Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ Stated Simply the Reasons for Independence

A 1776 edition of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold for $56,762 at a June 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, it was thought that most colonists were true patriots who favored full separation from England. It was not true then – 15 percent to 20 percent were still loyal to the Crown (Loyalists) and a like number were still undecided – and it was absolutely unresolved as little as six months earlier.

It was true that there had been skirmishes with British soldiers and a series of complaints diplomatically lodged by colonial leaders, however, the Continental Congress had been silent on the issue of indignation. There was still a sense that Parliament in London could resolve disputes. If anything, the colonies vibrated with unarticulated emotions – poised for someone to bring the scattered opinions into focus.

Clarity finally arrived in Philadelphia on Jan. 10, 1776, when an English corset-maker, who had only been in America a little over a year, published a pamphlet titled “Common Sense.” It was originally titled “Plain Truth” (Benjamin Rush suggested the change) and signed anonymously “By an Englishman.” In stunningly clear and moving prose, Thomas Paine gathered up the random, unspoken thoughts of the average smithy or farmer and crystallized the rebellious demand for independence, giving them the courage to accept a radical idea.

Thomas Paine

He wrote, “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. … ’Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest … Now is the seed time of continental union, faith and honor.” History would be made now or never. Paine wrote. “The present winter is worth an age if rightly employed, but if lost or neglected, the whole continent will partake of the misfortune.”

Then came the words from which there would be no turning back: “Every thing that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ’TIS TIME TO PART!”

“Common Sense” was an immediate success; 100,000 copies circulated in three months to the 2.5 million white residents in the 13 colonies. For the first time, the notion of independence was on the lips of every yeoman in the colonies and a new idea of separate nationality was in their heads.

Paine was the first man to string together the five words we now cherish: the United States of America.

Unadorned and plain, the American voice of simple declarative sentences, set off by vivid imagery, is the pioneering literary achievement of “Common Sense.” John Adams neatly summed up its importance when he said, “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of George Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Sounds right to me.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Harvard-Educated Adams Cracked Down on Non-Citizens, Free Speech

An 1805-dated oil on canvas portrait of John Adams, attributed to William Dunlap, sold for $35,000 at a May 2017 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When Barack Obama was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009, he became the eighth president to have graduated from Harvard, which has educated more U.S. presidents than any other university. Yale is second with five, with George W. Bush counting for both Yale and Harvard (where he earned an MBA).

The first of the “Harvard Presidents” goes all the way back to 1796, when John Adams narrowly defeated Thomas Jefferson 71 to 68 in the electoral vote count. It was the only election in history in which a president and a vice president were elected from opposing parties.

However, Jefferson bounced back four years later in a bitter campaign characterized by malicious personal attacks. Alexander Hamilton played a pivotal role in sabotaging President Adams’ attempt to win a second term by publishing a pamphlet that charged Adams was “emotionally unstable, given to impulsive decisions, unable to co-exist with his closest advisers, and was generally unfit to be president.”

When all the votes were counted in 1800, Adams actually ended up third behind both Jefferson and Aaron Burr (who eventually became vice president). John and Abigail Adams took the loss very emotionally and it alienated their relationship with Jefferson for 20-plus years. Adams departed the White House before dawn on Inauguration Day, skipped the entire inauguration ceremony and headed home to Massachusetts. The two men ultimately reconciled near the end of their lives (both died on July 4, 1826).

Adams had been an experienced executive-office politician after serving eight years as vice president for George Washington. However, his four years as president were controversial. It started when the Federalist-dominated Congress passed four bills, collectively called the Alien and Sedition Acts, which President Adams signed into law in 1798. The Naturalization Act made it harder for immigrants to become citizens, and the Alien Friends Act allowed the president to imprison and deport non-citizens deemed dangerous or from a hostile nation (Alien Enemy Act). And finally, the Sedition Act made it a crime to make false statements that were critical of the federal government.

Collectively, these bills invested President Adams with sweeping authority to deport resident non-citizens he considered dangerous; they criminalized free speech, forbidding anyone to “write, print, utter or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writing against the government of the United States … or either House of Congress of the United States … with intent to defame … or bring them into contempt or dispute … or to excite against them or either of them … the hatred of the good people of the United States.”

