Brought Down A President
by Thom Hartmann
June 17, 2003
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 Adams."
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, she demanded.
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 by Jefferson.)
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 United States."
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 Executive."
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 Now.
* 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 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. He is 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 reprint in print, email, blog, or web media so long as this credit is attached.