In 1798, during the Quasi-war with France, Congress, with President John Adams' support, passed the Sedition Act. Outraged by attacks on her husband, Abigail Adams supported the act, which was opposed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, among others.
“Let us not establish a tyranny,” wrote an alarmed Alexander Hamilton to an ally in Congress. Indeed, the Sedition Act, an obvious violation of the First Amendment, made a permanent blot on the Adams presidency. Here is part of its text:
“If any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or publishing, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in its writing, printing, uttering, or publishing any false, scandalous, and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt and disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States or to stir up sedition within the United States…shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars and by imprisonment not exceeding two years” (italics added).
False, scandalous, malicious, defamatory, exciting hatred, stirring up sedition…Why, it’s like a run-of-the-mill report on Fox News!
When Jefferson became president, he too found the attacks on his presidency intolerable and prosecuted two Federalist journalists . One of them was defended in court by Alexander Hamilton, who won the case.
These days it’s hard not to sympathize with Abigail Adams. She was worried about the safety of her husband. A frightened Congress feared that the newly formed country would erupt into civil war. Inflammatory rhetoric, ad-hominem attacks, demagoguery … these are both tests of free speech and violations of its intent.
It’s ironic, although not surprising, that blowhards like Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck are spouting sedition these days. Even members of Congress, who should know better, are engaging in fear-mongering.
When one of their own was president, the Right had nothing but awe for the highest office in the land and the man who held it. Dissent, however thoughtful and earnest, seemed to them wildly unpatriotic. Ann Coulter wrote a “book” about liberal dissent and called it Treason. Who is treasonous now?
Right-wing rumors have it that Obama is not an American citizen, that he’s going to abolish the Second Amendment (or at least seize all guns) and that attempts to rescue American business from bankruptcy are really “socialism,” as is the plan to give America citizens what other wealthy, civilized countries have—a health care system that puts people before profits.
And as a result of this hysterical climate, armed lunatics, in a frenzy of paranoia, are attacking and killing law-abiding Americans. How long before there is an assassination attempt on a high public figure? How long until another Timothy McVeigh blows up a government building with a day care center?
McVeigh’s atrocity, like the atrocity of 9/11, killed people regardless of their political allegiances. Like army bureaucrats, like Émile Henry, the anarchist who in 1894 threw a bomb into a Paris nightclub, violent zealots consider the deaths of innocents “collateral damage.”
The Founders of this country set up our system of government so that demagoguery could be defused before it exploded. As students of Roman history, they worried about potential Caesars; as witnesses to the French Revolution, they worried about enraged mobs directed by icy zealots like Robespierre.
The average 18th-century Frenchman had serious grievances. The rich paid no taxes, so workers, peasants, and shopkeepers had to supply the luxuries and privileges of an extravagant monarchy and aristocracy. Compared to pre-revolutionary France, George III’s England was a paradise of individual liberties, legal rights, and parliamentary representation.
What’s driving our current hysteria? Nothing that you would find in that French revolutionary document, “The Rights of Man.” Instead, when a sobbing Glenn Beck says that he fears for his country, he means that he’s horrified that we have a black president. “They” are taking over.
Never mind that our president was reared by his white mother and grandparents, that his white ancestors also came to this country as humble immigrants, that he’s brilliant and eloquent, that he has studied and taught the Constitution, that the rest of the world admires him, and that our international reputation was greatly enhanced by his election.
The Limbaugh/Fox News rhetoric shows the Southern strategy operating on the national level. Hard-working, provincial white folks, those historically in competition with blacks for jobs, are being incited by wealthy tax-evaders into an orgy of racist fear, exacerbated by high unemployment and globalization. Although they didn’t object when wily Republicans strategically placed African-Americans in high offices, they’re terrified by President Obama.
When I was a child watching debates and conventions with my parents, there were creatures known as “moderate Republicans.” They seemed to have little in common with Goldwater or Nixon, who then represented the extreme right of the party.
Are there any statesmanlike conservatives out there who respect the rule of law and the offices of high elected officials, who fear assassination attempts and a lynch-mob mentality? If so, they urgently need to speak out. If they do not, they will be complicit in whatever violence this seditious rhetoric continues to inspire.
Ms. Hamilton has a Ph.D. in English from Berkeley. Her website: https://www.carolvanderveerhamilton.com.
Reprinted from the History Network News, where it first appeared.