Liberty’s First Crisis:Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech “tells the story of the 1798 Sedition Act, the crucial moment when high ideals met real-world politics and the country’s future hung in the balance. From a loudmouth in a bar to a firebrand politician to Benjamin Franklin’s own grandson, those victimized by the Sedition Act were as varied as the country’s citizenry. But Americans refused to let their freedoms be so easily dismissed: They penned fiery editorials, signed petitions, and raised “liberty poles,” while Vice President Thomas Jefferson and James Madison drew up the infamous Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, arguing that the Federalist government had gone one step too far.” – Grove Atlantic.
Charles Slack is the critically acclaimed author of a number of nonfiction books, including Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon and Noble Obsession: Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and the Race to Unlock the Greatest Industrial Secret of the Nineteenth Century. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and family. Charlesslackauthor.com.
Authors Share Excerpts on Free Speech:
Charles Slack and Liberty’s First Crisis
Excerpted from Liberty’s First Crisis, by Charles Slack. Copyright © 2015 by Charles Slack. Excerpted by permission of Grove Altantic. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Though he insisted until the end of his life that the Sedition Act and the Alien Acts were necessary “wartime measures,”
Adams blamed others for their execution and portrayed himself as a reluctant bystander. In 1809, eight years removed from office, a seventy- four-year-old Adams claimed that Alexander Hamilton came up with the idea in an unsolicited letter instructing the incoming president on how to conduct his affairs. The letter, which “had no influence with me,” was so presumptuous that Adams believed Hamilton must have been “in a delirium” when he wrote it.1 “Nor did I adopt his idea . . . ,” Adams continued. “I recommended no such thing in my speech. Congress, however, adopted both these measures. I knew there was need enough of both, and therefore I consented to them.”
Adams chroniclers have reinforced this image of the president as a reluctant bystander. Adams’s grandson, who edited a ten-volume collection of Adams’s papers in 1854, wrote that Hamilton and other “ultra members of the federal party” had deemed Adams to be “luke- warm, if not unfriendly” to the laws. “Yet the entire responsibility for the measures has been made to fall on him!” Charles Francis Adams lamented.
In the ages since, sympathetic biographers, while acknowledging Adams’s signing of the laws as a terrible decision, have downplayed his active involvement—and quickly moved on. The website for the Adams National Historic Park in Quincy, Massachusetts, succinctly captures what has become the standard defense: “Adams played no part in the formation of these acts nor did he take steps to enforce them, but he was held responsible for these unpopular measures in the public mind.”
Yet the events of 1798 suggest that if John Adams suffered any angst or self-torment over whether to support the laws, he quickly recovered. On July 14, Adams signed the Sedition Act into law. His behavior in the ensuing years of his presidency, far from describ- ing reluctant or conflicted “consent” to the law, reveals a politically embattled leader who eagerly embraced the Sedition Act to silence his critics. True, Adams did not personally issue any arrest warrants, but his secretary of state, Timothy Pickering, would prove to be one of the most zealous enforcers.
Over the next two years Adams would enthusiastically support and conspire in at least one of the prosecutions, and refuse in another case to pardon a defenseless loner convicted in the worst sort of kangaroo court in Boston. In yet another case, he would attempt to reward with high federal office a New Jersey prosecu- tor who showed particular zeal in pursuing a private citizen for the crime of making a derogatory offhand remark about Adams on a public street. The list goes on. Even without these gestures, it has to be said: John Adams left his fingerprints all over the Sedition Act by letting it happen. Most of those convicted of sedition would be prosecuted for criticizing Adams. If the chief law enforcement officer of the land, a man sworn to uphold the Constitution, know- ingly allows officials to throw people in jail for criticizing him, does it even matter whether he took an “active role” in the prosecutions? For another politician, signing the Sedition Act might have amounted to a political mistake. Adams’s signature on this legislation rises to the level of tragedy because it represents a stark, personal betrayal of his deepest held beliefs, one of those moments when a great man under pressure contradicts his conscience.
