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Alien and Sedition Acts


In 1798, President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a series of laws that allowed the executive branch (the president) to deport foreigners and made it more difficult for immigrants to vote. But these objectives were not the acts’ most extreme impacts. What follows is a brief background and a bit of a history lesson. Of course, no post is complete without a moral!

At the time of the Acts, the French Revolution was in its tenth year and it had exported its revolutionary zeal in a series of wars across Europe, including Britain. As a result of the Jay Treaty between the US and Great Britain (the formal resolution to various land disputes stemming from the American Revolution), the French began to see the United States as a foreign threat and in 1796 issued an order that allowed the French Navy to seize American merchant ships in the Atlantic.

President Adams, a Federalist and advocate of a strong central government with strong executive powers, dispatched a three-man diplomatic envoy to negotiate with the French to hopefully normalize relations. As a result of some very poor political actors, slow communication, and ego, there was a period of time in which the Federalist Congress and Federalist President prepared for war with France. In fact, history labels this period as “The XYZ Affair and the Quasi War with France.”

The Democratic- Republicans (led by Thomas Jefferson) demanded release of the diplomatic cables coming back from the French envoy as they did not trust the President given his zeal for war and thirst for strong executive powers. You see, at that time the question of a strong central government was still very much in question. The French question and the potential international crisis made the atmosphere even more tense.

The debate over the French threat was heated and in fact, incredibly polarizing. No – we did not have Twitter and other forms of social media – but the two sides were deeply entrenched. Combined with the general level of unease over the executive power of the federal government and we find one of the most interesting and unfortunately, lesser known periods in American history.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were presented as necessary during the US – French international crisis. Immigrants were seen as potential spies and emissaries for the enemy. However, the Sedition Acts were perhaps the scariest part of the package. Congress passed and the President signed laws that made it illegal to protest the federal government. Additionally, these laws made it a crime to write, print, publish or say anything “false,” malicious or scandalous against the government.

People went to jail over these laws, including lawmakers. And that was really the intent. The Federalists wanted to silence the opposition. What better way to shut down dissidents? Throw them in jail.

You might be thinking, “where the hell were the courts?” Well, I will tell you. It was not until 1803 when SCOTUS ruled in the now famous case of Marbury vs. Madison and established the principal of “judicial review.” I will spare you the details of the case, because they are inconsequential (at least to this post). The crux of the ruling, written by Chief Justice Marshall was this: Congressional Acts that violate the Constitution are not law, not binding and are unconstitutional. Same with executive orders.

Thomas Jefferson and a Democratic – Republican Congress eventually repealed the Sedition Acts (Adams had never signed a deportation order and many immigrants had left the United States during the debate leading to their passage). Jefferson pardoned anyone in jail and Congress repaid fines that had been levied by the previous administration. But the fact that this actually happened, so soon after independence is truly astonishing.

As I said, this period in history is one of the most important in our founding and most of us, me included, know surprisingly little about what happened. But I think the lessons are telling – especially given our current events.

We will now proceed with a scathing indictment of the current administration’s war on the media and on dissent. Read with caution.

I have said on numerous occasions that in the last 10 years I have become more and more progressive. Interestingly, I do not think my views and positions on key issues have changed that much; instead I think that the other side has moved farther and farther to the right. But that said, a huge reason for that leftward movement has been this ridiculous and crazy “assault on the liberal media.”

What started as a Roger Aisles experiment and perhaps over compensation for internal personal deficiencies (these would include small hands and small feet =)) or low self esteem, has morphed into a full throated attack on what most Americans call “the media.” I am not going to debate whether network news is left or right because frankly, anyone that watches ABC, NBC and CBS knows that journalists sway both ways. Some reports lean left and some lean right. And perhaps most important – no one can be swayed one way or the other in a 30 minute nightly newscast (unless the anchor is Walter Cronkite. He was the king).

The Fox News experiment was a result of CNN’s 24-hour news format. At some point during the 90s, CNN became “the Clinton News Network.” Now I will be honest – I did not watch CNN much in the 90s and cannot comment on it’s “Clinton-ness.” What I DO remember was 24 hour coverage on the Monica Lewinsky scandal and trust me – none of it was kind.

But in order to be profitable, Aisles had to create a demand; and in a capitalist economy – there is nothing wrong with promoting a product and creating demand. News is a commodity – just like an iPhone, Wii and flavored water. If you want to make money – you have to create a demand for your product (if it does not exist naturally).

The PROBLEM was (and is…) that in creating a demand for a CNN alternative, Aisles had to perpetuate this “liberal media bias.” Now I am not suggesting that it did not exist – I am suggesting that that “elite liberal media bias” was not nearly as widespread, entrenched and destructive as Fox News and Roger Aisles would have led viewers to believe.

Has anyone listened to Bill O’Reilly? The contempt that emanates from his tone and words against “liberals and the liberal media establishment” is destructive and divisive. Sean Hannity is worse. To listen to these guys, you would think that they absolutely despise liberals and fear our destructive tendencies. But Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart are apparently good friends. They’ve done each other’s shows.

If the self induced divisions were not bad enough, once demand was created Aisles could not control the supply. Conservative media moved farther and farther to the right by creating conspiracy theories and increased suspicion of government and institutions – including the media. So now we have news outlets like “Breitbart” and “Info Wars” – which are not news outlets in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, they are government conspiracy magnets that peddle in anti-government, anti-liberal, anti-world conspiracy theory that too many Americans now consume as legitimate news. Some of this stuff Fox Mulder would call crazy.

All of this would just be interesting fodder for the history books if it were not impacting the rule of law. But now we have a presidential administration (complete with press secretary) who is attempting to demonize and marginalize the independent media. Let me say that again: the President of the United States wants Americans to believe that everything they read, specifically that which is critical of the Administration – is simply a lie or “fake news.”

Did anyone view Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal of Sean Spicer frightening as hell? Oh sure – it was funny. But also frightening.

We cannot have a large portion of the electorate believing that the only “true” news is what they read on or watch on Info Wars. That hatred of authority and contempt for government, civil society, institutions and academia will lead to social upheaval and perhaps even revolution. Let me say that a different way: when large portions of the population stop believing in the legitimacy of the government, bad things happen. It can happen here as easily as it can happen in the developing world.

Moreover, if we lose respect for the judiciary as the ultimate arbiter of justice and a check on majority and minority interests, where does that leave us? Imagine what would have happened if after the Marbury decision, President Jefferson said, “Nope – no court is going to tell me or Congress what to do,” called in the army and ordered every justice murdered or thrown in jail? I’ll tell you what would have happened. It would have been a huge ass mess. America would not be the country it is today. It would have dissolved into sectional crisis and by now, would be part of the United Kingdom, France and Spain.

President Trump’s audacious contempt for the judiciary is not just a concern. It is truly horrifying. I do not use that adjective lightly. His “tweet” about the “so-called” judge who stayed his Muslim and travel ban, followed by rich condescension and questioning of the judge’s patriotism screams contempt of civil and accepted norms.

This has to stop. And to stop it – we have to tell the president and our elected leaders that this nonsense is no longer acceptable. Stop reading Breitbart. Stop watching Info Wars. Force Alex Jones to get a real job.

I wish I had the answer because I do not know how we reverse course. What I do know is that facts trump conspiracy. Trust trumps suspicion. And sanity trumps crazy.

This nonsense must stop because the conspiratorial trend – the belief that government is “out to get me” and the “us” vs. “them” mentality is killing us. It’s insane, it’s destructive and it’s just flat out wrong.

Amy from the Facebook Archives

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