Today, the hysterical American media grasps to liken President Trump to our more unpopular presidents, yet in their execrated glee they’ve largely ignored a rather obvious comparison — President John Adams. In some ways, our second president and founding father’s legacy has found its ultimate Trump card and exposes the long history of fake news.
Today among prominent founding fathers turned American presidents, John Adams remains relatively unpopular although he was one of the most consequential to hold the office. John Adams was a Harvard-educated lawyer who lived in Massachusetts and was the cousin to fellow revolutionary Samuel Adams. His contributions in creating the United States both before and after the Revolution were herculean.
President Adams was a great man of practical wisdom and genius who holds a few things in common with President Donald John Trump — apart from both of their names being John that is. Perhaps more importantly though are the key differences between our second president and our forty-fifth.
When Adams became president he faced civil rebellion and imminent war between Great Britain and France. Both of which sought a neutral United States to take sides. Caught between loyalty to France (who helped us win our Revolution) and a desire to foster peace with Great Britain, Adams fought to maintain his policy of neutrality to his political detriment.
Adams’ problems didn’t end there. Similarly to President Trump, Adams retained the majority of his predecessor’s administration officials. As a result, his own Federalist party (loyal to Alexander Hamilton) regularly undermined his agenda. Concurrently an embittered, divisive, and politically biased press along with desperately needed immigration reform were major stumbling blocks for the president.
As observed by Benjamin Franklin, immigrants refusing to assimilate into American culture had long been problematic. Further exacerbating this crisis were the incoming radical French immigrants who instigated revolutionary actions similar to what stoked the fires of war in Europe. Adams grappled with sedition in a radical media sympathetic to the French usurpers thusly fanning the flames of hatred and division among the States.
While attempting to prevent the country he’d built from being decimated by war, media sponsored sedition, and French radicals — President Adams was libeled in the press as being a despot, treasonous, and corrupt. Radical political author James Callender (who’d already been expelled from the UK) called Adams a “repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite, and an unprincipled oppressor.” The Vermont Journal called him “a ridiculous pomp — foolish.”
This eerily familiar anti Federalist rhetoric set precedence for the caustic nature of news. Consequently, our country (divided by fake news rhetoric and Jefferson’s party radicalism) seemed intent on ripping itself apart no sooner than it had been born. Like Trump, Adams had little patience for the twisted half truths and character assassinations the press launched at him.
President Trump has accurately exposed the press as “the enemy of the people.” If John Adams had owned a Twitter account in 1798 he might have tweeted something similar. Coincidentally this article by Harvard Business Review delves into precisely why the veracity of the press has always been questionable.
“Liberty of the press and of opinion is calculated to destroy all confidence between man and man,” – John Allen (Connecticut Representative)
With unrelenting political pressure mounting from both major parties and lies swirling wildly in the press, Adams found himself alienated and despised by just about everyone except his beloved wife Abigail. Adams was indeed an outsider, alone, and hated by the establishment.
“Always stand on principle… even if you stand alone.”– John Adams
Against this backdrop the Federalists launched a controversial series of legislative acts known as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. These legislative acts were comprised of four interconnected laws. The first three laws dealt with immigration and raised the naturalization period from five years to fourteen. It also granted the president the power to deport migrant aliens. The fourth law (The Sedition act) however, was an attempt to force an out of control lying press to report only the truth.
Section two of the Sedition Act contains the following “if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish —any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government 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.”
Legal scholars have pointed to the unconstitutionality of the Sedition Act in its violation of first amendment protections. While it is absolute truth that the freedom of speech is a God given right that mustn’t be infringed, this early attempt to regulate a highly corrosive weapon of social subversion proposed a felicitous question. How dangerous is an irresponsible press to a people who must be accurately informed in order to govern?
Because it has since been allowed to expire, it’s easy to criticize Adams for signing the Sedition Act even though he didn’t support it. Perhaps his final decision in signing the document rested on substantial libel he sustained from the press. Or, perhaps it was due to an inability to reconcile first amendment protections with the astonishingly destructive power of irresponsible purveyors of fake political news.
Once again the press accuses a president (this time Trump) of tyranny and despotism. He is labeled a fascist, yet he’s never promoted or penned legislation that revokes the press’s right to print poignant political propaganda.
Last year Andrea Edney, president of the National Press Club said Trump’s attacks on the press (in particular CNN’s Jim Acosta) “were unprecedented.” Perhaps in an age of internet search engines she could have found plenty of examples proving the removal of a disruptive individual isn’t at all unprecedented.
Understandably Trump and Adams have their hatred of the fraudulent press in common. However while Adams suppressed them, Trump allows them to expose their fraudulence. With the parts of the Alien and Sedition Acts that are still codified in Federal law, Adams gave the forty-fifth president the ultimate media trump card — immigration law.