History Exposes We Can Rescue America from Trumpism
America turned away from authoritarianism in 1800 & became a more democratic republic. Now, again, we have a similarly huge job ahead of us as Trumpism spreads like a virus.
It’s a holiday weekend, so let’s take a short look back in American history and see how it may inform us today.
Donald Trump was the second authoritarian American president; the first was America’s first “conservative” president, one-term Federalist John Adams, who followed George Washington in the election of 1796 and was replaced by Jefferson in the election of 1800. We almost lost our democracy because of Adams’ ego and unwillingness to accept criticism.
There was quite an effort to rehabilitate Adams’ image during the George W. Bush administration, including books and a multi-part TV series, pushed hard by conservatives because, like the Bush family, the Adams family produced a son who also went on to be president.
But, in reality, John Adams (1797-1801) was a pretty terrible president (although his son, abolitionist John Quincy Adams [1825-1829], was a pretty good president, but that’s another story).
It started in 1798 when Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin and editor of the Philadelphia newspaper the Aurora, began to speak out against the policies of then-President John Adams.
Back then, there wasn’t a president/vice-president ticket for voters like today; whoever got the most Electoral College votes became president while whoever came in second became vice president. Thus, in the election of 1796 Federalist Adams and Democratic-Republican Jefferson became president and vice president.
Benjamin Franklin Bache supported Vice President Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party (today called the Democratic Party) when John Adams led the conservative Federalists (who today would be philosophically close to most Republicans).
Bache attacked Adams in an op-ed piece by calling the president “old, querulous, Bald, blind, crippled, Toothless Adams.”
To be sure, Bache wasn’t the only one attacking Adams in 1798. His Aurora was one of about 20 independent newspapers aligned with Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, and many were openly questioning Adams’ policies and ridiculing Adams’ fondness for formality and grandeur.
On the Federalist side, conservative newspaper editors were equally outspoken. Noah Webster wrote that Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans were “the refuse, the sweepings of the most depraved part of mankind from the most corrupt nations on earth.”
In the 1950s, Republican Senator Joe McCarthy famously told his colleagues never to refer to the party Jefferson founded as the “Democratic Party.” That sounds too nice, said McCarthy, too…democratic. Instead, McCarthy argued, always just call it the “Democrat Party — with the emphasis on the ‘rat’!”
Back in 1798, a Federalist politician characterized the Democratic-Republicans as “democrats, momocrats and all other kinds of rats,” while Federalist newspapers worked hard to turn the rumor of Jefferson’s rape of his deceased wife’s half-sister, the enslaved Sally Hemmings, into a full-blown scandal (which it certainly was and deserved to be characterized as).
But while Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans had learned to develop a thick skin around newspaper stories, University of Missouri-Rolla history professor Larry Gragg points out in American History magazine that Bache’s writings sent Adams and his wife into a self-righteous frenzy.
Abigail wrote to her husband and others that Benjamin Franklin Bache was expressing the “malice” of a man possessed by Satan. The Democratic-Republican newspaper editors were engaging, she said, in “abuse, deception, and falsehood,” and Bache was a “lying wretch.”
Abigail insisted that Congress must act to punish Bache for his “most insolent and abusive” words about her husband and his administration. His “wicked and base, violent and calumniating abuse” must be stopped, she demanded.
Abigail Adams followed the logic employed by George W. Bush’s followers who referred to his administration as if it was “the government” and said that those opposed to the Bush administration’s policies were “unpatriotic.” She wrote that Bache’s “abuse” being “leveled against the Government” of the United States (her husband) could even plunge the nation into a “civil war.”
Encouraged by Federalist newspapers of the day, Federalist senators and congressmen — who controlled both legislative houses along with the presidency — came to the defense of John Adams by passing a series of four laws that came to be known together as the Alien and Sedition Acts.
The vote was so narrow — 44 to 41 in the House of Representatives — that in order to ensure passage the lawmakers wrote a sunset provision into its most odious parts: Those laws, unless renewed, would expire the last day of John Adams’ first term of office, March 3, 1801.
Empowered with this early version of the Patriot Act, President John Adams ordered his “unpatriotic” opponents arrested, and specified that only Federalist judges on the Supreme Court would be both judges and jurors.
Bache, often referred to as “Lightning Rod Junior” after his famous grandfather, was the first to be hauled into jail (before the laws even became effective!), followed by New York Timepiece editor John Daly Burk, which put his paper out of business. Bache died of yellow fever while awaiting trial, and Burk accepted deportation to avoid imprisonment and then fled.
Others didn’t avoid prison so easily. Editors of seventeen of the twenty or so Democratic-Republican-affiliated newspapers were arrested by the Adams administration, and ten were convicted and imprisoned; many of their newspapers went out of business.
Bache’s successor, William Duane (who both took over the newspaper and married Bache’s widow), continued the attacks on President Adams, publishing in the June 24, 1799 issue of the Aurora a private letter John Adams had written to Tench Coxe in which then-Vice President Adams admitted that there were still men influenced by Great Britain in the U.S. government.