Editors were arrested and tried for publishing pieces the Adams administration deemed seditious. Editors were not the only targets. Matthew Lyon, a Vermont Congressman, was charged with sedition for a letter he wrote to the Vermont Journal denouncing Adams’ power grab. After he was indicted, tried and convicted, Lyon was sentenced to four months in prison and fined $1,000.

For Vice President Jefferson, the Alien and Sedition Acts were a cause of despair and wonderment. “What person, who remembers the times we have seen, could believe that within such a short time, not only the spirit of liberty, but the common principles of passive obedience would be trampled on and violated.” He suspected that Adams was conspiring to establish monarchy again.

It would not be the last time Americans would sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of national security. More on this later.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

America Remains a Beacon of Democracy for the World

Revolutionary War newspapers, like this July 31, 1776, edition of The Massachusetts Sun, often included reports on speeches by figures such as John Hancock and Patrick Henry.

By Jim O’Neal

During the winter of 1774-75, George Washington helped militia groups in Virginia form independent companies for a possible war with Great Britain. This included choosing officers and arming, equipping and training for a worst-case event. They naturally started clamoring for Washington as their commander and he finally agreed to accept the field command for four independent companies in Virginia counties.

In January, The Virginia Gazette thanked the aspiring hero in a quatrain: “In spite of Gage’s flaming sword/and Carleton’s Canadian troop/Brave Washington shall give the word/and we’ll make them howl and whoop.” The forces for war were gaining momentum.

In March 1775, Washington was summoned to Richmond to attend the Second Virginia Convention. This meeting ratified the resolutions of the Continental Congress and applauded the work of seven delegates from Virginia. Patrick Henry argued that British troops intended to enslave the Colonies and set pulses racing with his flaming response: “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Buoyed by these words, the convention agreed that Virginia should be placed in “a posture of defense.”

In April, it momentarily seemed as if an early chapter of the Revolutionary War would be written in Virginia when the British (Lord Dunmore) had all the gunpowder stored at a Williamsburg arsenal removed and placed in a British man-of-war under the pretext of worrying about a slave uprising. When enraged patriots threatened to invade the governor’s mansion, Washington counseled caution and advised the companies under his command not to march on Williamsburg. A young 24-year-old James Madison condemned Washington for having “discovered a pusillanimity little comporting with their professions or the name of Virginia.”

As a military man, Washington knew how indomitable the British military machine was and how quixotic a full-scale revolution would be. As he later said of America’s chances in the spring of 1775, “It is known that the expense in comparison with our circumstances as colonists must be enormous, the struggle protracted, dubious and severe. The resources of Britain were, in a manner, inexhaustible, that her fleets cover the ocean and that her troops had harvested laurels in every quarter of the globe … money the nerve of war, was wanting.”

But these colonists had something much more precious, as Washington would later say: “The unconquerable resolution of our citizens, the conscious rectitude of our cause and a confident trust that we should not be forsaken by heaven.”

The role of heaven is unknowable, but the importance of leaders, especially George Washington, is still a remarkable miracle that we should never forget.

We are still a beacon of democracy for the world to follow.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Presidential Sons a Complex, Dark Addendum to First Family History

A pair of baseballs signed by Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, from the collection of baseball legend Stan Musial, sold for $2,629 at a November 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

After favored son John Quincy Adams became president of the United States, there was an unspoken feeling that – like the sons of kings and monarchs – he might be destined for greatness. However, it would be a surprising 176 years before another president’s son, George W. Bush, would be sworn in as president.

The stories of presidential sons between these two bookends make up a complex and slightly dark addendum to the First Families of the United States. Some historians have a theory that the closer the male child is to his father, the more likely he is to die or self-destruct. Whether it is fact or coincidence is open for debate.

