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"Reign of Witches": The Un-American Days of 1798

Updated: Jul 1, 2019

Anyone who watches American football won’t be surprised to hear that Philadelphia has always been plagued by mobs and riots. Take for example the mob of Philadelphia men marching onto the executive mansion one evening in May 1798. These men were not Eagle’s fans but they were arguably as angry and as destructive. What made them even more dangerous was that they were only blocks from the President of the United States John Adams. The executive mansion of the infant republic had not yet been built in 1798 and the current commander-in-chief resided in a three-story mansion on the south side of Market Street in Philadelphia, the same city he had fought for Independence just twenty-two years earlier. Now as a mob marched on his house, President Adams possibly felt more vulnerable now than he did then. “I myself judged it prudent and necessary to order Chests of Arms from the War Office to be brought through bye Lanes and back Doors: determined to defend my House at the Expence of my Life,” he later wrote. Torch carrying mobs were an unfortunate reality for this President.

The former presidential mansion in Philadelphia

The French government had recently denied American diplomats looking to negotiate an end to the unwarranted attacks on American merchants. France demanded tributes and bribes in order to receive the dignitaries and the two republics were engaged in a Quasi War. This sparked outrage amongst Americans inside and outside the capital leading to street brawls and targeted political attacks on the homes of politicians, journalists and printers. That evening the president stepped outside of his house to see a crowd of one thousand angry men.[1] What the crowd saw was plain, short, fat John Adams in full military regalia with a sword at his hip. “Nothing of the kind could be more welcoming to me than this address from the ingenuous youth of Philadelphia, in their virtuous anxiety to preserve the honor and independence of their country,” he exclaimed to the crowd. The intention of the mob had not been clear until they arrived at the President’s front door and so he had prepared some remarks:

America and the world will look to our youth as one of our firmest bulwarks. The generous claim which you now present, of sharing in the difficulty, danger, and glory of our defence, is to me and to your country a sure and pleasing pledge, that your birth–rights will never be ignobly bartered or surrendered; but that you will in your turn transmit to future generations the fair inheritance obtained by the unconquerable spirit of your fathers.[2]

The crowd listened patiently and Adams was now aware that the mob was not there for him but rather to support him. They wanted him to know they were here to protect the republic and all it represented if need be. The president graciously accepted. After his short speech (and a possibly a few cheers from the crowd in favor of “Millions for defense, not a cent for tribute!”) the mob dispersed.[3] There would be no violence that night, or at least that evening. After dinner the mob found a target in which they could demonstrate their patriotic disposition, a member of the free press: local newspaper editor Benjamin Franklin Bache of the Aurora.

There was a time in American history before the Fourteenth Amendment, before there were nine Supreme Court justices and before the establishment of Judicial Review. Immigrants were unjustly deported, journalists arrested and the American media was silenced. This was the chaotic and despotic summer of 1798, when the tyranny of ignorance reigned over the young and precarious American Republic. Having just recently won a hard fought war for Independence, the American colonies now states, quarreled amongst themselves over everything from federal jurisdiction to the title of the executive office. Fear and anger over anything French had gripped the country. The Alien and Sedition Acts were meant to bring law and order to the chaos that was the American democratic experiment. Instead the United States witnessed its own reign of terror. Had not been for the virtue of President Adams’ character, history most likely would have followed a darker path. The Alien and Sedition Acts would test the nation’s Constitution and through a rough deliverance, help develop core American principles such as freedom of the press, the importance of due process and the necessity of judicial review. In total there were four Alien and Sedition Acts. The Naturalization Act was the first, which effectively made it harder to become a citizen. The Alien Enemies Act came right afterwards. This bill allows the president of the United States to deport any immigrants he deems dangerous in times of war. The Alien Friends Act allowed the president to do the same but without a formal declaration war and denied immigrants the same rights guaranteed to Americans. And finally the infamous Sedition Act which made it illegal to criticize the government.

