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.”
John Adams by David McCullough
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham