In 1798, during the Quasi-war with France, Congress, with President John Adams’s support, passed the Sedition Act. Outraged by attacks on her husband, Abigail Adams supported the act, which was opposed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, among others. “Let us not establish a tyranny,” wrote an alarmed Alexander Hamilton to an ally in Congress. Indeed, the Sedition Act, an obvious violation of the First Amendment, made a permanent blot on Adams’s presidency. Here is part of its text:
“If any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or publishing, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in its writing, printing, uttering, or publishing any false, scandalous, and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt and disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States or to stir up sedition within the United States…shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars and by imprisonment not exceeding two years” (italics added).
False, scandalous, malicious, defamatory, exciting hatred, stirring up sedition…Why, it’s like a run-of-the-mill report on Fox News!
When Jefferson became president, he too found the attacks on his presidency intolerable and prosecuted two Federalist journalists . One of them was defended in court by Alexander Hamilton.
These days it’s hard not to sympathize with Abigail Adams. She was worried about the safety of her husband. A frightened Congress feared that the newly formed country would erupt into civil war. Inflammatory rhetoric, ad-hominem attacks, demagoguery … these are both tests of free speech and violations of its intent.
It’s ironic, although not surprising, that blowhards like Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Glen Beck are spouting sedition these days. Even members of Congress, who should know better, are engaging in fear-mongering.
When one of their own was president, the Right had nothing but awe for the highest office in the land and the man who held it. Dissent, however thoughtful and earnest, seemed to them wildly unpatriotic. Ann Coulter wrote a “book” about liberal dissent and called it Treason. Who is treasonous now?
Right-wing rumors have it that Obama is not an American citizen, that he’s going to abolish the second amendment (or at least seize all guns) and that attempts to rescue American business from bankruptcy are really “socialism,” as is the plan to give America citizens what other wealthy, civilized countries have—a health care system that puts people before profits.
And as a result of this hysterical climate, armed lunatics, in a frenzy of paranoia, are attacking and killing law-abiding Americans. How long before there is an assassination attempt on a high public figure? How long until another Timothy McVeigh blows up a government building with a day care center?
McVeigh’s atrocity, like the atrocity of 9/11, killed people regardless of their political allegiances. Like army bureaucrats, like Émile Henry, the anarchist who in 1894 threw a bomb into a Paris nightclub, violent zealots consider the deaths of innocents “collateral damage.”
The Founders of this country set up our system of government so that demagoguery could be defused before it exploded. As students of Roman history, they worried about potential Caesars; as witnesses to the French Revolution, they worried about enraged mobs directed by icy zealots like Robespierre.
The average 18th-century Frenchman had serious grievances. The rich paid no taxes, so workers, peasants, and shopkeepers had to supply the luxuries and privileges of an extravagant monarchy and aristocracy. Compared to pre-revolutionary France, George III’s England was a paradise of individual liberties, legal rights, and parliamentary representation.
What’s driving our current hysteria? Nothing that you would find in that French revolutionary document, “The Rights of Man.” Instead, when a sobbing Glenn Beck says that he fears for his country, he means that he’s horrified that we have a black president. “They” are taking over.
Never mind that our president was reared by his white mother and grandparents, that his white ancestors also came to this country as humble immigrants, that he’s brilliant and eloquent, that he has studied and taught the Constitution, that the rest of the world admires him, and that our international reputation was greatly enhanced by his election.
The Limbaugh/Fox News rhetoric shows the Southern strategy operating on the national level. Hard-working, provincial white folks, those historically in competition with blacks for jobs, are being incited by wealthy tax-evaders into an orgy of racist fear, exacerbated by high unemployment and globalization. Although they didn’t object when wily Republicans strategically placed African-Americans in high offices, they’re terrified by President Obama.
When I was a child watching debates and conventions with my parents, there were creatures known as “moderate Republicans.” They seemed to have little in common with Goldwater or Nixon, who then represented the extreme right of the party.
Are there any statesmanlike conservatives out there who respect the rule of law and the offices of high elected officials, who fear assassination attempts and a lynch-mob mentality? If so, they urgently need to speak out. If they do not, they will be complicit in whatever violence this seditious rhetoric continues to inspire.
comments powered by Disqus
cyberian exile - 9/2/2009
Might I suggest improving your literacy, and perhaps taking some Civics courses?
