been mostly skeptical of the Constitution being pushed by the so-called "Federalists" back then.


As for "Federalist ideas were counter to the idea of representative democracy (as in a republic) where folks could participate a bit more freely by electing folks who wouldn't tell everyone to just shut up and stop griping," both sides did tend to shy away from the word "democracy" back then, just as we avoid the word "liberal" today.  But the more striking difference between the groups was that Republicans believed in the primacy of agrarian states, as against a strong central government run mostly by financiers and banker-types.


Still, although the Republicans back then did believe in the principle of "self-rule," their idea of who qualified to be a "self" differed greatly from our more democratic ideas of today.  But it was a start.


(By the way, I was always taught in school that Jefferson's group was known as the "Democratic-Republicans," which I later learned was a concoction of some later historians who didn't want to confuse our tiny little minds with the fact that present-day Democrats were once known as Republicans.  In fact, there never was a national party called the "Democratic-Republicans," although some state - I forget which - did have one.)


I know most people find this stuff boring, but I love history, especially American history.  I think that knowing where and how all this got its start, but especially how the names evolved over the years, helps us understand that it may not be an accident after all that we have one group called the Democrats that believe in "democracy" (that is, rule by the "people") and another called the Republicans that believe in "republics" (that is, rule by only "eligible" voters).


Of course, that doesn't work across the board, since over the centuries, parties have not merely changed their names but also swapped some of what they stand for: The latter-day Federalist faction being the Republican party is now the defender of states' rights, while the party of Jefferson today being the Democrats, as the flip-flopping Jefferson himself came to believe in his later life, favor a strong central government.


Just so. 


But Jefferson being in Paris during the ratification fights over this new constitution, and while there grousing about how he did like much of the document, and being skeptical of this grand framework being pushed by the so-called "Federalists" while sipping bad coffee at the Procope?  That wasn’t in the Nick Nolte movie.


Well, anyone who has been to France is suspect, of course.  Like Jefferson and Franklin.  And the democratic excesses of the French Revolution (like that Reign of Terror business) must have seemed really scary in the 1790’s – as scary as the Islamic fanatics seem to us today.


We are, too, still arguing the same issues – ceding power to a large governmental entity, trading away chucks of our rights for safety from such terror.  The controlling legislation is much the same – the Alien and Sedition Acts and the Patriot Act.


We just don’t have a Jefferson at the moment.  Michael Moore?  Hardly.






Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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