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
How An Earlier
"Patriot Act" Law Brought Down A President
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 hope.
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
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,
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 business.
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
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
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 face."
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
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
* 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 the Act.
* 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 campaign themes.
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 police state.
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.
Thom Hartmann (thom at thomhartmann.com)
is the author of over a dozen books, including "Unequal Protection: The
Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights" and
"The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight," and the host of a nationally
syndicated daily radio talk show. www.thomhartmann.com
This article is copyright by Thom Hartmann, but permission is granted for
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