Adams’ supposed endorsement of the mob outside his house was rather uncharacteristic that night in May of 1798. He had always been an ardent critic of mobs or “the tyranny of the majority” as he wrote in 1788.[4] Having lived in both Boston and the greater Boston area, the Adams’ would have been exposed to all the violence and terror mobs were wont to bring during the early period of the American Revolution. To Adams, the actions of a politically roused mob were no different from terrorism.[5] “I will give you a hint or two more, on the Subject of Terrorism,” he wrote to Jefferson in 1813. “From the Mouth of Charles Jarvis, ‘ We must go to Philadelphia and dragg John Adams from his chair.’ I thank God that Terror never Yet seized on my mind.” It would not be a stretch of the imagination to assume that Adams was acting out of his own self-preservation and subsequently the preservation of the nation that night the seventh of May in 1798. It is more likely that Adams was trying to appease the mob to momentarily pacify it, rather than support it. The military outfit he was wearing would have been more of a costume than a uniform. Although considering John Adams’ character, one thinks in that moment, he must have relished in the personal satisfaction of being able to both calm the mob himself and play the part of the soldier he had dreamed of being.

President John Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1800)

Adams had been a major player in the American Revolution since the very beginning. A native Massachusetts man, he successfully defended, in court, the British soldiers that had taken part in the Boston Massacre in 1770. He was a delegate to the first two Continental Congresses in 1774 and 1775 respectfully, where he was the strongest proponent of war with Britain and eventually independence. “In my opinion,” he wrote to a friend in 1775. “Powder and Artillery are the most efficacious, Sure, and infallibly conciliatory Measures We can adopt.”[6] Adams would unsurprisingly find himself on the committee of five that drafted the declaration in 1776 and would be the one to actually nominate George Washington to lead the Continental Congress. During the war Adams was on twenty-six congressional committees simultaneously, eight of which he was chairman of. Needless to say he was restless and undoubtedly ambitious. During his tenure at the Continental Congress Adams became notorious to many of his colleagues for his vanity, stubbornness, obnoxiousness, honesty, oratory and patriotism, among other qualities. However no one ever doubted his integrity. “He means well for his Country,” Benjamin Franklin would recollect. “[He] is always an honest Man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” Adams knew he was vain and at times unpopular, but that never kept him from doing what he felt was right no matter the political or personal cost. “Thanks be to God, that he gave me the stubbornness, to know when I am right,” he would later write.[7] In 1777, Adams was sent to France to accompany Benjamin Franklin in securing French military and financial aid. A job, as everybody was soon to find out, he was characteristically unsuited for. So Adams went to the Netherlands, to the Dutch Republic, a place a New England man would be more culturally appropriated to. While there, Adams took out a loan, establishing American debt. Eventually he would travel back to Paris with Thomas Jefferson, Henry Laurens, John Jay and Benjamin Franklin, to help negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Congress then appointed him American Ambassador to the court of St. James in Great Britain, an office in which he performed no miracles of diplomacy, perhaps for the better. Eventually after being away from home for almost more than ten years he wanted to return home to his country. Once he arrived back he was elected to the Vice Presidency, coming in second in the first electoral race of the United States (there was no popular vote until 1800). He served eight years in “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived” under Washington, and still holds the record for twenty-nine ties broken as the presiding figure in the Senate.[8] Once Washington had had enough, Adams stepped up; being elected president by a margin of three electoral votes and was sworn into office in early March of 1797. Or as Benjamin Bache’s Aurora would call him, “president by three votes.”[9]

A bomb had been dropped at the end of George Washington’s presidency, and he left John Adams to deal with the fallout. The Jay Treaty of 1794 smoothed out some issues with the Treaty of Paris and allowed the nation to peacefully trade with Great Britain. France considered this a violation of treaties signed previously between the very infantile United States in 1778 and King Louis XVI. However Louis’ head was off and as far as the Americans were concerned, so was the agreement. Obviously the new French Republican government did not take kindly to the American response and began attacking American merchant ships in 1796. The two countries were now engaging in an informal Quasi War. France was on its way to becoming an empire, and the United States was once again on the verge of war with perhaps the most powerful nation in the world. There is no doubt that Adams would be coming into office at a time of crisis. “I am fairly out and you fairly in,” whispered Washington to Adams after his inauguration. “See which of us will be the happiest.”[10]

Of course, to know John Adams would really only be to know half of the man. John’s wife Abigail was his closest confidant, his unofficial advisor and his dearest friend. “I can do nothing without you,” John wrote to her on becoming president.[11] She counseled the president on everything from renovations on their home in Quincy to foreign policy. In a time when women received no formal education, Abigail was well read, extremely intelligent, politically aware and as much of a man as any that existed in the 18th century. While John was away Abigail handled the family estate, raised their children and was ready to defend her home if need be. Any decision that John made, whether political or otherwise, passed through Abigail first. During Adams’ presidency, the United States was basically without an executive for seven months when John sped home to comfort a seriously ailing Abigail.[12] The relationship between John and Abigail was intimate and due to the preservation of their letters, now public. The two were so close that to understand any decision John Adams made, political or otherwise it is equally as important to understand Abigail’s thoughts on the matter. “When he is wounded,” she wrote in 1781. “I bleed.”[13]