You sound like a typical rage-addicted far-right-winger, and your incessant posts full of distortions, nonsense, and hostility, suggest stalker/sociopathic personality traits.
Mike A Mainello - 6/26/2009
11 Days and no rebuttal.
As I said 1 week ago, most academics and authors don't like to be questioned.
I hope you are enjoying your tenured classroom and I pity any students that might disagree with your position.
Mike A Mainello - 6/24/2009
Your a hoot. Either you are writing this from a public library because you don't earn money or pay taxes,
you are writing this from your mansion that was given to you by your hard working ancestors and have no idea what it is like to live in the real world.
I guess you feel safe from the Big O and the government. Enjoy your free speech while you have it.
Where do you stand on Darfur?
Randll Reese Besch - 6/23/2009
Our side didn't win. Obama isn't a liberal or Progressive. Not by a long shot. On MSNBC he has been criticized rightly for continuing the fascist polices of Bush/Cheney by the like of Olberman, Maddow and Schultz.
Randll Reese Besch - 6/23/2009
He was born 6 years before the law was instituted concerning US personnel born on US military bases abroad. Then it was retroactively applied to him. Against the Constitution which forbids retroactive laws like that. So ipso facto, John Sidney McCain III isn't natural born--he is naturalized. He could not legally serve as president any more than any other such citizen. Curious how no such problem with him just with Obama isn't it?
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/22/2009
Most historians will attach the word "conservative," as an adjective, to just about anything they do not like. And since most historians do not like everything about Richard M. Nixon, so they are prone to say he emerged from the "conservative wing" of the Republican Party. In fact, of course, he emerged from the Dewey wing, or the left side of the GOP.
In his time senate conservative Republicans were people like Carl Mundt, Bob Taft, Bill Knowland, Bill Jenner, Homer Capehart, Bert Hickenlooper, Everitt Dirksen, Barry Goldwater and others, all of whom were much more conservative. Half a dozen of the Southern Democratic senators at that time were more conservative than Nixon, as well.
The "Taft Republicans" would not tolerate socialism because they knew it did not work, and because it often ushered in dictatorship. The "Dewey-Eisenhower Republicans" were willing to tolerate socialism at the edges (even though they knew it didn't work), because they felt this was necessary to be elected and re-elected. The leftish "Rockefeller Republicans" were those who thought socialism would work, but felt it had never been administered honestly by the very corrupt Democratic Party. Their tacit credo was, "We can administer socialism honestly."
This business of calling Nixon a "consrvative" has been going on for a very long time. I remember Eric Goldman of Princeton doing it 40 years ago. He knew better, and accepted correcton on the point when it was made to him. In many cases like Goldman's I don't think it is used deliberately to tell false history, but rather just tumbles out reflexively from a liberal mindset.
Mike A Mainello - 6/19/2009
Going on 5 days of silence from the author.
Authors and academics don't like to be questioned.
She can't defend her article, so she has retreated to her tenured class room.
Terry Klima - 6/18/2009
I find it ironic that you allege John McCain isn't an American citizen. Considering he was born to two US citizens, one of whom was a US Naval Officer assigned to a foreign military post, he is unquestionably a US citizen and always has been. The Constitutional question is whether he would meet the definition of "Natural citizen" as defined by Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution. Ironically, Senators Obama and Clinton co-sponsored a non-binding Congressional Resolution which stated "The resolution introduced today states: "Resolved, That John Sidney McCain, III, is a 'natural born Citizen’ under Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution of the United States."
As to Mr. Obama, the citizenship question is not quite as clear for several reasons. There is the matter of Mr. Obama's place of birth. The Certificate of Live Birth presented doesn't specify where Mr. Obama was born but rather establishes that his birth was recorded in Hawaii. This form of certificate is not even recognized as requisite proof of Hawaiian birth for various state of Hawaii programs. The fact that Mr. Obama's father was a Kenyan National introduces "dual citizenship" into the equation. The theory behind only a "natural citizen" being eligible to serve as President speaks to the Framers' concern with the issue of divided national loyalties. Additionally, if Mr. Obama was born outside the country as some claim, his mother's young age would preclude US citizenship being passed on. Additionally, Indonesian school records in the name of Barry Soetero indicate that the student was, at one time registered as an Indonesian citizen. At the time, Indonesian law did not allow a non Indonesian citizen to attend school there. Clearly, there are a number of factors as to citizenship status that merit scrutiny.