  • George Washington had no biological children, but was stepfather to a notorious young man, John Parke Curtis, who ruined his estate and died prematurely at age 26.
  • Thomas Jefferson’s only son died shortly after birth (unnamed).
  • James Madison’s stepson was an alcoholic, gambler and womanizer. After Madison died, he cheated his own mother (Dolley), and Congress had to intervene to help the former First Lady.
  • James Monroe’s only son died in infancy.
  • Andrew Jackson Jr. was an adopted son who mismanaged the Hermitage. He died of tetanus after shooting himself in a hunting accident.
  • Martin Van Buren Jr. died from tuberculosis in a Parisian apartment with his father sitting helpless by his bedside.
  • James Polk’s nephew and ward – Marshall Polk – was expelled from both Georgetown and West Point, ending his life in prison.
  • Calvin Coolidge Jr. died of blood poisoning from an infected blister after playing tennis.

A number managed to live longer lives, yet seemed to be cursed with a plethora of issues:

  • John Tyler Jr. was an alcoholic.
  • Ulysses S. Grant Jr. got caught up in an investment fraud scheme.
  • Chester A. Arthur Jr. was a playboy with an unaccountably suspicious source of “easy money” and investigative reporters hounded him and only stopped when his father’s term of office ended.

Franklin Roosevelt Jr. was the first of two sons named after their father and died suddenly after birth. The second namesake, married five times, was banned from the prestigious New York Social Register. Then, the powerful Tammany Hall machine became irked and ended his political career, as well.

Remarkably, when this terrible scourge progressed, fate would sometimes (greedily) step in and run the table. This happened to Franklin Pierce, who lost all three eldest sons in a row. It also happened to Andrew Johnson when first-born Charles Johnson died in a horse accident, Richard Johnson likely committed suicide at age 35, and younger brother Andrew Johnson Jr. died at a youthful 26.

Intuition says this phenomenon is more than random chance or a curse. Perhaps it is the pressure of being the first born, or something that drives the children of powerful figures to escape through substance abuse or risky behavior. Even President George W. Bush admitted to fighting alcoholism for years.

Mine is not to psychoanalyze, but simply to point out a series of eerie similar situations for your interest and speculation.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

It’s Hard to Overestimate the Role of Washington in our Independence

A 1776 $1 Continental Dollar, the first representation of the basic unit of the U.S. coinage system, sold for nearly $1.53 million at a January 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

From Sept. 4 to Oct. 26, 1774, a group of delegates from every colony except Georgia met in Philadelphia in response to the British imposition of the Intolerable Acts. Although declaring independence was not the purpose of the meeting – sympathies ranged from loyalty to rebellion – they did pass 10 resolutions enumerating their rights and agreed to meet again if their grievances were not addressed by the Crown.

They met again in May 1775 and in June they appointed George Washington commander of a newly founded Continental Army. On July 4, 1776, the Congress issued a Declaration of Independence.

This upset King George III, who was an insecure man of average intelligence, but bewildered by the rash of constitutional arguments the Americans were asserting. He was the third of the Hanoverian Kings (his father had died and his grandfather still spoke with a deep German accent) and was firmly convinced the welfare of Great Britain was heavily reliant on the American Colonies.

The Colonies had become a major importer of British goods, surpassing even the West Indies, and his greatest nightmare was any interruption of this trade. “If we lose the American Colonies, we shall sink back into obscurity and be just a small, insignificant island once again.” He was adamant about not letting this occur.

George Washington by Joseph Christian Leyendecker.

By then, the population in America was 2.5 million (500,000 slaves, of which 200,000 were in Virginia), living in 13 Colonies and uniting for independence, despite the government being in total disarray. Some had colonial governments in place, but in colony after colony, revolutionary leaders had supplanted official British rule.

The Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775 in Philadelphia right after the Battles of Lexington and Concord and soon evolved into a national entity. After the formal Declaration of Independence, all that was left to do was defeat a vastly superior British Army, which was supremely confident its 5,000 soldiers could march the entire length, quashing any resistance as they went. We all know how this ended, but the tribulations of an underfunded, out-manned army are still inspiring.