Abigail Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1800)

President Adams often acted differently than when he was Vice President Adams, Ambassador Adams or even when he was “Sam Adams”, whom he was often mistaken for in France to his vexation.[14] This was especially clear when it came to the American press. Adams’ vanity, while usually misunderstood, left him very susceptible to criticism, which he rarely took well. However once he was elected, there was a grace period. Adams was already less popular than Washington and therefore it was not necessary to slander him to the level of his predecessor.[15] Adams was also seen as independent in his politics and high in his morals. Even Benjamin Bache’s Aurora had to admit that he was “a man of incorruptible integrity, and that the resources of his own mind are equal to the duties of his station.”[16] Bache went even further with his praise: “the Republicans are well satisfied with the election of Mr. Adams…he is a firm and upright patriot.”[17] It also helped that Adams’ Vice President would be one of the leading members of the Democratic-Republican Party, Thomas Jefferson. Strangely enough it was to be the Federalist Party that was to be dissatisfied with Adams. Adams, being aware of this wrote to Abigail that “all the Federalists seem to be afraid to approve any body but Washington…If the Federalists go to playing pranks, I will resign office, and let Jefferson lead them to peace.”[18] This honeymoon would not last long. Although President Adams initially was not criticized harshly, the press became hostile as the crisis with France festered, political tensions rose, fear of immigrants grew and the president’s popularity increased. As the president, he seemed to act with indifference towards the many slanderous accusations made against him. Many of these fabrications were inventions of his generally perceived political opposition. Others were at best half-truths or exaggerations.

During the 1790s, “Wild Irishmen,” Catholics, monarchists and radicals were battering down the door of the American Republic.[19] As the decade went on immigration became more of a problem and to many it seemed too much to handle. In 1791 slaves on the French colony of Saint Domingue (later Haiti) rose up against their French masters. Refugees from both sides of the conflict were finding themselves on America’s shores. Across the Atlantic an Irish rebellion in 1798 that was supported by revolutionary France, also brought a great number of refugees attempting to escape violence and persecution. Accompanying these Irish men and women were French compatriots, attempting to escape their own revolution that had so recently turned on them. These refugees, both black and white, carried terrifying stories of their insurrections. While many Americans felt sympathy for these refugees, they were suspicious of them.[20] Eventually they had to turn to Congress for aid. The Democratic-Republicans, which comprised of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison among other notables, were generally more welcome of immigrants. They proposed an easier path to citizenship and identified with all things French. Many immigrants, especially from France, were attracted to the Democratic-Republicans for this reason. However that is not to say they embraced all immigrants, just a certain kind. They feared that aristocrats from France, Haiti, Britain and Ireland would harbor monarchist sympathies; thoughts that were not welcome in the democratic, freethinking United States. Slaveholders, many of whom were Democratic-Republicans, also feared the Haitian insurrectionists, now taking asylum in the United States. The theory was these former rebels would plant the idea of freedom in the minds of their own American slaves. Despite these fears, many Republicans preferred to Americanize these new immigrants and attempt to integrate them into society. They believed that anyone could become an American and a good republican. The Federalist Party, that of Alexander Hamilton and others, worked under a much more narrow interpretation of naturalization. They feared radical French Jacobins and Irish Republicans. The theory was these foreign radicals would infiltrate the country and hijack the government. They believed that to be American one had to be born in America. The Federalists did put forward legislation in Congress that would require all immigrants to free their slaves. However Southern Republicans killed the Amendment with the fear of a slave revolt and under the battle cry of property.[21] Both parties feared one group or another depending on their politics. Essentially during this time these two parties were fighting over what it meant to be an American.

Edmond-Charles Genêt

The country’s fear of immigrants was not completely unfounded. A belief that belonged to the National Convention in France was that their revolution was universal. This was particularly frightening to many Americans, Federalists especially. After the terror that had taken place in France during the years of 1793-94, French ideas were not an intellectual practice Americans felt like importing. Many saw this almost as a threat to their country and their way of life.[22] One Frenchman that may have been an actual threat to the stability of the country was Edmond Genet, the French minister. In April of 1793, Genet began going around the country recruiting Americans to join the cause of the French Revolution. He urged Americans to begin privateering against British Merchants.[23] Genet was very popular in the United States when many Americans still supported the Revolution in France. Some Democratic-Republicans, including Jefferson, cozied up to the new minister.[24] This relationship would eventually come back to haunt them. “Every man who now ventures to disapprove of a single measure that is French is, according to modern language, an Aristocrat,” wrote Adams’ son Charles.[25] This only stoked the flames of Federalist fears. It also vindicated their concerns of French immigrants spreading radical ideas.