Hopefully, all United States citizens would welcome a fair and impartial review of any candidate's citizenship status to determine that the individual holding our Nation's highest office is duly qualified as a "natural" citizen under our Constitution. To accept anything less is, in my view, irresponsible.
james joseph butler - 6/17/2009
Rep. Nixon was advocating for health care reform with Sen.Jacob Javits in 1947. In 1970, Pres. Nixon gave us the first CHIP -comprehensive health insurance program- proposal. Of course he wasn't Ralph Nader but Nixon was never a doctrinaire conservative.
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/17/2009
A clear majority in the media will always subscribe to Obamamania, so he is in no danger of being toppled by subversives, regardless how much he may deserve it.
It is difficult to understand why so many liberals are equally virulent haters when their side wins as when they lose. Has this always been implicit in all liberals, or is it something peculiar to Obamamaniacs? It could be only the latter who harbor unremitting hatred for all Republicans, Christians, soldiers, white men, etc., much in the style of Bill Ayers and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Maarja Krusten - 6/16/2009
Republican columnist David Brooks observed in his column in the NYT in 2007 that "Politics, as you know, is a tainted profession. Professional politicians cannot serve their country if they do not win their races, and to do that they must grapple with a vast array of forces that try to remold and destroy who they are."
Politicians always have faced the challenge of how to handle the wide range of opinions expressed by their supporters. And what to do about the more unattractive opinions voiced by their supporters. It's just that it the challenge is greater now in the age of Web 2.0. I thought about this recently after I read a book about John F. Kennedy which discussed the opposition he faced from some right-wing forces during his presidency.
I was only 9 years old when Kennedy was elected and 12 when he was killed. My family was Republican when I was a child but we came to like JFK and were saddened at his death. Obviously, when you're as young as I was then, you don't know much about political forces. It was dispiriting for me to read as an adult about some of the epithets that were aimed at JFK's administration from the right. Looking back on it, I find it ridiculous the way some people used labels such as Communist and Un-American back in the early 1960s.
My family knows something about totalitarian regimes, my parents having fled a country which came under Soviet occupation at the end of World War II. It embarrasses me that some of the people aligned with politicians such as Richard Nixon in 1960 used the rhetoric that they did during the Cold War, although I understand what their aims were.
Was Nixon responsible for that rhetoric? Not really. But did he and other spokesmen in his party speak out strongly enough to say, "There is nothing communistic or un-American about the Kennedy administration. Its officials just see some policy issues differently than we do on our side."
Of course not. Looking back, it seems to me that there was something unmanning about politics which seemingly made that type of strong pushback impossible by Republlican leaders while JFK was President. As Brooks noted later, "Public people almost eagerly dehumanize themselves,” Meg Greenfield wrote in “Washington,” her memoir. “They allow the markings of region, family, class, individual character and, generally, personhood that they once possessed to be leached away. At the same time, they construct a new public self that often does terrible damage to what remains of the genuine person.”
Perhaps that is part of what always has made it made so hard to man up and say, no, that's wrong, when extreme elements voice objectionable opinions.
That's all I have time for, gotta run to catch a train.
Mike A Mainello - 6/16/2009
Then I guess it wasn't real news.
Jonathan Dresner - 6/16/2009
Fox may not have covered it.
Mike A Mainello - 6/16/2009
Guess I missed that one, sorry.
Jonathan Dresner - 6/15/2009
"Pallin' around with terrorists."
Mike A Mainello - 6/15/2009
First, I don't Molly Ivins is the most reliable sources. Please read this link, I think is more accurate - http://lyingliar.com/?p=17.
Secondly, Col Patterson is a private citizen. However, he has an excellent book out, Dereliction of Duty, which lays out a case against President Clinton. It is very inexpensive on Amazon.
Third, the request was for a quote on a republican politician calling democrats "unpatriotic". I still have not read of one yet.
Partisan pundits throw bile in both directions, however, democrat politicians are very good at tossing off vile comments when compared to republicans. Numerous quotes can be provided upon request.
Jonathan Dresner - 6/15/2009
Mike A Mainello - 6/15/2009
Wow, I am now very concerned about my daughters college education.
