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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #92: American Aurora

You read "200 YEARS AGO" in the movie trailer guy voice, admit it.

When an autocratic President seeks to silence his critics by declaring their attacks "fake news" and journalism is cloaked in strident partisanship, when the federal government seeks to deport undocumented immigrants without due process, it might be 2019 in America.

Or it might be 1798.

The American capital of that time was in Philadelphia, awaiting the completion of the federal city on the swampy Potomac. The president was John Adams, an Anglophile who loved both democracy and monarchy, and who flirted with royal-sounding titles and life tenure for senior elected officials. And who was remarkably thin-skinned when it came to criticism. One of the leading papers in Philly then was the Aurora, a press headed by Ben Franklin Bache, grandson of Adams' old revolutionary chum. Bache was a rabid Jeffersonian, and waged an agate type war on the Adams administration and Federalist Congress. His paper's reporting was sometimes true and seldom polite - think FOX News with a vocabulary. Adams and his team grew sufficiently vexed that the Sedition Act was promulgated, making it a federal crime to "write, print, utter, or publish...any false, scandalous and malicious writing" against the government. Somewhere, Donald Trump is planning to move on that like a bitch.

Backdrop: the young republic wasn't sure whether to make goo-goo eyes at England or France. Federalists generally gravitated to the more conservative Brits, while Jeffersonian Republicans (later Democratic-Republicans, even later just Democrats) were enamored with the Jacobin French. The specter of renewed hostilities with a European power lurked. And infant America had another challenge - the influx of immigrants, many from Ireland or Germany, some from France, some escaping unrest in the Caribbean. Most voted the the Jeffersonians, which didn't sit well with the Adams crowd. (Context to the backdrop: The Naturalization Act of 1790 provided opportunity for citizenship to free white persons of good character who resided in the country for two - later five - years and took an oath of loyalty. Nonwhites, well, shut up and get back to work. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.) So to accompany our Sedition Act, we got the Naturalization Act, raising the citizenship waiting period from five to 14 years. The bewilderingly named Alien Friends Act, authorizing the President to imprison or deport any foreigner deemed "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States". The Alien Enemies Act gave the Prez the same authority regarding any male citizen of a hostile nation during wartime.

There are your Alien and Sedition Acts, the black stain on the otherwise laudable legacy of John Adams. Evidence of racist xenophobia as part of the stem cell DNA of the American body politic. Evidence that the first amendment and a free fourth estate is both vitally important and dangerously precarious. Rosenfeld weaves together source material and modern analysis to craft a dense but edifying picture of the first halting steps of a constitutional republic. Perhaps most fascinating is just how nasty it all is. We bemoan the coarsening of our public dialogue, but the 1790s were a master class in political insults. Supporters of Jefferson declared Adams "a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Not to be outdone, the Adams camp cried that Jefferson was "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." Adams was a tyrant and a criminal, Jefferson an atheist and libertine. Jefferson even hired the 18th-century equivalent of Rush Limbaugh, a nasty piece of business named James Callendar, to spread rumors about Adams. The hatchet work helped sway the election of 1800 and set the tone for centuries of political vitriol we still see today.

Postscript 1: Callendar went to jail for slander for his efforts. When Jefferson didn't pay him for his work, the lowlife turned the tables and broke the story that Tom was having an affair with his slave Sally Hemings. Karma, baby. Glass houses, etc.

Postscript 2: The Alien and Sedition Acts were bad news. Immigration makes America stronger. Build ladders, not walls. Journalism makes America stronger. Turn off Twitter and buy a newspaper.

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