Sneering at President John Adams as "querulous, Bald, blind, crippled, Toothless Adams"
July 3, 2002 12:23 PM   Subscribe

Sneering at President John Adams as "querulous, Bald, blind, crippled, Toothless Adams" got Ben Franklin's grandson arrested under the Sedition Act of 1798. Federalists like Adams and Alexander Hamilton used the Sedition Act to muzzle highly aggressive elements of the press. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison fought back -- and won. Understanding this early power grab by the U.S. executive branch helps put recent events into historical context. The struggle itself has been part of the United States of America since the beginning, and anyone working to fight Cheney and Ashcroft's unconstitutional assault happens to be in pretty good company. Happy Fourth of July.
posted by mediareport (13 comments total)

 
If I could have anyone's life, it would probably be Thomas Jefferson's. He seems like a real hip cat. I'll be raising a glass to him tomorrow (although it appears I should have done it yesterday).
posted by ColdChef at 12:40 PM on July 3, 2002


Except for all the slave-owning stuff, of course. I'm not saying I'd want to own slaves. I'm talking about all the oratory and reading and making with the pasta and such. You know that, though.
posted by ColdChef at 12:44 PM on July 3, 2002


Wow! I didn't know this: On July 4, 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson died -- just hours before John Adams.
posted by ColdChef at 12:47 PM on July 3, 2002


Adam's supposed last words: "Jefferson lives!"
Whoops.
posted by LionIndex at 12:54 PM on July 3, 2002


You wouldn't want Jefferson's financial acumen, ColdChef. I'm about halfway through Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty, a collection of essays and Library of Congress documents that seems pretty balanced about his pluses and minuses. I was surprised to learn Jefferson couldn't manage money at all but still indulged fairly extravagant tastes in fine wine and what Garry Wills calls "the almost frantic collecting of art works, books, and furniture," all "paid for with money wrung from the bodies of Jefferson's human property." Ouch.

But then you read something like this: When Jefferson was in Paris and being kept informed of the progress of the Constitutional Convention by letters from Madison, he sent a letter noting a very serious omission in the deliberations: "A bill of rights of what the people are entitled to against every government on earth."

You gotta love a radical nut like that.
posted by mediareport at 1:05 PM on July 3, 2002


I was surprised to learn Jefferson couldn't manage money at all but still indulged fairly extravagant tastes in fine wine and what Garry Wills calls "the almost frantic collecting of art works, books, and furniture,"

Sounds like my type of dude! Just noticed that next year is the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase. Gotta read some Jefferson biographies so my party banter can be witty and well-informed next year.
posted by ColdChef at 1:09 PM on July 3, 2002


There is a great book on this subject - the arrest and trial of Franklin's grandson who ran a newspaper in Philadelphia "American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns" a collection of newspaper clippings and historical letters from the time. A tough but fascinating read.
posted by majikwah at 1:58 PM on July 3, 2002


Another great book on the Adams/Jefferson relationship that I've just finished is Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis (yes the guy who was fired for lying to his class about being a Vietnam vet.)
posted by Red58 at 2:21 PM on July 3, 2002


Benjamin Franklin Bache, Franklin's grandson, is a personal hero of mine. Franklin himself trained him in the art of printing, and left all his materials to him when he died. He wanted his charge to learn a useful trade, instead of entering public office straight away.

Bache died in prison while awaiting trial for his seditious, disrespectful, and constitutionally permitted anti-Presidential writings.

I'd vouch for American Aurora too, majikwah. A great, idiosyncratic barge of a book that conveys the Sedition Act affair through a mix of original sources and wild speculation.
posted by ntk at 4:03 PM on July 3, 2002


Jefferson was not above charging his critics with seditious libel. Luckily in this case, we had Hamilton to come to the rescue.

Btw, the wine Jefferson is probably most remembered for drinking is Hermitage, from the Rhone valley.
posted by gimonca at 10:15 AM on July 4, 2002


Jefferson was not above charging his critics with seditious libel.

Actually, it was New York that charged Croswell with libel, not Jefferson, although this site does claim Jefferson encouraged governors to crack down on critics. Can anyone confirm that? I haven't been able to.

A generous soul might find that Jefferson was simply pissed off at the lies newspapers were printing about him. A less generous soul might find that Jefferson became a hypocrite when confronted with newspapers slinging shit his way rather than at the Federalists. This LOC page says Jefferson "helped pay for the publication of Callender's pamphlet The Prospect Before Us, which claimed to expose John Adams as a monarchist." Doesn't that mean Croswell's accusation was true and Hamilton's defense right on target?

Hey, what better way for a U.S. citizen to spend the July 4th weekend than sunning, drinking, blowing off fingers and learning about Jefferson, right? :) Here's more:

Cool collection of Jefferson quotes about freedom of the press

Bill of Rights Institute's summary bio of Alexander Hamilton

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account

Straight Dope's take on the Sally Hemings controversy: "The most obvious interpretation of the DNA results is that Jefferson didn't father Tom, the kid who inspired the initial rumor, but he did father the kid who was born six years after the scandal broke."

James Callender, aka Jefferson's Matt Drudge, is a fascinating piece of work. He turned on Jefferson late in his career after receiving what he thought were insufficient rewards for his earlier anti-Federalist attacks, and was responsible for the first widespread dissemination of accusations about Jefferson and Hemings.

1804 cartoon of Jefferson as a cock courting Hemings (more here).

Finally, search for "Harry Croswell" on this page by the author of The Tyranny of Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. He claims the paper that got Croswell into trouble was "rushed into print" after a pro-Jefferson editor arrived in town, and was "devoted entirely to insulting Republicans, with special attention paid to Thomas Jefferson." Hmm. Maybe Croswell got careless and the libel suit wasn't frivolous after all. Still, there's no denying Hamilton's accomplishment in enshrining the truth defense against libel in state law.
posted by mediareport at 1:35 PM on July 4, 2002


Sedition = Imperialism
posted by nofundy at 5:46 AM on July 5, 2002


I find Jefferson all the more likeable because he wasn't perfect.

Nice collection of links, mediareport.
posted by gimonca at 10:01 AM on July 5, 2002


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