The Patriot Act of the 18th Century
Sat Jul 3, 2004 02:18
The Patriot Act of the 18th Century
RAISING CANE: A fight in Congress in 1798 over the Sedition Act.
How the Alien and Sedition Acts became the first act of government to limit the
populous' constitutional rights
By ISHMAEL REED
Posted Sunday, June 27, 2004
Nations sometimes lose their bearings when confronted by an enemy. In a state of
crisis or even panic, they implement measures that are later viewed as
regrettable. From 1798 to 1800, the French were considered terrorists, pirating
ships and making things uncomfortable for the fledgling American republic. The
Federalist Party led a backlash against the French, and Thomas Jefferson and his
Republican Party were seen as Francophiles. The XYZ Affair—a scandal centering
on the fact that some French officials demanded bribes from American
diplomats—brought relations between France and the U.S. to the breaking point.
The Federalist Administration of President John Adams considered such
solicitations to be grave insults. There were cultural differences as well. In
the view of Abigail Adams, Frenchwomen were risqué at best.
The reaction to the threat from France came in the form of the Alien and
Sedition Acts, which were championed by the Federalists, passed by Congress and
signed by Adams in 1798. The Alien Act required immigrants to reside in the U.S.
for 14 years instead of 5 to qualify for citizenship. The act also gave the
President the legal right to expel those the government considered "dangerous."
The Sedition Act punished "false, scandalous and malicious" writings against the
government with fines and imprisonment. Most of those arrested under the
Sedition Act were Republican editors, and instead of sending boatloads of aliens
back to France, it resulted in no one's deportation. In a foreshadowing of the
climate that inspired today's USA Patriot Act, at the turn of the century 200
years ago, it was common practice to question the patriotism of citizens,
immigrants and the political opposition.
Jefferson, who was Vice President at the time, drafted his position in secret
and wrote it into the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. James Madison, in
collaboration with Jefferson, subsequently authored the Virginia Resolutions. In
the second and fourth of the Kentucky Resolutions, Jefferson cited the 10th
Amendment, which gives the states powers not delegated to the government by the
Constitution, to declare the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional. Jefferson
feared that a strong central government might put an end to slavery. Jefferson's
fight against the Alien and Sedition Acts is often placed in the context of free
speech, but it had unintended consequences beyond that. The Kentucky Resolutions
were among the first to defend states' rights, and Jefferson had even threatened
secession. Similar ideas helped spark the Civil War.
After Jefferson defeated Adams and was elected President in 1800, the Alien and
Sedition Acts were allowed to expire. Adams, looking to distance himself from
the mess, blamed the whole idea on Alexander Hamilton—who by then had been
murdered by Aaron Burr.
The expiration of the acts did not end challenges to the First Amendment or the
tendency on the part of some Presidents to behave like monarchs, sometimes with
the cooperation of Congress. The Espionage Act of 1917 prohibited "false
statements" that might "impede military success." During World War II, FBI
Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to use sedition
charges to suppress black newspapers, claiming they undermined the war effort
with reports of racial dissension and demands for civil rights.
It took Chief Justice Earl Warren's Supreme Court on March 9, 1964, in The New
York Times Co. v. Sullivan, to finally declare unconstitutional the Sedition Act
of the Adams Administration. Though the act had expired under Jefferson's
Administration, the court's action buried that particular threat to free speech
once and for all—or so people hoped. Writing for the majority, Justice William
Brennan held that L.B. Sullivan, an Alabama official, had not been libeled in a
New York Times ad that had been paid for by civil rights proponents. Brennan
supported his arguments by citing Jefferson.
Reed, who writes frequently on dissent, is the author of Another Day at the
AlterNet: Get Ready for PATRIOT II
... 10, 2003, he sent around a draft of PATRIOT II; this time, called "The
Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003." The more than 100 new provisions,
Fake Terror on Congess followed by 'Patriot' Act II Vote
Collective Bellaciao, France - Jun 18, 2004
... Was the terror at the Reagan Memorial, just a week before this big 'Patriot'
Act II vote just a coincidence? They lied to start a war! ...
Main Page - 07/02/04
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