Today is the Fourth of July. We should remember that on this day our ancestors (well, mine anyway) rose up against tyranny, committing themselves on principle to a path which could well have led to their eradication – had their rebellion failed. And it very nearly did fail. It held on by a thread, a reminder to us all of the power of ideas.
The road forward was not always smooth. And in fact the early years of the Republic were plagued by intense partisan strife, as quasi-wars arose involving France and Britain. Americans were at various points bitterly divided in their sympathies between the colonial motherland and the Continental power whose support made America’s independence possible. Washington had wisely cautioned against entanglements with the European great powers and urged distance. His view maintained peace and unity. But after his departure came a period of rule by the heavier hand of the unfortunate John Adams. For Adams, the nation faced grave perils from abroad and retrenchment of civil liberties was therefore needed. He secured – though by a single vote in the House – passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, under which measures of political repression were taken against those who opposed the Federalists (which was roughly half the country). In many ways, Adams’s heavy-handed rule resembles that of George W. Bush more than two hundred years later.
And this is what Jefferson called the “reign of witches” in his famous letter to John Taylor, reproduced in part as today’s quote. Jefferson believed that the Federalists had overplayed their hand – that they had manipulated threats from abroad to seize for themselves vastly greater powers than the Constitution permitted them. He also believed that their demonization and mistreatment of the political opposition was an abuse of the powers of office and an assault upon the body politick. Adams had used the power of criminal prosecution to destroy the reputations of dozens of opposition political leaders, and to throw many of them behind bars. Even Jefferson expressed concern that he might be prosecuted (in fact he cautions Taylor to be careful about this letter; he is even concerned that it will be intercepted and read by Adams’s agents).
Jefferson is troubled by a growing divide in the nation – by the fact that Massachusetts and Connecticut were increasingly embracing intolerant theocratic values and the political interests of a rising merchant class. But in Virginia and the more agricultural states of the Mid-Atlantic and South, the views were “liberal” – that is, “liberal” the way Jefferson and Washington used the word, namely opposed to a church-state, embracing freedom of religion, tolerance, and suspicious of government intrusion into private life and commerce. (It seems strange to us today that Massachusetts and Connecticut are the “red” states and Virginia and the South are the “blue” states, but in a sense that is just how it was.)
Throughout his life, Jefferson had a correspondence with Adams, and some of their letters in later life are truly poignant. But in 1798, Jefferson was severely critical of Adams’s conduct of the presidency, and most historical judgment has been with him. He termed Adams’s tactics as “divide and conquer.” “This is not new,” he wrote to John Taylor, “it is the old practice of despots; to use a part of the people to keep the rest in order. And those who have once got an ascendancy and possessed themselves of all the resources of the nation, their revenues and offices, have immense means for retaining their advantage.
“But,” he cautioned, “our present situation is not a natural one.”
The American way, Jefferson said, must be guided by tolerance, and acceptance of different views within, even in the face of perceived external threats. And indeed, the populace may perceive the threats quite differently. “Be this as it may, in every free and deliberating society, there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties, and violent dissensions and discords; and one of these, for the most part, must prevail over the other for a longer or shorter time. Perhaps this party division is necessary to induce each to watch and delate to the people the proceedings of the other.”
Jefferson had faith in the democratic process, and in the ability of the country to set itself right through new elections. “The witches,” as he called the fearmongering Federalists, might well hold the public in their thrall for a few years, but in time experience and reason would cause their spells to fade. Jefferson’s prognosis was, of course, correct. Within two years the Federalists were sent packing and Jefferson assumed the presidency.
And in all of this is a powerful message for Americans today. We have been through a six year reign of witches. They have used the same sort of hysterical rhetoric and fear that Adams used. And as each successive public opinion poll tells us, the spell is wearing off, and a time for accounting is coming.
Jefferson had the right formula to counter their misdeeds. In involved civil courage, standing for the principles that the Constitution enshrined and returning the Federalists’ verbal assaults in kind. Silence and inaction are not acceptable answers. Patriots stand their ground and raise their voices.