The letter cast Adams in an embarrassing light, as it implied that Adams himself may still have British loyalties (something suspected by many, ever since his pre-revolutionary defense of British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre), and made the quick-tempered Adams furious.
Imprisoning his opponents in the press was only the beginning for Adams, though. Knowing Jefferson would mount a challenge to his presidency in 1800, he and the Federalists hatched a plot to pass secret legislation that would have disputed presidential elections decided “in secret” and “behind closed doors.”
Duane got evidence of the plot and published it just after having published the letter that so infuriated Adams.
It was altogether too much for the president who didn’t want to let go of his power: Adams had Duane arrested and hauled before Congress on Sedition Act charges. Duane would have stayed in jail had not Vice President Thomas Jefferson intervened, letting Duane leave to “consult his attorney.” Duane went into hiding until the end of the Adams’ presidency.
Emboldened, the Federalists reached out beyond just newspaper editors.
When Congress let out in July of 1798, John and Abigail Adams made the trip home to Braintree, Massachusetts in their customary fashion — in fancy carriages as part of a parade, with each city they passed through firing cannons and ringing church bells. (The Federalists were, after all, as Jefferson said, the party of “the rich and the well born.” Although Adams wasn’t one of the super-rich, he basked in their approval and adopted royal-like trappings, later discarded by subsequent presidents.)
As the Adams family entourage, full of pomp and ceremony, passed through Newark, New Jersey, a man named Luther Baldwin was sitting in a tavern and probably quite unaware that he was about to make a fateful comment that would help change history.
As Adams rode by, soldiers manning the Newark cannons loudly shouted the Adams-mandated chant, “Behold the chief who now commands!” and fired their salutes.
Hearing the cannon fire as Adams drove by outside the bar, in a moment of drunken candor Luther Baldwin said, “There goes the President and they are firing at his arse.” Baldwin further compounded his sin by adding that, “I do not care if they fire thro’ his arse!”
The tavern’s owner, a Federalist named John Burnet, overheard the remark and turned Baldwin in to Adams’ thought police: The hapless drunk was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for uttering “seditious words tending to defame the President and Government of the United States.”
The Alien and Sedition Acts reflected the new attitude Adams had brought to Washington D.C. in 1796, a take-no-prisoners type of politics in which no opposition was tolerated.
For example, on January 30, 1798, Vermont’s Congressman Matthew Lyon spoke out on the floor of the House against “the malign influence of Connecticut politicians.” Charging that Adams’ and Adams’ Federalists only served the interests of the rich and had “acted in opposition to the interests and opinions of nine-tenths of their constituents,” Lyon infuriated the rightwing Federalists.
The situation simmered for two weeks, and on the morning of February 15, 1798, Federalist anger reached a boiling point when conservative Connecticut Congressman Roger Griswold attacked Lyon on the House floor with a hickory cane.
As Congressman George Thatcher wrote in a letter now held at the Massachusetts Historical Society, “Mr. Griswald [sic] [was] laying on blows with all his might upon Mr. Lyon… Griswald continued his blows on the head, shoulder, & arms of Lyon, [who was] protecting his head & face as well as he could. Griswald tripped Lyon & threw him on the floor & gave him one or two [more] blows in the face.”
In sharp contrast to his predecessor George Washington, America’s second president John Adams had succeeded in creating an atmosphere of fear and division in the new republic, and it brought out the worst in his conservative supporters.
Across the new nation, Federalist mobs and Federalist-controlled police and militia attacked Democratic-Republican newspapers and shouted down or threatened individuals who dared speak out in public against John Adams.
Even members of Congress were not legally immune from the long arm of Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts.
Congressman Lyon — already hated by the Federalists for his opposition to the law, and recently caned in Congress by Federalist Roger Griswold — wrote an article pointing out Adams’ “continual grasp for power” and suggesting that Adams had an “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.”
The rightwing Federalists were outraged, and convened a federal grand jury and indicted Congressman Lyon for bringing “the President and government of the United States into contempt.”
Lyon, who had served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, was led through the town of Vergennes, Vermont in shackles. He ran for re-election in the election of 1800 from his 12x16-foot Vergennes jail cell and handily won his seat.
“It is quite a new kind of jargon,” Lyon wrote from jail to his constituents, “to call a Representative of the People an Opposer of the Government because he does not, as a legislator, advocate and acquiesce in every proposition that comes from the Executive.”
The failure of John Adams’ efforts to turn the presidency into a king-like position shows that when enough people become politically active, as they did to defeat Adams in 1800, we can rescue the soul of America from sliding into a corrupt, abusive police state.
In the end, as Dan Sisson wrote in a book I edited, The American Revolution of 1800, America turned away from Adams’ authoritarianism and became a more democratic republic. Now, again, we have a similarly huge job ahead of us as Trumpism spreads like a virus.
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