The newfound enmity the American people had for immigrants and the French in particular later in the 1790s was just part of the already blistering political conflict. Both of these parties were effective in their use of newspapers, however the Democratic-Republicans mastered the art of printed propaganda. Their philosophy called for an active electorate and newspapers were one of those outlets a discontented farmer could vent his anger. Since the American idea of government was new, people were confused on how it worked or how to express their opinions within it.[26]It would be the Republicans that would really tap into Americans desire to connect with their government officials. The Federalists would have preferred that one petition their representative. They believed the government spoke for the people and too much dissent could create distrust between the government and its people. This sort of participatory governance was perceived to be a threat to the current republican system, which being so recently created, was in such a fragile state.[27] There was also a general lack of understanding during this period in terms of how the country should function, what was law, what was enforceable and what was not. Just like how Americans did not really know how to express their political opinions appropriately and effectively, they also did not know how the government should work either. This was not due to any lack of knowledge. For instance after Washington issued his Neutrality Proclamation in 1793 there was confusion as to what that actually meant. In one case a group of sailors that had been in violation of the proclamation and were acquitted because the jury did not believe the proclamation was equal to law. Federalists later had to remedy the situation by passing a neutrality law in 1794.[28]

Between 1789 and 1796 the glue that was Washington held the country together. If not everyone agreed with Washington’s policies at the very least he was respected. All the mud slinging was directed at Hamilton instead. It was no secret that these two parties hated each other, even accusing each other of treason from time to time. It was clear that John Adams was not George Washington and as such lacked the same adhesive qualities. With Washington’s retirement, the hostility between the two parties became unhinged. “Men who have been intimate all their lives cross the street to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch their hats,” wrote Jefferson in 1797.[29] It even manifested itself physically when in early 1798 a Federalist Congressman from Connecticut, Roger Griswold assaulted Congressman Matthew Lyon, a Democratic-Republican from Vermont, with his cane on the House floor. The two men were eventually split up, however they simply continued once outside the halls of congress.[30] It is important to note that while John Adams is usually categorized as a federalist but he really was a man of no party. His disposition may well have been aligned with federalist ideology but he was no puppet and was not fond of Hamilton and his cronies. “He will not become the head of a party, and that he will not be the tool of any man or set of men,” printed the Aurora in 1797.[31] He had tried to reconcile his friendship with Jefferson early on however it seemed that politics had done its dirty work and irreparably damaged their friendship for the better part of the next two decades.[32] The president even tried to include Madison in his delegation to France but the representative and staunch Democratic-Republican declined. It seemed any effort of conciliation was hopeless.

Adams’ presidency kept what was left of Washington’s cabinet as well. However these advisors were to be more loyal to Hamilton and the federalists than to the president. He would receive little to no help from his cabinet. The only advisor Adams could truly trust was his wife Abigail. Mrs. Adams was no fan of the French or of the American press that ridiculed her husband at every turn. President Adams enjoyed the advice of former colleague George Washington from time to time, however Adams’ predecessor was enjoying his retirement, far from Philadelphia and free of any responsibility. Because of Adams’ principled nature and despite his wife’s council, he was hopelessly alone.

American political cartoon depicting the XYZ affair

As his revolutionary actions had already proven Adams was not a pacifist. However he had always been a dedicated man of peace. He did not want war with France and he attempted neutrality at all costs. Adams failed attempts of reconciliation at home had not stopped him from trying them abroad. In May 1797 the president asked Congress to build up the Navy to protect American merchants and to expand the army in case of invasion. At the same time he dispatched John Marshall (after Madison refused), Charles Pinckney (initially rejected minister to France) and Elbridge Gerry to France as a peace delegation.[33] National honor would be defended but peace would not be left off the table. Hamilton and his Federalists had cried for war but the president felt duty bound to try for peace. “Great is the guilt of unnecessary war,” Adams wrote a few years earlier.[34]Against his cabinet’s wishes, Adams did not recommend an alien law in his address to Congress such as the one passed in Britain three years prior.[35]It is important to note that Adams did not ask for a declaration of war and would not sign one if it came across his desk.