It would be hard to overestimate the personal contributions and leadership that George Washington provided, and to call him “indispensable” is an understatement. Absent his presence, a very different outcome was highly likely. The “Father of Our Country” is one individual who will not be lost in the sands of history.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Reagan’s Last Christmas in Office Marked by Memorable Snowy Fairyland

1980s-ronald-reagan-win-one-for-the-gipper-signed-photograph
A photograph signed by Ronald Reagan with the inscription “Win one for the Gipper” sold for $8,365 at a November 2014 Heritage auction. It’s considered the most famous line Reagan spoke on the silver screen, in 1940’s Knute Rockne, All American.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1980, Ronald Wilson Reagan became the oldest man (69) to be elected president. He extended his record in 1984 when he was reelected at age 73. For their last Christmas in the White House, the Reagans wanted to make a splash. The East Room was transformed into a snowy fairyland, with full-size trees and a gift-filled sleigh occupied by carolers and drawn by lifelike horses, all powdered with glittery “snow.” It was a vintage Hollywood image.

Thousands of visitors filed by and looked on in both delight and amazement at the dazzling scene. Nothing remotely like this had ever been seen in the White House. It was a playful farewell by two whose roots were as firmly planted in Hollywood as John F. Kennedy’s were in Boston or Lyndon B. Johnson’s on the banks of the Pedernales River.

On his final day in office, Jan. 20, 1989, President Reagan went to the Oval Office early and met with his Chief-of-Staff Ken Duberstein and General Colin Powell, the National Security Advisor. Both of them said reassuringly, “Mr. President, the world is quiet today.” After they left, Reagan also left the office, stopping at the door for one last look. George and Barbara Bush were arriving in the entrance hall below.

On the route from the Capitol to the White House, the incoming President George H.W. Bush and first lady took a cue from the Carters, leaving their car from time to time to walk along Pennsylvania Avenue to greet the crowds. They walked up the driveway on the same path all their predecessors had followed since James Monroe’s second term, 168 years before.

History linked the inauguration of George H.W. Bush and George Washington. It had been exactly 200 years since the first president began serving his first term.

President Bush had an extensive background that included two terms in Congress, ambassador to the United Nations, director of the CIA, liaison to China, and eight full years as vice president. He had easily defeated Michael Dukakis to win the presidency, but in the process famously declared “Read my lips. No new taxes!” – words that would haunt him.

Although favored for reelection in 1992, he got caught in a buzz saw when third-party candidate Ross Perot siphoned off nearly 19 percent of the popular vote and a young governor from Arkansas won with a plurality of 43 percent. William Jefferson Clinton and Al Gore Jr. became the youngest president and vice president in history.

George H.W. Bush became the 10th incumbent president to lose in a bid for reelection after becoming the first sitting vice president to be elected president since Martin Van Buren in 1836.

The strange world of presidential politics. We love it.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

 

With Discovery of Gold, President Polk Opened Massive Migration West

half-plate-daguerreotype-of-california-gold-rush-mining-scene-ca-1850s
This half plate daguerreotype of a California gold rush mining scene, circa 1850, sold for $28,680 at a June 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Reports of gold in California came to the president as early as June 1848. Part of the talk was idle speculation; part was based on tales of settlers and soldiers plus myths of Spanish treasure troves. A succession of adventurers, spies and famous Western characters like Kit Carson had slipped quietly up the stairs into President James Polk’s office to tell of the vast domain far to the west.

The lost mines of El Dorado had long fascinated nearly everyone.

The first official report on “gold diggings” came to Polk in August 1848. Navy Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale showed the president some actual gold nuggets. Authoritative and “eyewitness” accounts of California gold started popping up in various newspapers. In a message to Congress on Dec. 5, 1848, Polk outlined the possible scope of the precious metal mines and the extraordinary potential that had been corroborated by authentic reports.

Two days later, a courier from California arrived at the War Department with a mysterious package and more dramatic evidence of western riches. As soon as Secretary of War William Marcy unwrapped the parcel, he took it directly to President Polk. It contained a tea caddy crammed full of gold nuggets and dust that weighed over 230 ounces.

They quickly decided to send the largest “lump” to Philadelphia to be minted into coins and put the rest on display in the War Office. Visitors of every class stood in long lines just to see it and it became the dominant subject everywhere. On Dec. 12, Polk predicted the coming 12 months would witness “a large population … attracted to California by its mineral wealth.”

In his History of California, historian Hubert Bancroft wrote of Polk’s prophecy. “The interest in California became all-absorbing, creating a restlessness which finally poured a human tide into San Francisco Bay, and sent hundreds of caravans over the plains and mountains.”