If this passes as logic from a PHD I hope you are the exception and not the rule.
First you quote a bunch of commentators and call them Fox News. The Fox News broadcasts are very fair and balanced. I don't look at Mathews, Olberman, Madow, and Shultz and believe them to be "fair and balanced".
Get your facts straight.
Also please list one Republican official that said the opposition comments were "unpatriotic". Please include a source for your quote. I have never found one. Just like the current Rush quote calling Chelsa a dog is false, so is yours.
Randll Reese Besch - 6/15/2009
McCain isn't and American citizen, he was born on a military base in Panama. He was 'normalized' 6 years later post hoc. [Which is un-Constitutional.] No one was alarmed by that and yet this same Obama isn't an American crap continues in the fear mongers row. This kind of thing builds up to violence every time. I didn't notice any right wingers and conservatives being hurt by zealots on the Left. Did anyone?
Fear as prelude to worse things. Just as the murder of Dr. Tiller, the killings at the Holocaust Museum and that Unitarian Church all add up. The murder of the army recruiter (rage on USA military overseas)is a bit different in motivation.
John Andrew Prime - 6/15/2009
When beaucoup people, from John Kerry and Al Gore to Hillary Clinton and Michael Moore, were screaming invective at George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, they argued, sometimes persuasively, that dissent wasn't treason. You might want to brush up on their arguments. I'm sure you bought them then, so you should now.
Your argument of collective responsibility for individual actions is historical bunk and you know it, so I will not engage in meaningless discourse with you over that. Your perspective on this changes when it is your ox getting gored. Welcome to the way Conservatives felt the last eight years. Take comfort from the fact you will only have to endure it four years, at most.
However, you cannot dismiss concerns about Mr. Obama's origins and birth as rubbish. He could end the matter instantly by providing his original birth certificate (not a post 9-11 laserprinted copy, please.) I had to do so when I applied for a passport, and I was born 5 years before Mr. Obama. Being willing and able to provide proof of citizenship is requisite for many activities, from voting to getting married. Even Joe Biden joked about Obama's lack of paperwork, for gosh sakes. When it reaches the point where Biden can get a laugh from the Washington press corps over Dick Cheney leaving him a copy of Obama's birth certificate as a transition present and guaranty of safety, I'd say you have an issue a-brewing.
Stephen Barber - 6/15/2009
Let us know when you have something serious and scholarly to say. I am sure you are capable of interjecting something substantial to historical and political debates. Your accusations of racism simply mirror those of the esteemed scholar Janeane Garofalo. Your comments would be laughable if not published in a scholarly enterprise. Maybe I am not getting the satire intended by HNN in allowing this piece.
John D. Beatty - 6/15/2009
"The WINGERS are attacking! AAAAAAA"
This has what do to with history, again?
Maarja Krusten - 6/15/2009
Dr. Hamilton, as a Nixon scholar, I can assure you that Richard Nixon did not represent the extreme right wing of the Republican party during the 1960s and 1970s. If he had, Nixon would not have been concerned about supporters of Ronald Reagan at the 1968 Republican convention. See any number of biographies, beginning with the three volumes written about Nixon by Stephen Ambrose during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Or James Rosen's 2008 biography of Attorney General John Mitchell (The Strong Man). It provides a good overview of the thinking that lay behind the Nixonian school desegregation policies (summarized by Mitchell as "Watch what we do, not what we say.") Or Joan Hoff's book, Nixon Reconsidered. Or Rick Perlstein's Nixonland. Or recent popular history books such as Tom Brokaw's Boom!, which examined the 1960s. Nixon was an extremely complicated figure, I never would paint him with broad brushes or simply call him a representative of the Republican party's "right wing."
- 'Sexist' Paris streets renamed in the name of feminism
- NYT profiles a path-breaking transgender pioneer who became a judge
- CIA Plans Huge Release of Top-Secret Reports From the 1960s
- South Dakota drops history as a high school requirement
- The Forgotten History Of 'Violent Displacement' That Helped Create The National Parks
- Historian author Antony Beevor says his new World War 2 book may anger Americans
- Ron Radosh and Allis Radosh plan to defend Warren Harding in a new book
- Historians tackle America’s mass incarceration problem
- Report: Russian studies in crisis