On July 4, our national day of remembrance of how we came to be Americans, the Constitution was celebrated as well as the Declaration of Independence. But the Constitution was not ratified by the individual states until the Bill of Rights the first 10 amendments were added. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, was a strong advocate of the Bill of Rights, and it is from the First Amendment that all our other liberties flow.
But Jefferson’s luster among the Founders is dimming as some historians agree with David McCullough and Pauline Maier, an expert on the Founding, that, as she wrote in a New York Times review of Mr. McCullough’s best-selling book, “John Adams,” “On virtually all points of comparison , Jefferson comes in second.”
Miss Maier omitted from her review, however, the fact that Jefferson saved the First Amendment after our second president, the very same John Adams, and the Federalist Congress, nearly extinguished freedom of speech and press. Only seven years after the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, was ratified, Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made the president — any president — and members of Congress immune from criticism by “We the People of the United States.”
Even Mr. McCullough wrote that the Alien and Sedition Acts “are rightfully judged by history as the most reprehensible acts of Adams’s presidency.”
The legislation punished, by imprisonment and fine, anyone who spoke, wrote or published anything that brought the president or Congress “into contempt or disrepute,” or might excite against them “the hatred of the good people of the United States,” thereby stirring up “sedition within the United States.”
Revolutionary War veterans and other individuals could be imprisoned under this law for up to two years and fined up to $2,000, a princely sum in those days.
Jefferson disrespected President Adams and Congress by calling the Alien and Sedition Acts an “unconstitutional reign of terror.” But historian Joseph Ellis tries to partially absolve John Adams by saying we should not impose “our modern notion of civil liberties or freedom of the press on an age that was still groping toward a more expansive version of First Amendment protections.”
Then how come Jefferson, James Madison and other Americans immediately saw the danger of this suppression of free speech and press?
The first victim of the act was Rep. Matthew Lyon of Vermont, who had fought in the Revolution. In a letter to the Vermont Journal, he had attacked the Adams administration for its “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and selfish avarice.”
Paraded under guard through the town of Vergennes, Vt., Lyon was marched into a 12-foot-by-16 foot cell. So much for the Declaration of Independence.
On hearing the news, Jefferson said, “I know not which mortifies me most, that I should fear to write what I think or that my country bear such a state of things.”
Also imprisoned were the editors of four of the five most important opposition newspapers. In Dedham, Mass., a number of non-journalists had set up a Liberty Pole with the sign: “No Stamp Act, No Sedition, No Alien Bills, No Land Tax. Downfall to the Tyrants of America.”
One of those Dedham lawbreakers a common laborer and a veteran of the Revolutionary Army was convicted of creating a “rallying point of insurrection and civil war.” He was jailed for two years.
The U.S. Supreme Court did not strike down the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 until 1964 (New York Times vs. Sullivan). Justice William Brennan wrote then, “The attack on its validity has carried the day in the court of history.”
Jefferson did not wait. On succeeding Adams as president, he pardoned and remitted the fines of the convicted and imprisoned Americans.
These days, when most American students all the way through graduate school have not been taught much American history, except in its multicultural requirements, the lesson of the Alien and Sedition Acts is a reminder that our liberties are not set in stone. And on this crucial point of comparison with John Adams, Mr. Jefferson comes out way ahead.
Nat Hentoff’s column for The Washington Times appears on Mondays.