However, the Polks moved out of the White House on Saturday, March 3, 1849, to 10 rooms prepared for them at the Willard Hotel. He had promised to only serve one term and his time in the WH had taken an enormous toll on his health. He had the shortest retirement of any president and died of cholera 103 days after leaving office. Along with George Washington, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Calvin Coolidge and LBJ, he was one of six presidents to die while their direct successor was in office.

He totally missed the Gold Rush and the massive migration west he was responsible for.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

After Disaster of 1812, President Madison and First Lady Recovered Their Legacies

james-madison-circa-1812-meissen-saucer
This James Madison Meissen saucer, circa 1812, sold for $13,145 at a November 2011 Heritage auction. Little material culture was produced during Madison’s presidency.

By Jim O’Neal

Three days after the fall of Washington in the War of 1812, James and Dolley Madison returned in the wake of the British departure. They visited the ruins of the capital and White House, which sunk them into melancholy.

That the president of the United States had been burned out of his house mortified America, and the symbolic impact transcended the sad reality. Madison was accused of cowardice because he had fled, and the press claimed Dolley could have saved more than she did … a lot more. A Washington newspaper even stated angrily that a positive result of burning the White House was that it ended her queenly entertaining.

These difficult times came to a sudden, happy ending with the news of the Battle of New Orleans and the return of the American delegation from Ghent with a peace treaty. The president jubilantly proclaimed the war was at an end. While the glory of the hour went to General Andrew Jackson, both the president and first lady recovered their legacies and good names.

The White House had been burned to a shell, but it was the neatest of fires as the refuse had fallen precisely within the stone walls and no debris was scattered on the grounds. Crews dug for salvage in the deep bed of ashes and rubble that filled the basement, however not much was worth saving. The refuse was simply thrown into a nearby gully and attention turned to rebuilding (an important distinction).

A bill for rebuilding was rammed through Congress in two days to make sure Washington, D.C., remained the capital – and not some more-centralized area beyond the mountains, like Cincinnati, as some had proposed. Any “Phoenix” would rise from these ashes. As President Madison carefully pointed out, “the bill specifically stated ‘rebuilding’ not relocation.”

Considering that it took nearly 10 years to build the first WH, reconstruction moved along quickly, but not fast enough for the man who occupied the unfinished White House in October 1817.

A tall, blush-faced Virginian who looked all of his 58 years, James Monroe was the last luminary of the Revolutionary generation to occupy the presidency. Like George Washington, he had fought in the War of Independence and had been wounded at Trenton. Years later, he served as a delegate in negotiations with France for the Louisiana Purchase. During the Madison administration, he had been Secretary of State and Secretary of War, always with an eye on the presidency.

When he finally reached his goal, he knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish. Refusing to act as head of his party, he instead insisted that the war had united all Americans into one and that political parties were no longer needed! He proceeded to usher in “The Era of Good Feelings.”

We miss him.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Insidious Practice of Slavery Violated Every Principle that Men of Goodwill Supported

thomas-hart-benton-slave-master-with-slaves-study-for-the-american-historical-epic
This crayon with pencil and ink on paper by American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), titled Slave Master with Slaves (Study for The American Historical Epic), circa 1926, realized $35,000 at a December 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Slavery was the great exception to the rule of liberty proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and established in the U.S. Constitution. The first African slaves (about 40 in all) were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Va., in 1619 to aid in the production of lucrative crops like tobacco.

By the time of America’s founding, the number had grown to 500,000, mostly in the five southernmost states. Slavery was never widespread in the North, but many profited indirectly by the practice. Between 1774 and 1804, all of the northern states had abolished slavery, but the “peculiar institution” remained absolutely vital to the South.

Even as the U.S. Congress outlawed the African slave trade in 1808, domestic trade flourished, and the slave population more than tripled over the next 50 years. By 1860, it was up to 4 million, primarily in cotton-production areas of the South.

