The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The thin-skinned president who made it illegal to criticize his office

John Adams, the second president of the United States. (Library of Congress)

The thin-skinned president of the United States was furious at his critics — like the congressman who wrote that the president was “swallowed up in a continual grasp for power, in an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and selfish avarice.”

The peeved president wasn’t Donald Trump. He was America’s second commander in chief, John Adams.

Though Adams was a Founding Father of the United States’ democracy, he couldn’t abide personal scorn. In July 1798, he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts that, among other things, made it illegal to “write, print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings” against the president and other executive branch officials.

While the laws no longer exist today, modern presidents have also called for stricter laws to suppress criticism of their office, as President Trump did this week in the wake of journalist Bob Woodward’s new White House tell-all and an anonymous opinion piece by a senior administration official in the New York Times. Trump called for a change in libel laws and also demanded the Times turn over the anonymous author “for National Security purposes.”

President Trump refuted parts of journalist Bob Woodward's book on Sept. 7, and applauded members of the Trump Administration for doing the same. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Isn’t it a shame that someone can write an article or book, totally make up stories and form a picture of a person that is literally the exact opposite of the fact, and get away with it without retribution or cost. Don’t know why Washington politicians don’t change libel laws?” Trump tweeted Wednesday.

Adams and his Federalist Party supporters in Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts under the guise of national security, supposedly to safeguard the nation at a time of preparing for possible war with France. The “Alien” part of the law allowed the government to deport immigrants and made it harder for naturalized citizens to vote. But the law mainly was designed to mute backers of the opposition Democratic-Republican Party led by Thomas Jefferson, who also happened to be the vice president. Jefferson had finished second to Adams in the 1796 presidential election and again ran against him in 1800.

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An early target of the new law was Rep. Matthew Lyon,  who had accused Adams of “ridiculous pomp.” In the fall of 1798 the government accused the Vermont congressman of being “a malicious and seditious person, and of a depraved mind and a wicked and diabolical disposition.” He was convicted of sedition, fined $1,000 and sentenced to four months in prison. Lyon campaigned for reelection from jail and won in a landslide. On his release in February 1799, supporters greeted him with a parade and hailed him as “a martyr to the cause of liberty and the rights of man.”

Other Adams critics didn’t fare so well. One was Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin and editor of the Aurora newspaper in Philadelphia. Bache described the president in such terms as “old, querulous, bald, blind, crippled, toothless Adams.” First lady Abigail Adams urged her husband to do something to stop these “wicked and base, violent” attacks against him and his government.

In June 1798, just before the Alien and Sedition Acts officially became law, Bache was arrested under common law on charges of libeling the president “in a manner tending to excite sedition and opposition to the laws.” Bache and his pregnant wife received death threats, Bache was assaulted twice, and his home was vandalized by drunks. The editor died of yellow fever at age 29 before he could go to trial.

Another target was James Callender, a pro-Jefferson journalist for the Richmond Examiner  and the man who had exposed Federalist Alexander Hamilton’s extramarital affair. In 1800, Callender wrote an election campaign pamphlet that said of Adams: “As President he has never opened his lips, or lifted his pen, without threatening and scolding; the grand object of his administration has been to exasperate the rage of contending parties … and destroy every man who differs from his opinions.”

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Callander was convicted of sedition, fined $200 and sent to federal prison for nine months. He continued to write from his prison cell, calling Adams “a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor.”

The convictions of more than two dozen people stirred public protests. James Madison singled out the need to protect the press, which had played a vital role in defeating the British in the Revolution. “The press has exerted a freedom in canvassing the merits and measures of public men, of every description,” he said. “On this footing, the freedom of the press has stood; on this footing it yet stands.”

But Federalists defended the crackdown, claiming some of the criticism was designed to undermine Adams’s lawful election. After Thomas Cooper, editor of the Northumberland Gazette in Pennsylvania, wrote that Adams was a “power-mad despot,” he was convicted in 1800 for publishing “a false, scandalous and malicious attack on the character” of the president with the intent “to excite the hatred and contempt of the people of this country against the man of their choice!” After completing his six-month sentence, Cooper wrote that the lesson of his trial was that citizens should “hold their tongues and restrain their pens on the subject of politics.” Cooper, however, continued to speak out.

The government also came after critics of some members of the Adams administration, such as Treasury Secretary Hamilton. In 1799, Charles Holt, editor of the New London Bee in Connecticut, published an article accusing Hamilton of seeking to expand the U.S. military into a standing army. He also took personal jabs at Hamilton, asking, “Are our young officers and soldiers to learn virtue from General Hamilton? Or like their generals are they to be found in the bed of adultery?” The government promptly charged Holt with being a “wicked, malicious seditious and ill-disposed person — greatly disaffected” to the U.S. government. He was fined $200 and sent to jail for three months.

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The speech crackdown extended even to private remarks, as Luther Baldwin, the skipper of a garbage boat in Newark, discovered.

In July 1798, while passing through Newark on his way to his summer home in Massachusetts, Adams rode in his coach in a downtown parade complete with a 16-cannon salute. When Baldwin and his buddy Brown Clark heard the cannon shots while drinking heavily at a local tavern, Clark remarked, “There goes the president, and they are firing at his arse.” Baldwin responded that he didn’t care “if they fired thro’ his arse.” The tavern owner reported the conversation, and both drinkers were fined and jailed for sedition.

Jefferson made opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts a major part of his campaign in the 1800 presidential election, which he barely won despite the uproar over free speech. The Alien and Sedition Acts expired at the end of Adams’s term, and the new president pardoned everybody who had been convicted under the law. Later, most of the fines were refunded.

Just one decade after adoption of the U.S. Constitution, the United States had survived its first constitutional crisis. At stake, Jefferson said in his 1801 inauguration speech, was the right of citizens “to think freely and to speak and write what they think.” But there would continue to be many more challenges to these freedoms in the young democracy’s coming years.

Ronald G. Shafer is a freelance writer in Williamsburg, Va., and author of “The Carnival Campaign: How the Rollicking 1840 Campaign of ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler Too’ Changed Presidential Elections Forever.”

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