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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Wednesday, 4 August 2004

Topic: Making Use of History

History: It's always the French, isn't it?
The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798


William J. Watkins, Jr., is an attorney practicing in Greenville, South Carolina, and we see, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, and the author of the recently released Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and their Legacy (Palgrave MacMillan, 2004).

In the August 2, 2004 issue of The Independent Institute he offers this.

The Revolution of 1800 and the USA PATRIOT Act

The argument is straightforward. There are a whole lot of similarities between Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 - and he runs them down. His main point seems to be that when people really found out what the Alien and Sedition Acts said, they voted in such a way as to make the go away. Poof. Gone. He says we cannot do that with this new Patriot Act. Both Bush and Kerry support it, just to greater and lesser degrees. We don't have that choice. He doesn't like that at all.

Be that as it may, his reminding us of certain details is pretty cool, like here on the 1798 direct parallels with the 2001 Patriot Act -
In the summer of 1798, the United States Congress passed and President John Adams signed similar legislation. At base, the Alien and Sedition Acts prohibited criticism of the federal government and gave President Adams the power to deport any alien he viewed as suspicious. Americans found guilty of sedition faced prison terms of up to five years and hefty fines. In certain circumstances, aliens remaining in the United States could be imprisoned "so long as, in the opinion of the President, the public safety may require."
Yeah, yeah. History is a cycle and we've come to the same place again. History does repeat itself and so forth and so on.

But the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were bad - everyone knows that. They were a threat to everything we stand for. They made most of our basic freedoms - of speech, of assembly and of the press - just plain null and void. A terrible idea.

Now? Everything changed since 9/11 of course. John Adams didn't have to face Islamic radical fanatics with weapons of mass destruction, provided by a sly but brutal madman and his two awful sons in Iraq, and a madman who was sitting on the second largest reserve of oil in the world - a critical resource the importance of which John Adams couldn't even begin to understand. Different times, now. We have to do this.

Watkins also points out that the Bush administration unsuccessfully argued to the Supreme Court that it could detain American citizens and foreign nationals on US soil indefinitely and without access to legal counsel - "all when the writ of habeas corpus has not even been suspended." And he notes that even John Adams only claimed such a power over aliens, not citizens.

Different times, now. We have to do this.

But what was it John Adams and his crew so afraid of back then? The French of course -
... In the 1790s, a number of Americans feared the democratic excesses of the French Revolution would be exported to the United States. They believed that French agents were plotting the destruction of the Constitution and the overthrow of the Adams administration. Rumors abounded in Philadelphia that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison planned to assist a French invasion force that was sailing across the Atlantic. Some expected a guillotine would be set up to deal with patriotic Americans. In this environment, Adams and the Federalists pushed for legislation that would secure the home front in the face of invasion and that would also, they hoped, secure Federalist political hegemony.
Why are the French always the bad guys? Must be the cheese or something.

Well, now the French are only secondary bad guys. And Churchill and his British buddies hadn't invented Iraq yet, hadn't carved it out of the rotting Ottoman Empire and found Hashemite tools to become fake, then real kings, then be overthrown by ambitious generals and wild-eyed clerics. That wouldn't come for more than a hundred years. The French had to suffice for Adams and the Federalists.

Watkins notes that "fearing revolutionary France," most Americans at first supported the Alien and Sedition Acts. At first, but Jefferson became a pain in the ass. He spoke up. And James Madison joined him.
In Thomas Jefferson's words, the people were "made for a moment to be willing instruments in forging chains for themselves."

... To combat the Acts, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. In these Resolutions, Madison and Jefferson accused Congress of exceeding its powers and declared the Alien and Sedition Acts void. Times were so tense that Madison and Jefferson hid their authorship because they feared prosecutions under the dreaded Sedition Act. The Acts were seen as such a danger to liberty that there was also some discussion of resisting the measures by force and secession.
Folks got up a head of steam. We got the "Revolution of 1800." Jefferson's guys - the Republicans (ha!) won a wide majority in the House of Representatives. Jefferson was elected to the presidency. And what did he do? He suspended all pending prosecutions under the Sedition Act and pardoned those previously convicted of being uppity and critical of those in power.

But this was done by voting for a new crew.

Watkins notes that Jefferson would later boast how this revolution was brought about not by the sword, "but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people."

This is unlikely to happen now. Kerry did vote in favor of the Patriot Act and, in fact, he authored some of its provisions. Watkins listened to the very same Kerry speech from Boston we all heard - keep the powers in place and trust Kerry with these powers that Kerry admits have been abused. The problem is Ashcroft. And Bush. Not the Patriot Act.

Watkins concludes the problem is this very legislation, that Kerry has it wrong, and we're screwed -
The ballot box is a powerful weapon in the people's hands when they have real choices. With the franchise the people can defend their liberties and reform the government. To paraphrase Jefferson, they can effect a bloodless revolution. However, when both parties offer the people candidates with indistinguishable views on issues relating to fundamental liberties, the franchise is an impotent weapon. And if democracy so falters, the people are left with few attractive options in defense of their freedoms.
Options?

1. A revolution - an actual one - and one that doesn't have anything to do with ballots and voting. This would be to restore democracy, or establish one if you will. That's not going to happen. There are a whole lot of folks who like things just as they are, for good reason, and don't mind the Patriot Act or anything like it. That's probably most folks. The freedoms they lose are not something they miss. Who cares? Those freedoms don't pay the bills or get you a good life-partner or help you lose weight or any of that day-to-day stuff. Join the revolution? Why?

2. Leave. Find a place where people care about such things. France? Mon dieu ! l'Horreur ! Ne pensez pas de telles pens?es !

Posted by Alan at 19:36 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 4 August 2004 19:48 PDT home

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