When the American delegates arrived in Paris they were kept waiting for several days before they met with the infamous French diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, or the “merde dans un bas de soie” as Napoleon would later call him.[36] Talleyrand believed the majority of Americans were sympathetic to the French cause and that the newly arrived delegation would simply roll over. However he was be wrong on both accounts.[37] The delegates were then visited secretly by three agents representing Talleyrand which would later be described in their dispatches as X, Y and Z. These agents demanded bribes for Talleyrand personally and an additional fee as compensation for President Adams supposed insults.[38] The Americans refused to negotiate on those terms and the peace talks fell through. In March of 1798 Adams would declare the mission a failure.[39] Knowing full well the sensitivity of the envoys mission, the president did not share the information given in the dispatches with the people or Congress. To do so would have only further spread panic and calls for war among the Federalists. Adams was still dedicated to peace. Democratic-Republicans were suspicious of the secrecy of the dispatches. They believed Adams, bent on war with France, was purposefully hiding the dispatches. Congress would eventually demand the president reveal their contents. Once all the delegates returned safely from France, Adams released the dispatches. The Republicans were left dumb struck, their French connection having damned them to political destitution, and the rest of the country prepared for war.[40]

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord

The Federalists found themselves at the peak of their power. The nation it seemed was almost unanimously behind its president and Adams’ reputation skyrocketed. Anyone not on board with the war fervor was threatened legally as well as with physical violence.[41] Although Adams insisted the war (if there was one) was to be fought on the high seas, Alexander Hamilton was under the assumption that the Americas were still ripe for European imperialism and to expect and invasion.[42] Millions poured in for defense on both land and sea.[43] This was the political climate the Alien and Sedition Acts were to be passed. As the minority party in Congress the Republicans could do little to obstruct the Federalist agenda. The latter party believed that shoring up the nation’s defenses was only doing half the work. So they felt it necessary to pass the Naturalization Act first on June 18th, 1798. This legislation was coming out of the previous debate that took place in the House about American citizenship. However due to the current political climate and the distribution of power within the government pertaining to parties, the Federalists were to get their way.[44] The law required immigrants to live in the US for at least fourteen years before becoming a citizen, which was hopefully enough time for said person to form a bond to America and her customs. It also created a national registry of aliens and prevented the state courts from processing the applications of potential citizens. By keeping the issue out of the states hands, the Federalists were also keeping them out of the hands of their political rivals, the Democratic–Republicans.[45]

This law however did not make the United States safe from radical resident aliens, or so the Federalists believed. So Congress passed the Alien Enemies Act a week later on June 25th. The Alien Enemies Act would allow the President of the United States to deport aliens only in times of formally declared war. This was the only law out of the four Alien-Sedition laws that would receive bipartisan support and was also to be the only piece of legislation without an expiration date.[46] While it could never used during the Adams administration, it was to be invoked in 1917, 1941, 1945 and 2017. Despite criticism, the law remains in effect today. The Alien Friends Act, passed that same month, would be not quite different than its counterpart. However there was no need for a formal declaration of war. The law effectively authorized the president to deport any immigrants he may deem as dangerous. It also denied them all the rights guaranteed in the Constitution, including access to the nation’s judicial system.

Seeing that the nation was now secure from possible foreign threat or influence, the United States government decided to look internally, at its own citizens. The most controversial and final law was to be the “Act for the punishment for certain crimes against the United States” passed on July 14th. Otherwise known as the Sedition Act. Section 2 reads:

That if any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowing and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the said Congress, or said President…[and] convicted before any court of the United States…shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding two years.

Many Americans were comfortable with laws pertaining to immigrants and resident aliens however many were not comfortable with such a clear violation of their own Constitutional rights. Supporters of the bill argued that libel and seditious expression, either spoken or written, was harmful to society and therefore dangerous. It was also believed that lying was not covered by the First Amendment to the Constitution and that one must be responsible “whether it be the Government or an individual, for false, malicious, and seditious expressions.”[47] The Senate passed the Sedition Act on July 4th, not just as a show of unity but also as a distraction. Most Americans, politicians included, were more concerned with the festivities of the day and with a show of support for their country.[48] Federalists in Congress seized the occasion to pass their controversial legislation.

American political cartoon depicting the Adams administrations relationship with France. The president stands the third figure from the left.

“The good citizens of these states had better hold their tongues and make tooth picks of their pens,” wrote Benjamin Bache.[49] There was little one could do to stop the Federalist political machine. This was only part of the odd and suspicious conspiracy taking place within the Federalist camp. After the passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts, President Adams quickly wrote a letter to his predecessor George Washington asking the old general if he would once again lead an American army. This was to be a ceremonial position of course, and everyone knew that Alexander Hamilton would effectively be leading the army in all practical military functionality as Washington’s second in command. Once again, the suggestion to have Washington lead the army was Hamilton’s and he seemed to have a strange fascination with this new army. To anyone paying close attention it was clear something sinister was taking place.[50] “Downright corruption has spread & increased in America more than I had any knowledge of suspicion of,” the president would later write.[51] Adams was paying attention, and although at the time he had no hard evidence, the president certainly understood the gravity of the situation. At the time it would’ve been absurd for one to suggest the events of 1798 were part of a fast moving federalist coup. However hindsight always provides the best of vantage points. Coded letters were later found between Hamilton and some members of Adams cabinet that Hamilton intended on marching into Virginia and seize French sympathizers (ie Democratic-Republicans). Afterwards, he planned on conquering Florida, the Gulf Coast, French Louisiana and finally invade Mexico all in less than a year.[52] Fear and disillusionment had been used to silence dissidents and increase the power of one party over another and was now being used to satisfy the ambitions of an American Napoleon. Adams never trusted Hamilton and now Hamilton had an army at his back.

What the United States was going through was everything short of war and the legislative actions of 1798 were without undoubtedly war measures. With the exception of the Alien Enemies Act the laws were temporary and were all to expire around 1800, assuming they would not be renewed. The Alien and Sedition Acts gave the executive branch an immense amount of power not checked by the Supreme Court and it put a strangle hold on the free press. The United States was willing to violate the Constitution before the ink was dry. However that is not to say they did so willingly or (some could even claim) knowingly. Congress rejected many of the more extreme proposals because they considered them unconstitutional. Once again we see the American government lacking an understanding of its own limitations and institutional power. Of course the constitutionality of legislation was not for the legislative or the executive to decide. However at this time early in the nation’s history this basic principle was not properly understood. To say the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed into law is not to say that they passed easily. Like all pieces of legislation there were obstacles in the press, in Congress and amongst the public.

There was dissent among many of the Federalists, including John Marshall who boldly opposed the legislation openly.[53] Obviously Democratic-Republicans were vehemently against for many reasons. In the most instinctual sense, they feared for their livelihoods. They knew what and whom the bill was targeting. They also fundamentally disagreed with the Federalist’s interpretation of the First Amendment. Most Republicans followed a strict interpretation of the Constitution therefore any restrictions on publication or free speech in general was unconstitutional.[54] Matthew Lyon, the scrappy Republican congressman from Vermont who was known for wielding his words as well as his cane, was the first to be charged under the Sedition Act. In a letter written before his trial, Lyon stated that the Sedition law was unconstitutional and that Adams put the public welfare at first for the sake of “an unbounded thirst for pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.”[55] He, like many others indicted under the Sedition act, used their trial to make a political point as an attempt to reveal the unconstitutionality of the bill.[56] It was not just Congressmen and newspaper editors that were standing up against this new legislation but average Americans as well. Even before the bills were passed Republicans voiced their opposition in papers, pamphlets, state legislatures and town hall meetings.[57] This verbal resistance also would take place in the streets and occasionally turn violent.[58] The irony of the Sedition act is that it drew more attention to the opinions of people like Benjamin Franklin Bache and Matthew Lyon than it did to suppress them. It put them center stage and would eventually lead to the downfall of the Federalist agenda. In total there were fourteen indictments under the Sedition Act. Twelve of which were printers of some sort.[59] Some seditionaries included James Callender, the Scottish rake who would eventually break the story of Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, and Benjamin Bache of the Aurora. Unfortunately, Bache would die of the yellow fever in the fall of 1798 before his trial.

One of the most perplexing of events surrounding the Alien and Sedition Acts is the question of John Adams’ signature on the four pieces of legislation. The easy answer would be to assume that Adams’ vanity led him to feel justified in rounding up his slanderers and having them tossed into prison. However that simply would not fit the subsequent historical narrative or the character of Adams. As seen earlier, Adams and the press had already been at odds before the crisis with France so the Sedition Act was not meant as some kind of personal retribution. The president was only indirectly involved with the legislation in that it was proposed, written, supported and passed by Federalists in Congress and not by the president himself. Because of the feud between Adams and Hamilton, the president had also alienated staunch Federalists, the people that were firm supporters of the bill.[60] There is not a single letter in all of Adams’ correspondence (and there are many) to suggest his support for such a bill at that time. Nor did he ever suggest passing one.[61] One also cannot ignore the irony of the situation. Adams always feared terror from below: the masses. However Adams’ own affiliated political party was now responsible for terror from above: the federal government. Given Adams’ feelings on the matter of terrorism, his eventual approval of the bill makes even less sense. Despite all of this, his name is there, signed onto each bill.

