Happy Bill Of Rights Day

[ Posted Thursday, December 15th, 2011 – 18:03 UTC ]

Two hundred and twenty years ago today (perhaps I should say "eleven score years ago...") America ratified the Bill of Rights -- the first ten amendments to our Constitution. Today we're all supposed to celebrate this achievement in American politics by making full use of our First Amendment rights of free speech (and, for me, the press).

Instead, I'd like to gently point out that the same Founding Fathers that achieved this monumental milestone in government (some of them, at least) were the same ones who tried to eviscerate these same basic protections -- within seven years of the Bill of Rights' ratification.

I speak, of course, of the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts. Within the first decade of Americans enjoying the Bill of Rights, one political faction tried to silence its opposition by instituting severe government censorship on newspapers and printers. "The press" is the only industry specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights. It was the only private enterprise to be singled out as a basic human right. And -- in peacetime, no less -- it was the first to be attacked politically. In times of war, America almost always throws a large portion of the Bill of Rights out the window (see: every war we've ever fought, pretty much), but the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were passed when America was, technically at least, at peace.

War was plaguing Europe during this decade, as the aftermath to France's revolution led straight to Napoleon. American shipping was being harassed, and the "XYZ Affair" scandal led to American congressional fears and legislative overreaction.

But make no mistake about it, the press was the target of the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Republican (or "Whig" -- this isn't the same as the modern Republican Party, I should mention) press, in particular. The Federalists had had just about enough of being excoriated by partisan newspapers, so they passed a law which outlawed dissent. Don't believe me? Here's the full text (it's legalese, but plow through it if only to see how sweeping it truly was):

That if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered, or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering, or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either House of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either House of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States; or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the Constitution of the United States; or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act; or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against the United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

Here is Vice President Thomas Jefferson, writing to author of the Bill of Rights James Madison, on the subject:

There is now only wanting . . . a sedition bill which we shall certainly soon see proposed. The object of that is the suppression of the whig presses. Bache's particularly has been named.

Jefferson was speaking of Benjamin Franklin Bache (grandson of Benjamin Franklin), who published the Aurora in Philadelphia. Jefferson spoke elsewhere of the need for "censorship" of the supposedly-free press. Censorship of the papers that didn't support him, of course -- the partisan press which supported the Federalists was just fine with the folks in power.

Newspaper editors, back then, were small-time operators -- even the ones who had national audiences. Most never made much (if any) money. Half of all papers, at the time of the Alien and Sedition Acts, failed within their first three years. Newspaper editors were known for their partisanship (George Washington had some mighty scathing things written against him when he was president, believe it or not), and for being below the "gentleman" class which was supposed to concern itself with politics. Alarmingly, to the gentlemen, the first of these editors were beginning to be elected to Congress. Many editors were of foreign birth (part of the reason for the "Alien" acts). And they were outspoken in the extreme.

In actual fact, the people these editors most resemble today are bloggers.

Which is why, on this anniversary of the Bill of Rights, I choose to commemorate instead the fourteen editors who spent time in jail as a result of the Alien and Sedition Acts, as well as their fellow editors who were hounded out of business by stiff fines and bail amounts. As I look over the sweeping bans contained within the text of the Sedition Act, it's easy for me to see that roughly ninety percent of what I write and publish here would most likely have made me a target for prosecution under this ignoble law.

Sure, James Madison's Bill of Rights is worth celebrating. But at the same time, it is always worth remembering that actually protecting the rights enumerated within requires constant vigilance on everyone's part. Modern politicians chip away (or, sometimes, "take a chainsaw to") these rights with other laws they pass, and the public should righteously clamor against them. But it is always worth remembering that the first frontal assault on the Bill of Rights came from the same people who passed it in the first place -- our Founding Fathers. Jefferson was strongly for federal censorship of newspapers who criticized the government. President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law, after Congress passed them only a handful of years after the Bill of Rights.

To their eternal shame, one must add. While we all mark the 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, we should all also keep in mind that 213 years ago was the start of American politicians trying to dismantle our basic rights. As I said, constant vigilance is required -- from bloggers, from media giants, and most especially from the American public themselves. