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John Adams:

"Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write!" So reads the promo on the "John Adams" poster advertising the HBO mini-series starting on Sunday.
Give me a break! A better slogan for Adams would be:
"Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write -- though nothing critical of the Government!"
Adams was a really interesting guy, and a giant figure in the early days of the Republic, fully deserving of all the public attention he is getting. But my guess is that the HBO Series (like the David McCullough book on which it is based) is not going to come to grips with the central fact of Adams' legacy: that the Sedition Act, passed by the Federalist Congress and signed by President Adams, would have destroyed the United States before it had a chance to become the United States. Lest we forget, the Sedition Act, simply stated, made it a federal crime to "write, print, utter, or publish," any "malicious writings against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President," or anything that would "bring them into disrepute." Violations were punishable by up to two years in prison. Look out, Jon Stewart! Dozens of U.S. newspaper editors and pamphleteers had been rounded up and tossed in jail under its terms.
It is simply impossible to imagine democratic government, or meaningful elections, where people are thrown in jail for criticizing the government, and it is therefore impossible to imagine the United States of the 19th and 20th centuries had the Sedition Act remained in place -- which, thanks only to Jefferson's election in 1800, it did not.

Anderson (mail):
Yeah, that's why I've never really cared for John Adams.

Had Russell Crowe been our second president, however, things surely would've been very different.

(I'm not a Jefferson fan, either, but his "reign of witches" quote has been some comfort to me these past few years.)
3.13.2008 11:05am
David Hecht (mail):

It is simply impossible to imagine democratic government, or meaningful elections, where people are thrown in jail for criticizing the government, and it is therefore impossible to imagine the United States of the 19th and 20th centuries had the Sedition Act remained in place -- which, thanks only to Jefferson's election in 1800, it did not.


Excuse me?!? Let's start with the essential: it wasn't "only...Jefferson's election" that avoided this parade of horribles--it was Adams' willingness to allow Jefferson to succeed him in office.

Next, if "...[i]t is simply impossible to imagine democratic government, or meaningful elections..." under these circumstances, then I guess it must simply be impossible to imagine modern France, where democratic government and free elections coexist quite peacefully with
laws almost identical to those of the Sedition Act. Indeed, pretty much every European country has some sort of law of this type, and none of them have any equivalent of the First Amendment.
3.13.2008 11:09am
Anonymouseducator (mail) (www):
I'm still waiting for Tracy Jordan's movie about Jefferson.
3.13.2008 11:14am
HipposGoBerserk (mail):
"the central fact of Adams' legacy: that the Sedition Act"

This is too harsh for one of the key players in the Revolution. Is the "key legacy" of Jackson's presidency his ignoring the Supreme Court and the Trail of Tears?

Balance and a complete understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of important people is important, but one oughtn't go too far the other way in reaction to some hagiogaphy.
3.13.2008 11:26am
Bretzky (mail):
Correct me if I'm wrong here, but I think you are being a little hard on Adams. There was a real discussion between the Federalists and Republicans at this time about the meaning of the First Amendment freedom of speech. Federalists claimed that it merely constitutionalized the English common law practice of allowing anything to be written or said but that you could be punished after the fact for having said or written something criminal under the law.

Republicans, on the other hand, claimed that the First Amendment protected speech both before and after it was made public. It was the Republican conception of the First Amendment that won out, and, to his credit, Adams acknowledged that the Republicans were right after he had time to think about it back in Massachusetts.

Also, don't forget that Jefferson's criticism of the Sedition Act was based upon his reading of the Tenth Amendment, not the First. If you read the Kentucky Resolves, which Jefferson wrote, you get the idea that he didn't have a problem with sedition acts per se, just with the federal government enacting one. Judging by Jefferson's history, he was as happy exercising governmental power to muffle his enemies as Adams was.
3.13.2008 11:29am
PLR:
As more evidence that things go in cycles, I can foresee the Patriot Act disappearing under the administration of the next President.*





_________________________________
*unless the next President is named McCain or Clinton, that is.
3.13.2008 11:35am
Allan (mail):
Today, I think the vast majority would agree that the Sedition Act was not a good idea. But it may not have been so in the 1790s. At that time, it was perfectly normal for a government to muzzle its citizens. And this country was just becoming used to having a different sort of government. As a nation, we were just coming to terms with what "freedom of speech" meant.

Consequently, I would not villify Adams so much. Rather, we should look to honor Jefferson for repealing the Act and praise Adams (as noted above) for even allowing Jefferson to become president, given that they were of different political parties.

Previously, you asked what would have happened if certain court cases had gone a different way. Well, what would have happened if Adams refused to cede power? The anti-federalists would have controlled Congress. Would they have tried to impeach Adams? Would the Army have supported Jefferson? Washington was dead, so he could not have helped. We might have lapsed into a France-like series of revolutions and counter-revolutions.

And what if the Sedition Act had not passed under Adams? Jefferson and his anti-federalists would never have been jailed and might never have felt the sting of speech repression. Perhaps the anti-federalists would have passed the Sedition Act themselves, and being on the upswing of power, never have relinquished control of the country.

All-in-all, the Sedition Act played an intrinsic role in determining the character of the country. I am not sure that castigating Adams for it is proper.
3.13.2008 11:40am
Randy R. (mail):
Yet he IS a Founding Father, and as such, his ideas should be given weight to any judge who is trying to interpret the constitution on original intent and such, no?
3.13.2008 11:49am
MarkField (mail):

Let's start with the essential: it wasn't "only...Jefferson's election" that avoided this parade of horribles--it was Adams' willingness to allow Jefferson to succeed him in office.


Sorry, but I don't think he gets credit for doing what law and justice both demanded. It's like giving a husband extra credit for not having an affair.


we should look to honor Jefferson for repealing the Act


Jefferson didn't repeal it (not that he could have, anyway). The Act expired on its own terms the day before he was inaugurated. This was actually one of the more pernicious features of the Act -- it assured that if the Federalists lost the election, the law couldn't be used against them, but if they won they could re-enact it.


Also, don't forget that Jefferson's criticism of the Sedition Act was based upon his reading of the Tenth Amendment, not the First.


Agreed. It was Madison who had the more insightful criticism of the Act as inconsistent with republican government.

But before we get too excited about the election of 1800, remember that there was an equally offensive Sedition Act during WWI. It took a long time to learn some lessons.
3.13.2008 12:14pm
Thales (mail) (www):
"Is the "key legacy" of Jackson's presidency his ignoring the Supreme Court and the Trail of Tears?" No, I think you'd have to add to his legacy his pre-presidential martial law declaration, habeas corpus suspension and occupation of New Orleans (after the war of 1812 was over), his bloody slaughter of other Indian tribes, his veto of the charter of the second Bank of the U.S., plus his refusal to obey federal law and put deposits therein. He did champion the abolition of property qualifications for voting though . . .

"Also, don't forget that Jefferson's criticism of the Sedition Act was based upon his reading of the Tenth Amendment, not the First. If you read the Kentucky Resolves, which Jefferson wrote, you get the idea that he didn't have a problem with sedition acts per se, just with the federal government enacting one. Judging by Jefferson's history, he was as happy exercising governmental power to muffle his enemies as Adams was."

Jefferson was certainly a hypocrite in many respects, but his public record on free speech issues is pretty clear. At the time of course, almost no one thought the First Amendment restrained the states. Jefferson championed the Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom and pressured his best friend Madison to advocate for a federal bill of rights to amend the Constitution (indeed convincing Madison, who thought the bill a mere "parchment barrier" to stand up and push for it anyway). It seems fairly clear, to read the balance of his writings, that he did indeed have a problem with sedition acts of any kind.
3.13.2008 12:22pm
Anderson (mail):
it was Adams' willingness to allow Jefferson to succeed him in office.

As opposed to what, pray tell? Crowning himself king?
3.13.2008 12:23pm
Adam J:
MarkField- "It took a long time to learn some lessons." But learn them we did, just look at the Patriot act, much more pleasant language then sedition. We aren't attacking sedition... we are defending patriotism.
3.13.2008 12:27pm
Thales (mail) (www):
"Yet he IS a Founding Father, and as such, his ideas should be given weight to any judge who is trying to interpret the constitution on original intent and such, no?"

I don't think Adams's views get any weight for determining the "original intent" of the constitution, as he was not at the Philadelphia Convention (he was in Britain at the time, negotiating the peace treaty ,among other things).
3.13.2008 12:28pm
DustyR (mail) (www):
[PLR 3.13.2008 10:35am]

Very true on the cycles aspect. While the Sedition portion is usually emphasized, the major impetus for the Act was to tamp down efforts to drag the US into war and to the side of France and/or go to war with Britain. It's urging was, in part, a response to the instigations and machinations of French and Irish Free Stater agents and those in league with them here. It's background was the developing argument between Federalist and Republican concepts.

I'm no expert on the the history of the time, but it seems to me that speech, and the words used therein, were taken much more seriously than it is now. During Adams' administration, we were drawn into an undeclared naval war with the French as a result of an ambassador's 'millions for defense but not one penny in tribute' answer to a French bribe.

I don't mean to suggest that Alien and Sedition Act was a good thing, but just that there is a constant tug in different directions as events occur and shouldn't be looked apart from those events or exclusively wrt to some other time.

The Act, deemed unconstitutional by many, was short lived and it was rebuffed on the state level, on which Jefferson led, and which IIRC, birthed the Doctrine of Nullification.
3.13.2008 12:34pm
MDJD2B (mail):

As opposed to what, pray tell? Crowning himself king?

There was little precedent for succession in a republic when (a) Washington stepped aside in favor of a political ally, and (b0 Adams stepped aside in favor of an opponent. In South America, presidents often did not allow opponents to succeed them. So both Washington and Adams deserve credit for stepping aside at the time. It was not a given.

And, BTW, Adams was one of the first of the founding fathers to call for independence.
3.13.2008 12:47pm
Adam J:
MDJD2B- "And, BTW, Adams was one of the first of the founding fathers to call for independence." Which, ironically enough, was sedition.
3.13.2008 12:58pm
Pub Editor:
Thales:

I don't think Adams's views get any weight for determining the "original intent" of the constitution, as he was not at the Philadelphia Convention (he was in Britain at the time, negotiating the peace treaty ,among other things).

Adams was one of the envoys who negotiated the peace treaty with GB in Paris in 1782-83. Later, when the Constitutional Convention was meeting in Philadelphia in 1787, Adams was in London as U.S. Minister (read: ambassador) to the British court. For the record: at the same time, Jefferson was minister/ambassador to France.

While neither Adams nor Jefferson was present at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, both had written extensively about what sort of government we should have, and their writings almost certainly influenced many of the framers who were at the convention.

As you pointed out, Jefferson pressured persuaded Madison to sponsor the Bill of Rights amendments. Adams, as President of the Senate, had a hand in them too, technically.

Jefferson's Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom was partial inspiration for the First Amendment, even though that amendment also protected the established churches of the New Engand states.

Also, we're talking about Adam's legacy, and no one has yet mentioned that Adams, at the 1783 Paris conference, was instrumental in ensuring that American fishermen could fish off the Great Banks!
3.13.2008 1:02pm
Monkberrymoon (mail):
Well, out of the current statutes in force, the Patriot Act does not criminalize statements that are critical of the government. The Campaign Finance act does.
3.13.2008 1:06pm
AnonLawStudent:

Yet he IS a Founding Father, and as such, his ideas should be given weight to any judge who is trying to interpret the constitution on original intent and such, no?


As another poster pointed out, Adams was an influential member of the political class. More importantly for an originalist, his opinions re: the First Amendment merely reflect Blackstone, which certainly IS relevant to original understanding. Try again.
3.13.2008 1:15pm
Thales (mail) (www):
"Adams was one of the envoys who negotiated the peace treaty with GB in Paris in 1782-83. Later, when the Constitutional Convention was meeting in Philadelphia in 1787, Adams was in London as U.S. Minister (read: ambassador) to the British court. For the record: at the same time, Jefferson was minister/ambassador to France.

While neither Adams nor Jefferson was present at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, both had written extensively about what sort of government we should have, and their writings almost certainly influenced many of the framers who were at the convention."

Thanks for correcting me on the history--I'd forgotten that the Paris Peace Treaty was finalized several years earlier (though I believe there were some other tensions with GB that Adams helped defuse when ambassador, which eventually helped lead to the Jay Treaty). It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had Adams and/or Jefferson been present at Philadelphia. Madison kept Jefferson as well informed of the goings on as was possible in the day. Adams's war with Hamilton might have occurred much earlier, especially after Hamilton's infamous speech sympathetic to monarchy. On the other hand, Adams would have been another ardent opponent of slavery at the Convention, which could have tipped the scales into it not being signed at all . . .
3.13.2008 1:17pm
donaldk:
Knowing how little I know about the topic, I appreciate this post more than I can tell. Thanks all.
3.13.2008 1:30pm
David Hecht (mail):

As opposed to what, pray tell? Crowning himself king?


Uh...is this a trick question? If the Alien and Sedition Acts were such threats to our liberties, do you really think that a less scrupulous person would have stopped at that? Or is the history of countless Central and Latin American "republics"--as well as, in the modern age, African ones--lost upon you?

BTW, this isn't even an argument that's original with me--I originally heard it from the late, great historian of the Federalist period (and biographer of John Adams), Stephen Kurtz, back in the 1970s. You could, as they say, look it up.
3.13.2008 1:52pm
Anderson (mail):
All this "precedent" talk ignores that there was indeed a Constitution which prescribed the means of succession.

So the faint praise of Adams does seem to be "he wasn't a tyrant." That keeps him out of the Seventh Circle of Hell, I freely grant.
3.13.2008 2:04pm
PLR:
Well, out of the current statutes in force, the Patriot Act does not criminalize statements that are critical of the government. The Campaign Finance act does.

That act applies with respect to candidates, not the government as such, and applies to both critical and favorable statements.
3.13.2008 2:15pm
Allan (mail):
Anderson,

The complaint about the Sedition Act is that Adams was a tyrant. That he gave up power proved he wasn't.

And passing the Sedition Act did not indicate that he was a tyrant, either.

To the contrary, Adams is has always been a hero of the United States. Sure, he tested the bounds of the Constitution, but he was doing what leaders in that time did - suppressing opposition. That does not make him a villian. Wrong, perhaps; but not a villian.
3.13.2008 2:20pm
Temp Guest (mail):
John Adams was Jefferson's primary collaborator and editor when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Adams almost single-handedly wrote the Massachusetts Constitution which was a primary model for the later US Constitution. He was a major contributor to the drafting of the Articles of Confederation and later the Constitution. He played a major part in writing the treaty (Paris?) that ended the Revolutionary War and obtained our country's official independence as well as the Northwest Territories and the settlement of a number of outstanding issues including national debts and repatriations.

You are extremely ignorant of US history if you claim his primary contribution to this history was the Alien and Sedition Acts. These were a product of the Federalist Party. I'm not even sure how clear a role Adams played in the drafting and passage of these Acts. It is clear that there would not today be an independent, democratic, constitutional republic called the United of America had John Adams not given so much of his life to creating it.
3.13.2008 2:25pm
MarkField (mail):

You are extremely ignorant of US history if you claim his primary contribution to this history was the Alien and Sedition Acts. These were a product of the Federalist Party. I'm not even sure how clear a role Adams played in the drafting and passage of these Acts.


I think a charitable reading of the post would be that the Sedition Act was an important part of Adams' legacy as president. That's a fair assertion, though certainly debatable. Your list of his other accomplishments overstates his role wrt the Constitution. As others have noted, he was in England at the time. While his prior writings may have had influence, he himself played no role in the Convention.

