Reflection: Mobilizing against muzzling, 1798 and 2018

By Lane Hedrick, F/G Scholar

Fewer than 10 years after the signing of the Bill of Rights, which included the First Amendment and freedom of speech, President John Adams pushed forward the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Acts limited the ability to protest the government, refused passage into America if one was an immigrant and essentially eliminated freedom of the press. Each action included within the Acts highlighted a fear held by President Adams: criticism. While much could be said about how the acts were passed and how they came to be written, perhaps the most intriguing aspect is how protests and mobilization efforts against the acts came to fruition.Many within Adams’ own party recognized the controversial aspects of the legislation and hoped to combat it. So, asking the following questions is important to understanding the movements: 1) how did individuals mobilize against the Alien and Sedition Acts? 2) Could similar acts be passed in 2018? And 3) If the acts could be passed, what would mobilization efforts against them look like?

By this point in American history, two primary political parties had already begun to develop: The Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Adams was a Federalist, and obviously, his main opponents were Democratic-Republicans (DR). Henry Clay, an up-in-coming lawyer in Kentucky at this time, was quickly garnering a strong and influential client base in Lexington – marrying into a wealthy family and conducting business with many others.

Clay was developing significant leverage in the party and immediately saw the problematic outcomes that the Alien and Sedition Acts may have on American democracy. Some say this is where his role as a statesman began. Douglas Bradburn recognizes Clay’s role in the anti-Acts movement within Kentucky specifically in A Clamor in the Public Mind: Opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts. His analysis provokes three main success elements of the movement against the Alien and Sedition Acts: 1) political leverage 2) the ability to spread to vulnerable populations and 3) new forms of protest. Bradburn notes there were common enemies against the acts due to their “unconstitutional nature and the danger inherent in gross abuse of federal power.”

This was why there was a movement against them, but how did this movement work? First, there were large crowds of people that, in essence, protested the movement. Each joining of the crowd had guest speakers, like Clay, to speak out against the Acts. While Blackburn never calls these crowds protesters, it seems inherent in what they are doing that they were undoubtedly protesters. These protests, as we will call them, had enough political clout due to the speakers they drew in across Kentucky that they spread to other states, such as Pennsylvania – the second reason they became successful. Blackburn even notes that this was because of the large immigrant populations, such as Irish and German, that were found in the area. In this way, speakers could ignite populations against the Alien and Sedition Acts by framing them in a way that frightened immigrant populations, as they were groups attacked under the Acts.

Finally, new ways to protest were forced to develop because newspapers were now illegal. We have protest music in 2018, and it was also present in 1798. Blackburn details a soldier who fought in the Revolutionary War who wrote a song questioning not only the Acts, but the government’s ability to provide justice and basic rights to its people in the first place. The song was written by a veteran and was very clear in the way it spoke to the “popular discontent in the region.”
History will always repeat itself.

Despite widespread condemnation of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the late 1700s, there has been concern over their reappearance in 2018 under President Donald Trump. Prompting a second question: could similar acts be passed in 2018? Bloomberg writes on August 29, 2018 that Donald Trump is attempting to harass Google over its news algorithms. This would be a potential violation of free speech. In addition, there is not a single American unfamiliar with Trump’s debacle on Twitter surrounding “fake news.” He consistently shoots down credible news organizations solely because the information is not favorable towards him – something that should sound familiar if one is aware of how the Alien and Sedition Acts came to be. Further, the moves against refugees and immigrants that have been made by President Trump suggest anxiety over “aliens” coming into the country – forcing us to wonder if the Alien Acts could also be reapplied. Considering Trump’s clear attitudes towards the press and foreign peoples, it is pretty obvious that the Alien and Sedition Acts may make a reappearance in 2018.

However, if the Acts were to rear their ugly faces into American politics again, we could learn from the ultimately successful movements against the Acts that happened in 1798. In the same way that protests had empowering, prominent speakers, the same way that they targeted populations they knew would be impacted by the Acts, and in the same way that they developed new forms of protest – it is clear that we could embolden a movement against such actions.

We have already seen the first aspect of success – using well known speakers with leverage – in other mass protest movements in the past few years. Oprah, Collin Kapernick, and so many others have dedicated time and money to the Parkland Protests and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Actors like Emma Watson have entrenched themselves within the Planned Parenthood movement. We’ve also already seen movements working with vulnerable populations. There are countless law firms in the South-Western United States that assist immigrant families – trying to help them develop a case against ICE. And we have seen new forms of protest appear, such as Childish Gambino’s song This is America in protest against police misconduct towards Black Americans. Nothing about successful movements in 2018 is new, except maybe social media, and this shows that if new Alien and Sedition Acts were introduced, we would know how to fight against them. Just as Henry Clay did in Kentucky nearly 150 years ago.

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