There are many, many problems with the idolization of the Founding Fathers that has been a near-constant in American narratives of our past and identity since at least the 1820s (it was around the 50-year anniversary of the Declaration that celebrations of the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary era and the Fourth of July began to really explode, as chronicled in Alfred Young’s great cultural biography The Shoemaker and the Tea Party). There are also, and just as significantly, many, many problems with the revisionist condemnations of the Founding Fathers that have become a prevalent counter-narrative in the last couple decades (although they go back at least to Charles Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution in the first decades of the 20th century). And the biggest problem with either of those extremes is that it takes a community and an era that were as diverse and complicated as any in our history and makes them feel monolithic, uniform; on the question of political partisanship, for example, the dueling narratives would stress either that the Founders were entirely above such trivialities or that they were entirely driven by them.
It takes greater awareness of a single series of events, the passage of and then the response to four laws precisely one decade into America’s republican experiment, to deflate both of those over-simplifying narratives. In 1798, just ten years after George Washington had been elected as the nation’s first President, his successor John Adams and his Federalist colleagues in Congress decided to deal in a very striking and disturbing way with both a potential threat to the nation (the possibility of war with France, which loomed large at the time) and a real threat to their political power (the opposition, minority Democratic-Republic party). The Federalists drafted a collection of four laws that came to be known as the Alien and Sedition Acts: each of the four (available in full at the first link below) attempted to change the nation’s existing laws in a way that undermined core national attributes. One, for example, gave the President the authority to imprison or deport (with no due process) immigrants who were considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States”; another defined “seditious” language so broadly as to include virtually any strident criticism of the federal government, and allowed for anyone convicted of writing such language to be imprisoned for up to two years. Taken as a whole, these four laws went a long way toward turning America’s government and leadership into a close mirror of the tyrannical monarchy against whom the Declaration’s list of grievances had so famously railed.
Yet the new government was and remained a republican one, and moreover included many of the same voices that had worked so hard to craft its significantly more democratic nature, and two of those voices—James Madison and Thomas Jefferson—recognized precisely what the Alien and Sedition Acts would mean if allowed to stand. In a private letter, Madison wrote to Jefferson that “the alien bill proposed in the Senate is a monster that must forever disgrace its parents”; the two men immediately authored state resolutions (Jefferson in Kentucky, Madison in Virginia; both also available at the first link below) that challenged the Acts, pushing back both on the near-tyrannical powers that they granted the executive and on the direct contradictions of the nation’s founding ideals that they comprised. One unforeseen effect of these resolutions was, many decades later, to empower Southern separatists like John Calhoun (in the nullification controversy) and, most troublingly, the Confederate secessionists in their resistance to what they considered equally tyrannical federal powers. Yet we cannot let Jefferson Davis and his Confederate compatriots stretch backward in time to blur the power and clarity of Madison and Jefferson’s responses to the Alien and Sedition Acts, and of the ability of our new and certainly very fragile government and nation to push back against the first attempt to severely weaken some of its greatest strengths.
A cynic might note that Jefferson was elected President in 1800, at least in part because of the negative national response to the Alien and Sedition Acts that he had helped create through his Kentucky Resolution; he would make Madison his Secretary of State, and Madison would follow him into the Presidency eight years later. And again, there is no question that these men, like all the Founders, were not immune or averse to politics and self-interest in all their forms. At the end of the day, the Alien and Sedition Acts serve both to force a recognition of how political and divided we have always been and to offer an impressive example of how even in such moments the best elements of our national identity and ideals can remain present and powerful. More tomorrow, on the film noir that makes one of the driest American historical moments and issues deeply compelling.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) A ton of great resources on and around the Acts, including the full text of them: http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/Alien.html
2) The Google books version of Young’s Shoemaker: http://books.google.com/books?id=wqHkAYjlz5kC&printsec=frontcover&dq=shoemaker+and+the+tea+party&source=bl&ots=HhDVgiHA3m&sig=9N3vWCPWdX9V0S9HUcypO5r9fGo&hl=en&ei=m1z4TOOZLYHAnAfvgu3yAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CB8Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false
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