By Thomas Oliphant, Boston Globe
From D-Day to Independence Day, a fascinating interaction of film, popular history, academic history, nostalgia, and agenda activism has revived our past.Good, on balance.
But with the latest manifestation – a head of steam behind an effort to memorialize John Adams, his wife, Abigail, and his son John Quincy Adams in the national capital – the adage that nothing exceeds like excess is proved once again.
In the last month, a proposal to put the Adams family in statue form somewhere in the environs of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Washington has received unanimous approval by a House subcommittee and a full House committee, the endorsement of the latest Adams chroniclers, and opinion influencers from the left (Mary McGrory) and the center (Democratic Representative Tim Roemer of Indiana).
From the right, George Will has chimed in with newfound adoration of the family but is torn on the monument issue by his generalized opposition to Capitol clutter.
The campaign has built up a huge head of steam on its way to the House floor, which is precisely why it’s time to register a dissent – on historical, not landscaping, grounds.
The case against an Adams memorial can be oversimplified in a single term – The Alien and Sedition Acts. This 1798 offense against freedom, the Constitution, and political morality is a disqualifying action by any historical figure for whom the political equivalent of beatification is being sought. It is especially so in the absence of accomplishment of such surpassing and enduring value that they place such reprehensible behavior in acceptable context.
In a wink, that takes care of the old man himself and his wife (depending on which history book you favor, she was either the source of his support of a political police state or his enthusiastic collaborator).
By logic, if John and Abigail don’t fit the mold (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt), John Quincy can’t stand alone. He was a skilled diplomat for Washington and his father, and he was the first model for the ideal post-presidency. But the younger Adams also accepted his corrupt selection as the first minority president in 1824 over Andrew Jackson, who turned him out of office four years later, as Jefferson did President John Adams in 1800.
The immense contributions of these people to the American Revolution and to the ideal of disinterested public service defy superlatives. But the Alien and Sedition Acts defied law in the guise of making it.
Barely a decade after the Constitution was written, President John Adams committed what is arguably the most flagrant, wholesale violation of it. The laws focused first on foreigners, nearly tripling (to 14 years) the time of residence required before application for citizenship could be approved. Most perniciously, the president was given the power to kick any alien out of the country whom he determined to be ”dangerous.”
For the rest of the country, the Sedition Act made it a crime punishable by jail and fine to write or publish anything about Congress, the president, or the government generally that sought ”to excite against them … the hatred of the good people of the United States or to stir up sedition.”
The law also targeted any malicious or scandalous, as well as false, writings, and not surprisingly, all of the nearly two-dozen cases under it were brought against Republican (as in Jeffersonian) activists and editors.
After he left office, Adams continued to argue that the legislation was justified on national security grounds and that he had signed the laws reluctantly.
The times were indeed dangerous – the country was in an undeclared naval conflict with revolutionary France, and political passions were ugly. But this only makes Adams’s resort to illegal suppression all the more despicable, and it is noteworthy that the laws were not repealed as the crisis subsided.
The major intellectual supporters of an Adams memorial – historian Joseph Ellis of Mount Holyoke College (”Founding Brother” and ”The Passionate Sage”) and best-selling author David McCullough (”John Adams”) – breezed by this huge transgression too easily in their books and in congressional appearances here this month. McCullough points out that the alien laws were never enforced, neglecting the thousands of legal residents who fled in terror that they would be. Ellis is much tougher – ”unquestionably the biggest blunder of his presidency” – but in context, he is forgiving.
It is not necessary in opposing a memorial to denigrate Adams’s pivotal role in the Revolution and his far-from-bad presidency (he skillfully negotiated an end to hostilities with France and in one of his final acts named John Marshall the Supreme Court’s chief justice).
Less well remembered but of major significance was Adams’s function as the scholarly advocate of a balanced, constitutional government even as revolutionary fervor stirred the colonies.
But that only makes his offense against the actual Constitution more flagrant. No true believer in the Bill of Rights should stand silent while this unseemly rush to elevate Adams beyond his proper place proceeds.
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