By Hayley Robb, F/G Scholar
The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed prohibiting the writing, printing, uttering or publishing of “any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings’” against the president and other executive branch officials, according to Ronald G. Shafer in his article, “The thin-skinned president who made it illegal to criticize his office.” The president who passed this law was John Adams, a commander-in-chief, oftentimes compared to today’s president of the United States, Donald Trump. However, the comparison I would like to make is between President Trump and Kentucky statesman, Henry Clay, also known as “the Great Compromiser.”
In 1798, Adams and the rest of his Federalist party were spurred by fear of the terror that was raging on in the French Revolution, according to Anthony Lewis’ biography of the First Amendment: “Freedom for the Thought We Hate.” They decided to pass a bill suppressing seditious libel potentially harmful to the United States Government.
However, Adams’s bill would not move forward unopposed, Lewis said. Vice president, Thomas Jefferson, led the opposition group also known as the Anti-federalists. The Alien and Sedition Acts proved an uproar in the minority opinion. Alongside of Jefferson, was James Madison who helped propose the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, a set of political statements taken to the legislature that would ultimately lead to the repeal of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1801, according to Lewis.
The resolutions would not have been successful if it were not for the groundwork of the people and the voices behind the papers and protest. Henry Clay was one of those voices, according to Douglas Bradburn in his article, “A Clamor in the Public Mind: Opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts.”
Henry Clay’s protesting, mobilizing and assembly of the people in Kentucky and Virginia against the Federalists during 1798-1799 supplied the original opposition to Adams and overturned the Federalist majorities (Bradburn, 2008, p. 568).
It is interesting to note; however, Donald Trump was reported commemorating Clay at a rally in Louisville, Kentucky in March of 2017, Waxman said in a TIME article titled, “President Trump Praised Both Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. They Hated Each Other.”
I think Waxman’s headline gives it all away. With the comparison of Trump to Adams, whom Clay also vehemently opposed, it is puzzling as to why Trump would bring up such a historical figure. Trump had no idea who he supported or who he favored.
According to TIME, Trump said like Clay he believes strongly in the “American system,” which is an economic policy Clay proposed with “tariffs to protect American industry and finance American infrastructure” (Waxman, 2017).
Clay was regarded as the “the Great Compromiser” and took a strong stance in establishing a national bank for the U.S. in 1816, according to Niccandro Iannacci in his biography of Clay on the “Constitution Daily.” He also led efforts on the Mississippi Compromise of 1820 and put together a bill addressing several heated debates concerning California as a state and the creation of Utah and New Mexico as territories, also named the Compromise of 1850 (Iannacci, 2016).
Although, Clay’s achievements alone could count for the differences amongst him and Trump, Clay’s ideology within the Alien and Sedition Acts debates are stronger evidence.
Clay was one of the main orators of the time (Bradburn, 2008, p. 571). Clay spoke for nearly four hours amongst one of the largest public protests Lexington, Kentucky (Bradburn, 2008, p. 571). The meet-up had more than four-thousand people flooding the town’s streets–a town I have come to know very well, myself.
In a similar address to the State of Massachusetts on the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions and the Alien and Sedition laws, Clay said in a speech: “by way of illustration, if the sedition act had not been condemned by the indignant voice of the community, the right of resistance would have accrued. If Congress assumed the power to control the right of speech, and to assail, by penal statutes, the greatest of all the bulwarks of liberty, the freedom of the press, and there were no other means to arrest their progress, but that to which I have referred, lamentable as the appeal, such a monstrous abuse of power, I contend, would authorize a recurrence to that right,” (Clay, 1842, p. 63).
Henry Clay is explaining the value of the press to expose the imbalances of political power. He said that if the people would not have spoken up, the Government’s progress would have pursued with a silenced press. Through this excerpt, it is obvious Clay placed considerable responsibility on both the newspapers and the public community to act as “watchdogs” over federal power and the protection of certain rights.
Although a naturally skilled orator, Clay had to avoid many sound arguments in his speeches to be mindful of the audience’s prejudices (Clay, 1904, p. 7). The Kentucky opposition was split into two factions–one dominated by the aristocratic slave owners and Clay’s faction, dominated by small farmers (Bradburn, 2008, p. 571). Although, these groups were split they still all unified toward one goal and one belief, which was the fundamental unconstitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts and the danger they posed to the abuse of federal power (Bradburn, 2008, p. 571).
