The Executive and the Press: John Adams and the Alien & Sedition Acts

By Kaleena Fraga

The relationship between the executive branch and the press is often a tense one. The Obama administration received bipartisan criticism when it tried to crack down on leaks to reporters, and the Trump administration has recently subpoenaed New York Times reporter Ali Watkins in pursuit of the same goal.

Presidents back to Washington have struggled with how to deal the press. John Adams’ solution was the signing and enforcement the Alien and Sedition Acts, which forbid “False, scandalous, and malicious” writing against the government, Congress or president, or any attempt “to excite against them…the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition.”

Adams’ predecessor, George Washington, was initially met with what we might describe today as fawning coverage. He was universally beloved, and in the (brief) era before political parties, there was no concrete opposition to push back against his administration. This changed–quickly–with opposition forces coalescing around Thomas Jefferson. Partisan newspapers began to pop up around the country. Washington told Adams in 1796 that one reason he did not want to serve a third term in office was that he felt, “disinclined to be longer buffeted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.” In a letter to a friend, Washington similarly called press criticism “diabolical” and “outrages on common decency.” But Washington kept his criticisms private.

The Alien & Sedition Acts, passed under Adams, were meant to quell criticism of the administration. Washington privately expressed support for Adams’ actions. Although Adams said little publicly of the Acts, his wife Abigail wrote her friend that many newspapers were “criminal” and ought to be brought to court. “Yet daringly do the vile incendiaries keep up…the most wicked and base, violent and culminating abuse…nothing will have effect until Congress passes a Sedition bill.”

Adams’ vice president–and the de facto leader of the opposition party–Thomas Jefferson, quietly left the capitol to go home to Monticello. He and other Republicans feared the Acts could mean the end of their republic. “For my own part,” Jefferson wrote in a letter, “I consider these laws as merely an experiment on the American mind to see how far it will bear an avowed violation of the Constitution…if this goes down, we shall immediately see attempted another act of Congress declaring that the President shall continue in office during life [and] reserving to another occasion the transfer of succession to his heirs…”

The Alien and Sedition Acts proved incredibly unpopular. They helped to elect Thomas Jefferson, and made John Adams a one term president.

As president, Jefferson also disliked the press. He wrote “our newspapers, for the most part, present only the caricatures of disaffected minds. Indeed, the abuses of freedom of the press here have been carried to a length never known or borne by any civilized nation.” Still, Jefferson possessed an undying faith in the common sense of the people. He acknowledged:

“The firmness with which the people have withstood the late abuses of the press, the discernment they have manifested between truth and falsehood, show that they may safely be trusted to hear everything true and false, and to form a correct judgment between them.”

All public figures faced a barrage of what Donald Trump might call fake news, although in many cases in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the news was actually fake. Adams was accused of sending Charles Coteworth Pinckney to London to procure four mistresses, two for each man. “I do declare upon my honor,” he wrote a friend, “if this is true General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two.” Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, faced rumors of a relationship with one of his slaves–rumors that were denied at the time but, of course, were later proven true.

Since the birth of the country, the American executive has struggled with how to handle the press–a struggle that continues to this day. But the importance of a free press is generally acknowledged by the executive branch. Seven years after he left the White House, Thomas Jefferson–who faced attacks, both true and false–stated: “Where the press is free, and every man is able to read, all is safe.”

 

 

Thanks to: 

John Adams by David McCullough

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Thomas Jefferson & Emmanuel Macron: Foreign Dignitaries, Then & Now

By Kaleena Fraga

On Tuesday night, the Trump White House welcomed Emmanuel Macron, president of France, and his wife Brigitte to the Trump Administration’s first official State Dinner. The Macrons were greeted with all the pomp and circumstance that has come to be expected of state dinners. It’s quite a contrast to how some foreign dignitaries were treated during the early years of the country.

When Thomas Jefferson entered the White House in 1801, he was determined to represent himself as a republican in dress and manner–not like his political foes, the Federalists, whom he suspected were all aristocratic monarchists.

But Jefferson’s simple republican ways ran up against traditional procedure of greeting foreign guests. When the British Minister to the United States (this in a time where American presidents received envoys from foreign nations, rather then meet with other leaders face to face) Anthony Merry, presented himself for the first time at the White House he had quite a shock. Merry had dressed up for the occasion–wearing a blue dress coat with a gold braid, his white breeches and silk stockings, and a plumed hat, with his sword at his side. Accompanied by Jefferson’s Secretary of State, James Madison, Merry was shocked to find that the president had not jeffersoncome to formally greet him–in fact, he was no where to be found. Madison and Merry more or less ran into Jefferson while wandering the halls of the White House looking for him. From there, Merry’s sense of insult deepened. Jefferson wore simple clothing–slippers, breeches, and woolen stockings.

Merry was shocked, and felt that Jefferson’s dress and appearance was not only an insult to him, but to the Crown. And it got worse. At dinner that night–where the Merrys assumed they would be guests of honor–Jefferson, a widower, took the arm of Dolley Madison, not Elizabeth Merry (despite Dolley’s insistence that he should “take Mrs. Merry” instead). Then, because Jefferson favored a “pell-mell” style of seating–that is, random seating, not by rank–the Merrys found themselves fighting for a seat. As Merry tried to take a seat next to the Spanish ambassador, an ambitious Congressman barreled ahead of him to take it for himself.

Utterly dismayed, the Merrys boycotted all future White House events.

According to Jon Meacham’s Jefferson biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, this sat perfectly well with the nation’s third president. “We say to them, no,” Jefferson wrote, referring to those, like the Merrys, who preferred the time-honed tradition of formal dress and dinners, “the principle of society with us, as well as of our political constitution, is the equal rights of all: and if there be an occasion where this equality ought to prevail preeminently, it is in social circles collected for conviviality.”

Of course, Jefferson, a Francophile who distrusted the British, would probably be more thrilled to host the Macrons at the White House than he ever was to host the Merrys.