The passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1799 was a decisive point in American history. Yet they sound as modern as today’s headlines out of Iraq.
No one recognized the existence of parties while Washington was president.
The Federalist Party became what Washington was identified with and his vice president John Adams who had become president in 1787 was later identified with.
Even thought they did not officially exist, there was the party of Jefferson and the party of Adams.
In 1796 John Adams barely beat Jefferson for the presidency, and only because Washington apparently supported Adams.
Two parties, that of Jefferson and that of Washington-Adams, actually existed, but no one would say so until Washington died in 1799.
As soon as Washington died in December of 1799, the Jefferson party began to be referred to as the anti- Federalists. Before that it might have been called the anti-Washington Party, but respect forbade that.
Today we can say that the Federalists won in 1796.
Adams and Jefferson were on increasingly opposite sides and only the name of Washington prevented these two groups from being called political parties.
To an old politico like me, all this sounds very modern. The reality was that there were two parties by 1796 but nobody was allowed to state the basic political reality in plain English.
Meantime, back on planet earth, the Federalist not-yet-Party of Washington defeated the anti-Federalist not-yet-party of Jefferson in 1796.
In 1798, because the French Revolution had gone nuts and lost its popularity, the Jefferson group totally lost both Houses of Congress to the Adams Party because Jefferson’s crowd was identified with the French.
Now comes the REALLY modern part.
By 1798 the United States was actually engaged in a shooting war with France, but no war was declared.
The same people who had adopted the Constitution and given only Congress the right to declare war were not declaring war, but acted as if there were a war declared.
An army was to be raised, Congress had said so. Washington was made commander in chief again and he declared that Jefferson’s most vociferous political opponent, Alexander Hamilton, was to command it.
An army was being raised, money spent, but no declaration of war. Sound familiar?
It gets worse. In 1798 the party which did not support this undeclared war was labeled a bunch of traitors. So Jefferson’s party was totally defeated in 1798 over the undeclared war.
Does THAT sound familiar?
Well, here’s the clincher: As soon as the new Federalist-dominated congress met in 1799, it passed the first Patriot Act.
It was called the Alien and Sedition Act. Since there was a state of emergency due to the undeclared war, criticism of the government was declared illegal, and many anti-Federalist editors and writers went to prison.
Free speech, guaranteed by the first amendment, openly went out the window because the Constitution didn’t apply in the emergency of an undeclared war.
Does any of this sound familiar yet?
The Supreme Court had not yet declared that it alone had the power to interpret the Constitution.
According to modern doctrine, if the Supreme Court were not there to interpret the Constitution, there would be no Constitution.
So what happened?
The PEOPLE interpreted the Constitution. You know, “the people” as in “We the people of the United States… and OUR posterity?”
That was before we had the Supreme Court to protect the Constitution from the people.
In 1800 the party that passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Federalist Party that had gotten all the electoral votes twice with Washington and won in 1796 and 1798, was crushed at the ballot box.
The Federalist Party began a steady decline that led to its dissolution in the next decade.
The Alien and Sedition Acts did not last as long as the Patriot Act has. If it had been left to the Supreme Court, the Alien and Sedition Acts would still be at the District Court level in 1800.
When the robed Guardians of the Constitution got around to it, parts of the Alien and Sedition Acts would have declared some parts legal and other parts illegal, as with the Patriot Act.
Editors would STILL be facing prison for violating parts of it, and only lawyers could tell them WHICH parts of it, and that not for sure.
Hate Laws, anyone?
In 1800 the newly elected congress threw the whole damned thing out, lock, stock, and barrel.
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