“It should be observed, in the first place, that the gentleman are brought, by the very course of reasoning which they themselves employ, by all the rules which they would lay down for the constitution, to cases where discretion must exist. But is there no limitation, no security against the abuse of it? Yes, there is such security in the fact of our being members in the same society, equally affected ourselves by the laws we promulgate…” “…And there remains also that further, through awful security, the last resort of society, which I contend belongs alike to the people and to the States in their sovereign capacity, to be exercised in extreme cases. And when oppression becomes intolerable, the right of resistance,” Clay said in a speech to the State of Massachusetts (Clay, 1842, p. 62).
Clay is asserting that the security we, as people, have against our Government is our right of free speech and illustrates, again, by taking that away we lose our identity as a democratic republic.
For that reason, I don’t know how a man who accuses Google of manipulating their algorithm to favor Democrats, essentially accusing the search engine of a form of sedition, all the while enforcing similar naturalization laws as Adams, can honor someone like Clay (Sunstein, 2018). Trump expresses his discontent with mainstream media and the press through his own social media and denounces the value of our nation’s reporters. I don’t think Clay would have stood for that. I think economically they may have resembled each other, but morally they stand on different ground.
Clay’s economic ideas do align more with Trump’s as they were not focused on helping workers, but more focused on promoting the industry and the use of American manufactured goods (Waxman, 2017). Clay’s “American System,” was passed in the midst of the War of 1812 and led to the construction and improvement of bridges, railways and canals that ended up connecting the northern industries with the southern plantations (Waxman, 2017).
Despite Clay and Trump’s obvious similar interests and economic ideologies, Trump differs from Clay in the respect that he actually aligns with a person Clay opposed even more than John Adams–Andrew Jackson (Meacham, 2016).
Trump’s coming to presidency surfaced with a promise of freedom from established traditions and a return to “greatness” as seen in his “Make America Great Again” motto and it surfaced in Andrew Jackson’s case with a promise back to the Jeffersonian simplicity (Meacham, 2016). Both presidents shocked the existing order, which was the Clintons and mainstream media for Trump and John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay for Andrew Jackson. Finally, each of their personalities and prominent images cast upon the American people is what carried each of them to presidency (Meacham, 2016).
Trump certainly needs to pick either Clay or Jackson to commemorate because both are quite different.
I think unlike Trump, Henry Clay would have been a major supporter of free speech his actions in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions are clear indicators of such support.
Clay asked the State of Massachusetts: “Say that there must be an absolute necessity to justify the exercise of an implied power, who is to define that absolute necessity, and then to apply it? Who is to be the judge? Where is the security against transcending that limit?” (Clay, 1842, p. 62).
Clay posed the questions we are still asking today: who is to be the judge of free speech? And, therefore, who judges the punishment and consequences of that said speech?
Clay led a group of predominantly rural citizens to ask those same questions, who were living in the same cities and towns many of us now call home. He resisted silence and fought for what we indicate as the “freedom of speech” today.
In reality, Trump would have hated Clay. Trump would have hated his protests, his speeches and his persistence toward ensuring the security of a country that had once been censored.
Bradburn, D. (2008). A Clamor in the Public Mind: Opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts. The William and Mary Quarterly,65(3), 565. doi:10.2307/25096814
Clay, H. (1842). The life and speeches of Henry Clay, of Kentucky. New York: James B. Swain.
Clay, H. (1904). The works of Henry Clay: comprising his life, correspondence and speeches. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Donald Trump. (2018, September 06). Retrieved September 29, 2018, from https://www.biography.com/people/donald-trump-9511238
Henry Clay, the great compromiser. (n.d.). Retrieved September 29, 2018, from https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/henry-clay-the-great-compromiser
Lewis, A. (2007). Freedom for the Thought That We Hate. The Harm in Hate Speech,1-21. doi:10.4159/harvard.9780674065086.c3
Meacham, J. (2016, December 07). Donald Trump, Andrew Jackson and American Populism. Retrieved September 29, 2018, from http://time.com/4591408/time-poy-donald-trump-andrew-jackson-jon-meacham/
Sunstein, C. R. (2018, August 29). The President Who Would Bring Back the Sedition Act. Retrieved September 29, 2018, from https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-08-29/trump-sees-sedition-in-google-s-algorithm
The thin-skinned president who made it illegal to criticize his office. (2018, September 08). Retrieved September 29, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/09/08/the-thin-skinned-president-who-made-it-illegal-to-criticize-his-office/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.267f7261fa5c
Waxman, O. B. (2017, March 21). Donald Trump Praises Henry Clay in Louisville: What to Know. Retrieved September 29, 2018, from http://time.com/4707867/donald-trump-henry-clay-andrew-jackson/