Few if any of the Founders had been as consistently forceful as Adams on the subject of freedom and on the corrosive potential of concentrated power to destroy rights. Few understood as viscerally that the essence of liberty lay in protecting the rights of besieged individuals against groups, whether an overpowerful government body or a vengeful mob. In 1770, he risked his career and his repu- tation by defending eight British soldiers charged in the deaths of five citizens in the Boston Massacre. The public was in a hanging mood, and no other lawyer wanted the case. But Adams told the jury, “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclination, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”6 Six of the eight defendants were acquitted. In 1765, a thirty-year-old Adams published articles in the Boston Gazette extolling the “indisputable, inalienable, indefeasible divine right” of individuals to criticize their leaders. The series, compiled as A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, contains some of the founding generation’s most cogent, reasoned, and courageous arguments for freedom of the press—courageous because he tossed these words into the teeth of Boston’s controlling British authorities. “None of the means of information are more sacred, or have been cherished with more tenderness and care by the settlers of America, than the Press,” he wrote. Far from discouraging a free press, the government should encourage the free and unrestrained sharing of ideas. He added, “It should be easy and cheap and safe for any person to communicate his thoughts to the public.”
Adams’s praise for journalists eerily forecast the central conflicts of 1798. One passage, addressed to printers, reads like a fervent warning from a young, idealistic Adams reaching through time to his future self:
The stale, impudent insinuations of slander and sedition, with which the gormandizers of power have endeavored to discredit your paper, are so much the more to your honor; for the jaws of power are always opened to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.
In his private journals, a thirty-six-year-old Adams made clear that the greatest threat to free speech and other liberties came not from those who would abuse their freedoms, but from those in gov- ernment who might attempt to curtail them. “Ambition is one of the more ungovernable passions of the human heart. The love of power is insatiable and uncontrollable,” he wrote. He went on to say, “The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.”
How, then, does one reconcile the firebrand in his thirties with the crabbed, dyspeptic sixty-three-year-old president who now believed that it was not the people who needed protection from abuses by the government, but the other way around? Certainly, Adams had good reason for feeling besieged on all sides. He was caught in a pincer between hawkish Federalists such as Hamilton, Pickering, and Secretary of War James McHenry, who pressed for conflict with France and openly or discreetly accused Adams of softness; and staunch Republicans who loved France, hated England, and accused Adams at every turn of leading an imperial presidency bent on making war. As he walked this tightrope, an increasingly bitter Adams felt Benjamin Bache and other Republicans always jimmying the line, trying to get him to fall. They were not just making his life and his job difficult; they were directly impeding his ability to govern the country through a precarious time.
Never mind that this “wartime measure” lacked one crucial component: a war. The Sedition Act, Adams and others suggested, was an emergency procedure akin to martial law, a curfew imposed in extraordinary times to maintain order in the streets. But this is refuted by the overtly political nature of the law. Nowhere does the Sedition Act refer to any emergency. Nowhere does it suggest that the bill was necessary only to get the nation through a time of peril. True, the bill came with a time limit—but that was determined not by the nature of tensions with France, but by the dates during which Federalists were guaranteed to remain in office. These were, indeed, times of tension and fear, but the offenses the government identified in the Sedition Act were not the true crimes of espionage, or selling secrets to the enemy, or organizing armed insurrection; they were about making government officials look bad in the eyes of other Americans.
There were other factors that no doubt contributed to Adams’s decision. Among these was his wife, Abigail, whose opinions and advice he valued perhaps above all. Abigail was incensed by attacks in the press against her husband, and believed that a sedition bill was the only way to stop them. Bache, in particular, infuriated her. When the Aurora mocked the first couple as provincial rubes from Quincy, Abigail wrote in private letters that Bache’s beloved grandfather, with his “illegitimate ofspring,” was nothing to be proud of.10 The barrage of assaults on her husband made her fear for his physical safety. Other countries would not allow such outrages, she protested. To her, Republican editors were “vipers” who should be forced to “cease to hiss.” In the end, though, Abigail was a protective spouse. As historian Edith B. Gelles notes, Abigail didn’t sign the Sedition Act into law. “John did.”11
The questions linger: How could Adams and the Federalists so clearly and resoundingly repudiate the ideas they themselves had recently embraced as inviolable in the First Amendment? What sort of malevolence overtook these men? What special aberration made them so thoroughly disavow their principles?
Perhaps it is our surprise that is misplaced. Given the course of human history leading up to the Sedition Act, the most surprising thing might have been if they recognized the need for restraint. In justifying their actions, to the world and to themselves, they had only to look for their model at thousands of years of history. Freedom, as framed so ambitiously in the founding documents, had yet to be tried.