One naive hope had been that slavery would slowly die as a simple matter of business economics. In 1776, Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) argued that the plantation system was uneconomic since slave labor cost more to maintain than laborers paid a competitive wage. But, in 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, making slave-based production lower in cost. The insatiable demand for cotton from Europe was irresistible to the southern agrarian-based economy.

Overlooked in all of this was a brilliant insight by Smith. He noted that slavery ended in the Middle Ages in Europe only after the state and church became separate and strongly independent. His insight was that it is nearly impossible to end slavery in free, democratic forms of government, primarily because many of the legislators would also be slave owners and unlikely to act in ways that were not in their best interest.

Similar arguments later appear in the works of French philosopher Auguste Comte, known for his ideas regarding the “separation of the spiritual and the temporal.”

That was exactly the situation in the United States since many of the founders – most notably George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – owned slaves and the South had always been dominated by self-interest. The obvious implication is that war was not only probable, but inevitable and unavoidable.

So the inexorable forces of profit versus human rights continued to accelerate, with only pauses, as the deeply conflicted country tried to find compromises (e.g. 1820) that simply delayed the inevitability of war. Kick-the-can strategies never achieve anything except temporary lulls.

Quite predictably, ours required a bloody civil war to (finally) reconcile the Constitution and an insidious practice of slavery that violated every principle that men of goodwill supported.

Both Smith and Comte tried to warn us, but their theories did not include any useful solutions, except perhaps to implement a kingdom … the very thing we were fleeing.

Even after 620,000 lives were lost in the Civil War, a number that exceeds all our other conflicts combined … and with the passage of 150 years … we are still struggling with race and inequality as our legislators try to find compromises.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Laws Curtailing Free Speech Rejected by Americans – 200 Years Ago

Thomas Jefferson reaffirmed the rights of Americans to “think freely and to speak and write what they think.”

By Jim O’Neal

After serving two full terms as president (1789-97), George Washington was more than ready to leave Philadelphia, where he had lived since relocating from New York City. He returned to his home in Mount Vernon with a profound sense of relief. The plantation had been losing money during his extended absence, leaving him in a financial quandary of being relatively wealthy but cash-poor. Virtually all of his assets were in non-liquid land and slaves.

However, little did he expect that his successor, Vice President John Adams, would allow relations with France to deteriorate to the point of a possible war. Diplomacy had failed and on July 4, 1798, President Adams was forced to offer Washington a commission as Lieutenant General and Commander-in-Chief of the Army with the responsibility of preparing for a potential war. Washington accepted, but wisely delegated the actual work to his trusted friend Alexander Hamilton. All of this happened a mere 17 months before his death at his beloved Mount Vernon.

War with France was avoided, but President Adams utilized some highly controversial tactics, including the Alien and Sedition Acts. These consisted of four bills passed by a highly partisan, Federalist-dominated Congress that were signed into law by Adams in 1798.

Although neither France nor the United States actually declared war, rumors of enemy spies (aliens) or a surprise French invasion frightened many Americans and the Alien Acts were designed to mitigate the risk. The first law, the Naturalization Act, extended the time it took immigrants to gain citizenship from five to 14 years. Another law provided that once war was declared, all male citizens of an enemy nation could be expelled. It was estimated that this would include 25,000 French citizens in the United States. The president also was authorized to deport any non-citizens suspected of plotting against the government during wartime or peace.

The Sedition Act was much more insidious. Sedition means inciting others to resist or rebel against lawful authority. The act first outlawed conspiracies “to oppose any measure of the government.” Further, it made it illegal for anyone to “express any false, scandalous and malicious writing against Congress or the President.” It included published words that had BAD INTENT to DEFAME the government or cause HATRED of the people toward it.

Secretary of State Timothy Pickering was in charge of enforcement and pored over newspapers looking for evidence. Numerous people were indicted, fined and jailed to the point that it became a major issue in the presidential election of 1800. Thomas Jefferson argued the laws violated the First Amendment.

The voters settled the debate by electing Jefferson.

In his inaugural address, Jefferson confirmed a new definition of free speech and press as the right of Americans “to think freely and to speak and write what they think.”

The U.S. Supreme Court never decided whether the Alien and Sedition Acts were constitutional. The laws, quite conveniently, expired on March 3, 1801, John Adams’ last day in office.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].