July 04, 2004

I trust not

On June 24th, 1826, the great American linguist Thomas Jefferson wrote and sent a letter to the mayor of Washington DC, who had invited him to attend the July 4th festivities there.

"RESPECTED SIR, -- The kind invitation I receive from you on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration on the fiftieth anniversary of American Independence as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day. But acquiescence is a duty under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all): the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

Jefferson was unsure whether he would live to see July 4. On June 24, the same day he wrote the letter to the mayor, he told a friend "that he had called in a physician and to gratify his family would follow his prescriptions, but that it would prove unavailing: the machine had worn out and would go on no longer".

He did live to "breath the air of the 50th anniversary", but barely, dying on the 4th.

Jefferson's old colleague and enemy John Adams died the same day, apparently a bit later. Adams' last words are said to have been "Thomas Jefferson survives", though apparently the last word in this phrase was "indistinct and imperfectly uttered". The transcription is a plausible one, since Adams apparently insisted in his later years on his intention to "outlive Jefferson", despite being seven years older.

In 1798, under the threat of a war with France, Adams' Federalist party passed a series of acts of congress including the Act Concerning Aliens and the Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes Against the United States (usually known as the Alien and Sedition Acts respectively). These acts (which George Washington supported) were allowed to lapse after Jefferson's Republican party defeated Adams in the election of 1800.

The start of the Act Concerning Aliens:

That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States at any time during the continnuance of this act, to order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or shall have reasonable grounds to suspect are concerned in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof, to depart out of the territory of the United States ...

As I understand it, the suspect aliens at that time were mainly French, Irish, and British. Here's a crucial passage from the Sedition Act:

And be it farther enacted, That if any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the constitution of the United States, or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act, or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

This would certainly take care of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore.

Representatives of 17 of the 20 or so anti-Federalist newspapers were charged under the Sedition Act, and 10 were convicted. Benjamin Bache, Benjamin Franklin's grandson, died while awaiting trial for sedition. Bache's successor as editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, William Duane, was attacked and nearly killed in the newspaper's offices by a Federalist mob, and was then charged with "seditious riot".

On June 1, 1798, Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Taylor

A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight, restoring their government to its true principles.

He was right. From his first inaugural, March 4, 1801:

During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good.


We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world's best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not.

I'll raise a glass to that.

I'd like to think that John Adams' dying words are true now, though false at the time he uttered them: Thomas Jefferson survives.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 4, 2004 09:13 AM