The most likely answer would be that he felt pressured by his advisors, both official and unofficial, that this was the best option for the country. Abigail was certainly no fan of the negative press targeted at her husband and she felt “the laws of our country were competent to punish the stirrer of sedition.”[62] George Washington, who was in correspondence with the president, privately vocalized his dissatisfaction with the seditious libel being printed against him and other politicians.[63] The president could not trust his cabinet but there is little doubt that they also supported a Sedition Act considering they had proposed one previously. One person who may have been able to talk Adams out of signing his career away was his old friend Mr. Jefferson. However Jefferson, in his typical fashion, left town having no desire to stick around for the passing of a bill that would more than likely lead to his incarceration.[64] Surrounded by men and women that were in support of such a measure, Adams’ would have felt this was the best course of action. Although one can speculate as to why John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition acts it is clear these reasons were not to satisfy vanity. One can attempt to spread the blame around but it is John Adams’ name that stains the paper and as the sign on President Harry Truman’s desk read “The Buck Stops Here”.

Congressman Roger Griswald (left) assaulting Congressman Matthew Lyon (right) on the floor of the House of Representatives

Although Adams was a slave to his vanity he understood the gravity of the situation and was always a man to choose peace over war. So when Napoleon seized power in November of 1799 and stretched out a friendly hand a few months later, Adams was happy to take it. War was certainly preferable to the American people but the president chose his country over his popularity. By accepting France’s peace offering Adams was able to stop the war, halt Hamilton’s ambitions and disband his army while simultaneously putting an end to the Federalist tyranny. It also lost him the election of 1800. After the crisis with France had been adverted the Federalist Party lost their security blanket. They could no longer justify the usage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Their tyrannical nature was revealed and the party’s power waned. Although leaving office extremely unpopular, Adams believed that history might vindicate him. When he lost his re-election to Thomas Jefferson he did not attend the inauguration ceremony. Many believed it was due to the bitterness between the two men, however Adams was quite contented with himself and the work he had done. “I left my country in peace,” Adams wrote to a friend in 1815. “I hope to be forgiven for what I humbly cannot justify.”[65] Although not mentioned one can be quite sure the summer of 1798 was not far from his mind, just as it should not be far from ours.

Those men of Philadelphia that marched onto the president’s mansion that night in May 1798, and later to the house of the Benjamin Franklin Bache, thought they were acting out of a sense of patriotism, however they were only acting out of a sense of irony. In acting in defense of their country, they were paradoxically assaulting what it stood for. A free press, checks and balances and the due process of the law have always been at the core of this country’s principles. History has not vindicated the actions of these men, including John Adams whose reputation has only recently begun to be rehabilitated. One can have empathy for the indignant and the disillusioned, however one cannot forgive them of their wrongdoings. These core principles have kept us afloat through history’s darkest hours and often remind us what separates the United States from nations that do not govern with their citizens’ consent. We must keep the Alien and Sedition acts in mind as we move forward; a time when our nation acted out of paranoia and partisanship rather than any appendage of the law, a use of common sense or knowledge of historical context. These actions have plagued and dogged the United States over the years however they do not define us. They taught us that fear must never outweigh logic and that we must never confuse dissent with disloyalty. Fear lead to discontentment and subsequently mob violence, which only helped give credence to federalist calls to restore order, and in turn led to tyranny of one sort or another. Only fifteen years after the war for Independence, where the American colonies had supposedly thrown off the shackles of tyranny and an arbitrary use of the law, the newly formed United States was all too willing to trade in its hard fought liberty for false protection. We can never forget how precarious republican government can be especially in times of crisis and the importance of history in avoiding such circumstances. History does not repeat itself, but it does work in patterns and people have always been the same in their fears, desires and ambitions. Knowing history and learning from it means we can confront contemporary issues with an understanding that provides a solution.


[1] Halperin, Terri Diane. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press. 2016. p. 1

[2] “From John Adams to Pa., Young Men of Philadelphia, 7 May 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives.

