This evening’s thought comes from John Adams, from his Thoughts on Government in 1776:
Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.
It’s a profound truth, but one that, alas, leaders in this nation have had to learn and relearn far too many times throughout our nation’s history.
Adams wrote this in 1776, but he failed to learn its lesson fully, as evidenced by the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1789 promulgated during his tenure as president. I’ll let Lawrence Lessig explain:
In 1798, there was a bitter political division in the young nation between the Federalists (led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton) and the Republican (led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison). In the elections of 1796, the Federalists had retained control of both houses of Congress and Adams had defeated Jefferson by a scant three electoral votes….Americans were deeply uncertain about the nation’s future. Would democracy work? There was no good precedent. It was truly an experiment, and no one was sure the nation wouldn’t simply fall apart. The Federalists represented the propertied class. They were very concerned about stability and security, and were very anxious about the passions and irresponsibility of the common man. The Republicans exalted liberty over security and were deeply suspicious of the Federalists.
At this time, a war raged in Europe between England and France. The United States tried to maintain its neutrality so it could both avoid war and continue to engage in commerce with…all sides. But in 1798 the United States entered into a treaty with England that infuriated the French. Adams put the nation on war footing. The Federalists gave him a larger army and a larger navy. We were on the brink of declaring war. The Republicans were furious. They were much more sympathetic to the French (who had overthrown their monarchy) and much more hostile to the English (who were still ruled by a monarch). It was in this context that the Federalists enacted the Alien and Sedition Act….
The Federalist prosecutors and judges used the Sedition Act exclusively against Republicans, especially against Republican congressmen and editors who criticized the President….the real reason the Federalists wanted it was to silence Republican criticism and thus to ensure that Adams would defeat Jefferson in the election of 1800.
The plan backfired. The American people rose up in protest against these Act and elected Jefferson….
And yet, some folks still have not learned their lessons from this historic blunder. Still. What say you?