Adams himself strongly favored the Alien and Sedition Acts, so he gets his share of the blame.


though I believe there were some other tensions with GB that Adams helped defuse when ambassador, which eventually helped lead to the Jay Treaty


It's not your day. Those tensions came later, after Adams had returned to the US.


As another poster pointed out, Adams was an influential member of the political class. More importantly for an originalist, his opinions re: the First Amendment merely reflect Blackstone, which certainly IS relevant to original understanding.


Agreed.
3.13.2008 2:40pm
R:
He was also obnoxious and disliked.
3.13.2008 2:43pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Temp Guest, a few comments up: that's exactly correct. Word for word. Thanks for saving me some time.

R: You know that, sir.
3.13.2008 3:34pm
Monkberrymoon (mail):
The statements made by some of the Representatives who voted for CFR seem to belie the claim that its purpose was to protect the non-incumbent candidate. I seem to recall at least one who thought it "not fair" that he should be criticized in advance of an election.

At any rate, my point is that people seem to find in the Patriot Act a vessel for all that is evil in government, when CFR is actually a better, um, candidate.
3.13.2008 3:59pm
EIDE_Interface (mail):
Reading:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriot_act

I see nothing controversial except for the fact that if you hate Bush, it becomes an evil law. There's nothing there that allows for casual government surveillance of citizens. That's if you actually READ the act. Heck, even Democrats said they didn't read it. Read the Wiki article it confirms it.
3.13.2008 4:21pm
Adam J:
EIDE_Interface- obviously you are the one who hasn't read the act. The most notable example is that it allows the seizure of any tangible thing without probable cause by the FBI. I hate to tell you this, but reading the wikipedia article does not constitute reading the act. For that matter I doubt many people have really read the act... it's not particularly easy to comprehend since mostly it just modifies existing statutes. I'm not going to get in a big debate though, I was just making a (admittedly partisan) joke.
3.13.2008 4:40pm
EIDE_Interface (mail):
Adam - cite me the clause which allows seizure w/o probable cause.
3.13.2008 4:49pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Adams was certainly misguided, but I would cut him a break in that Free Speech (as it that which went beyond the common law notion of prior restraints) was a novel idea with America's First Amendment.

Adams himself could personally benefit from Free Speech/Free Exercise of religion. Adams was such a militant unitarian that he bitterly mocked and ridiculed the Trinity. He said things which would have gotten him executed in Calvin's Geneva. For instance,



"An incarnate God!!! An eternal, self-existent, omnipresent omniscient Author of this stupendous Universe, suffering on a Cross!!! My Soul starts with horror, at the Idea, and it has stupified the Christian World. It has been the Source of almost all of the Corruptions of Christianity."

-- John Adams to John Quincy Adams, March 28, 1816


And:


If I understand the Doctrine, it is, that if God the first second or third or all three together are united with or in a Man, the whole Animal becomes a God and his Mother is the Mother of God.

It grieves me: it shocks me to write in this stile upon a subject the most adorable that any finite Intelligence can contemplate or embrace: but if ever Mankind are to be superior to the Brutes, sacerdotal Impostures must be exposed.

-- John Adams to Francis van der Kemp, October 23, 1816.
3.13.2008 4:56pm
Adam J:
EIDE- the infamous section 215.
3.13.2008 5:53pm
bwan:
been a bit since i read about this, but wasn't jefferson's use of the press as his own personal libel machine part of the run up to the acts actually being passed?

we know as a fact that jefferson used the press to publish lies and half truths about adams to further his political agenda. amusing that he's so often seen as the hero of people's founding fathers fantasies.
3.13.2008 8:14pm
Michele Samuelson (mail) (www):
I think the more important part of Adams' legacy was his role in the Revolution. TJ wasn't such a hot president either, and Madison's would have been a complete disaster without his wife. The three of them had their heydays much earlier. I'm fascinated by Adams because I think he faced the exact same sorts of problems that we do today, and handled them badly - which needed to happen before we could learn a lesson as a nation. Give him a break. The gov't and Constitution were hardly tested under Washington. Adams was not perfect, and not a single one of them were - there are a lot of lessons in those presidencies that we should pay heed to.
3.13.2008 9:28pm
John Adams (dec'd) (mail):
People, please! If you were being referred to as "His Rotundity", you would have supported the A&S Act as well.

Yes, one of my failings was being thin skinned &vain. So sue me. (Perhaps I shouldn't post that on a blog frequented by lawyers?)
3.14.2008 12:57am
Perseus (mail):
As opposed to what, pray tell? Crowning himself king?

As opposed to supporting Hamilton's scheme of having NY's presidential electors chosen by district rather than by the state legislature (which would have resulted in the re-election of Adams).

As for that "atheist in religion" and "fanatic in politics," he was not exactly a principled defender of the sort of free press that people are accustomed to today: "The federalists having failed in destroying freedom of the press by their gag-law, seem to have attacked it in an opposite direction; that is, by pushing its licentiousness and its lying to such a degree of prostitution as to deprive it of all credit. . . . This is a dangerous state of things, and the press ought to be restored to its credibility if possible. The restraints provided by the laws of the States are sufficient for this if applied. And I have, therefore, long thought that a few prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the presses. Not a general prosecution, for that would look like persecution; but a selected one." (Letter to Thomas McKean, 2/19/1803)
3.14.2008 3:30am
Jeffrey Hall (www):
Pub Editor: Also, we're talking about Adam's legacy, and no one has yet mentioned that Adams, at the 1783 Paris conference, was instrumental in ensuring that American fishermen could fish off the Great Banks!

Yeah, and we frittered away those fishing writes by letting those commies on the World Court adjudicate the boundary
3.14.2008 4:03am
in articulo mortis (www):
Strange isn't it Jefferson who in a private letter bemoans the adoption of the Freedom of Press after finding out how the Press actually operates?

Lets not forget that Adams never signed the deportation list of aliens either.

Adams legacy is far more than just two laws that were passed by Congress, because if we are going to pass our judgments on the laws then a lot of our Presidents were evil men undeserving of attention. The facts still stand that Adams was the single most prolific writer on the topic of politics out of ANY AMERICAN IN HISTORY. His volume of work, minus his enormous corpus of letters filled 8 volumes when his grandson Charles Francis Adams published the Complete Works of John Adams in 1860. Adams was the founder of American Conservatism and our own Federal government has a lasting stamp from Adams' political thought. After meeting French philosophes during the peace conferences after the Revolution, Adams came up with the idea of a bicameral system. Adams' legacy as been smeared by those who wanted to trample on America's greatest thinker.

Lets remember also that Jefferson did something unconstitutional when he authorized the purchase of Louisiana from the French. I some how doubt we are going around smearing the name of Jefferson for this though.

Adams' presidency should be revered for what it produced. He averted a war with the French and the British. He established a Post Washington Presidency, which a lesser man would have failed at. Adams was called upon to succeed a man who could do no wrong in the eyes of his country. Did he make mistakes? Certainly. But lets remember that while he made mistakes he also appointed to the Supreme Court the greatest Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall. It is about time that America take notice of the Second President of the United States.
3.14.2008 4:37am
Can't find a good name:
The Sedition Act, by its own terms, expired on March 3, 1801, the day before Adams' term was scheduled to expire. Even if he had been re-elected, he would have had to get Congress to extend the Act if he wanted it to stay in effect.
3.14.2008 4:53am
Monkberrymoon (mail):
Adam, I think that's a little misleading. You seem to imply that the things section 215 deals with (items held by third parties, iirc) would have required a probable cause standard before the Act. That's just not true, as most of that stuff would have been obtainable with just a subpoena.

You may not like Sec 215 as a matter of policy, but that doesn't mean it violates the Fourth Amendment.
3.14.2008 12:51pm
Joe Bingham (mail):
Maybe I'm just ignorant about this, but people in this thread (PLR, Adam J, etc) keep referring to the Patriot Act as a modern A&S. Does the Patriot Act in any way restrict political speech?
3.16.2008 3:02pm