[3] Ellis, Joseph J.. First Family: Abigail and John Adams. United States, Random House Inc.. 2010 p. 186

[4] Adams, John. A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. Library of America, John Adams: Writings from the New Nation 1784-1826. P. 128

[5] Ibid

[6] Adams, John. John Adams to Moses Gill, June 10th, 1775. Letter. Library of America, John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1775-1783, p. 5-6

[7] “From John Adams to Edmund Jennings, 27 September 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives

[8] Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 19 December 1793. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

[9] Brown, Walt. John Adams and the American Press Politics and Journalism at the Birth of the Republic. North Carolina: McFarland & Company. 1995 p. 25

[10] Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 5 March 1797 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

[11] Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 11 April 1797 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

[12] Ellis, Joseph J.. First Family: Abigail and John Adams. United States, Random House Inc.. 2010 p. 195

[13] McCullough, David. John Adams. New York, Simon and Schuster. 2001 p. 262

[14] Ellis, Joseph J.. Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 1993 p. 11

[15] Brown, Walt. John Adams and the American Press Politics and Journalism at the Birth of the Republic. North Carolina: McFarland & Company. 1995 p. 87

[16] Ibid 79

[17] Ibid 81

[18] Ibid 84

[19]McCullough, David. John Adams. New York, Simon and Schuster. 2001, p. 505

[20] Halperin, Terri Diane. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press. 2016. p . 15

[21] Halperin, Terri Diane. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press. 2016. p. 16

[22]Ibid 15

[23] McCullough, David. John Adams. New York, Simon and Schuster. 2001 p. 444

[24] Ibid 445

[25] Ellis, Joseph J.. First Family: Abigail and John Adams. United States, Random House Inc.. 2010 p. 165

[26] Halperin, Terri Diane. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press. 2016. p. 20-21

[27] Ibid

[28] Halperin, Terri Diane. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press. 2016. p. 18

[29] Ibid 44

[30] Brown, Walt. John Adams and the American Press Politics and Journalism at the Birth of the Republic. North Carolina: McFarland & Company. 1995 p. 26

[31] Ibid 79

[32]McCullough, David. John Adams. New York, Simon and Schuster. 2001, p. 474

[33] Halperin, Terri Diane. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press. 2016. p. 42

[34] Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 19 May 1794 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

[35] Halperin, Terri Diane. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press. 2016. p. 43

[36] White, John G. White. “Early Modern Europe.” Lecture. Poughkeepsie. 2015.

[37] Halperin, Terri Diane. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press. 2016. p. 45

[38] McCullough, David. John Adams. New York, Simon and Schuster. 2001, p. 495

[39] Halperin, Terri Diane. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press. 2016. p. 49

[40]McCullough, David. John Adams. New York, Simon and Schuster. 2001, p. 496-497

[41] Halperin, Terri Diane. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press. 2016. p. 72

[42] Ellis, Joseph J.. First Family: Abigail and John Adams. United States, Random House Inc.. 2010 p. 191

[43]McCullough, David. John Adams. New York, Simon and Schuster. 2001, p. 499

[44] Halperin, Terri Diane. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press. 2016. p. 54

[45] Ibid p. 56

[46] Ibid p. 57

[47] Ibid 66

[48] Ibid 62

[49] Ibid 97

[50] Ellis, Joseph J.. First Family: Abigail and John Adams. United States, Random House Inc.. 2010 p. 191-192

[51] Adams, John. John Adams to Samuel Smith, February 7th 1801. Library of America, John Adams: Writings from the New Nation 1784-1826. p. 407

[52] Ellis, Joseph J.. First Family: Abigail and John Adams. United States, Random House Inc.. 2010 p. 192

[53] McCullough, David. John Adams. New York, Simon and Schuster. 2001 p. 506

[54] Halperin, Terri Diane. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press. 2016. p. 65

[55] Ibid 80-81

[56] Ibid

[57] Ibid 97

[58] Ibid

[59] Ibid 73

[60] Brown, Walt. John Adams and the American Press Politics and Journalism at the Birth of the Republic. North Carolina: McFarland & Company. 1995 p. 100

[61] Ibid 101

[62] McCullough, David. John Adams. New York, Simon and Schuster. 2001, p. 506-507

[63] Ibid 506

[64] Ibid

[65] Adams, John. John Adams letter to James Lloyd, March 31st, 1815. Letter. Library of America, John Adams: Writings from the New Nation 1784-1826. p. 596

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