John Adams

A mention of John Adams on Citizen Tom’s forum got me thinking a bit about history.

Adams was an interesting man. He was possessed of virtue as he saw it — but he was something of a monarchist, and said so more than once. He found it necessary to defend the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre, and did other things that spoke of great character, or a bit of residual loyalty, or both. Hard to say how it worked out in his mind, but the subject of liberty was tricky with Adams even as president.

He formulated, urged, championed and ultimately signed the Naturalization, Alien Enemies, Alien Friends, and Sedition acts (we lump these four together as the Alien and Sedition Acts), over the fierce opposition of republican Thomas Jefferson.

Republican? Yes, though his group ultimately gave rise to the Democrats instead, decades later. At the time, Jefferson’s nascent party were the Democratic-Republicans, but he thought of himself as simply a republican. He favored a republic of sovereign states, with a carefully constrained central federal authority.

Back to Adams

Adams’ argument for the Constitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts arose from his Monarchist leanings. Since sedition against the King was illegal under British Parliamentary law, and the US “inherited” this law (it did not, but this was his argument), then Adams was actually providing <i>more</i> liberty by defining sedition a bit more narrowly.

This, of course, led to all sorts of backlash, but Jefferson had to write resolutions anonymously to avoid being thrown in jail for criticizing Adams. Amusingly, government officials could not be criticized … except for Jefferson himself, which his enemy Adams had cut out of the Acts’ protection. Jefferson, writing anonymously with Madison in Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions against these acts, sadly threated secession from the not-even-teenaged Union.

Among the casualties of all of this: Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper-publishing grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache died in jail after being arrested for publishing articles criticizing the government. Jefferson freed others and refunded their fines when he took office in 1801.

Adams would not even attend Jefferson’s inauguration, and left town to avoid it. He was known as rather hot-headed:


Ratification Drama

All of the controversy over the Alien and Sedition Acts, and others, made Jefferson sadly regret not being in Virginia during the ratification process. During Virginia’s ratification arguments, Governor Randolf had originally opposed ratification of the Constitution as it sat. But then his fellow Virginian, George Washington, had a little chat with him, and he changed his mind. This caught others by surprise: George Mason referred to Randolf acidly as “young Arnold” after the most famous traitor of just a few years before, and the two nearly dueled over the switch.

Virginia, the ninth state, finally did cave in, but barely. The majority feared being left out of the union, which would have gone into effect the moment another state became number 9.

And right after the ratification, during the first Congress, all of the arguments about “original intent” and “spirit of the Framers” and “intent of the ratifiers” and “conditions of the time” were raised, despite the fact that many of the Founders, Framers and ratifiers were right there in the room and in the debates.

The Federalist and the Federation

It’s an interesting public relations coup that the papers against ratification are called the “Anti-Federalist Papers” in opposition to the (then anonymous) arguments of Hamilton, Madison and Jay called “The Federalist”: The two sides were on the one hand the federalists and monarchists (the latter including Adams and Hamilton, though Adams, like Jefferson, was overseas at the time) versus the republicans like Jefferson, Mason and Randolf at first.

Madison, writing as one of the Federalists, was an interesting mix. He strongly supported the Constitution, recognized the need for it, but also feared a potential power grab and later became Hamilton’s implacable opponent.

Jefferson, Mason, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams (John Adams’ republican cousin) and company didn’t think of themselves as “anti-Federalists” at all; they <i>wanted</i> a federation with more specific constraints upon it than Hamilton and company proposed and that existed in the completed Constitution being offered for ratification.

Events have shown that they were right. And in fact, that became evident within months after ratification.

Interestingly, the Federalist Papers had little effect on all of this; they were little published at the time outside of New York City. But the arguments of the federalists (they spelled it “foederalists”) and monarchists were known and represented in Virginia, and they ultimately carried the day. It has been a massively good thing, overall, but there were gaps that began to leak as soon as the Constitution put to sea.

Can those be fixed? It’s hard to say, especially since some on board are actively desiring to scuttle the country.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle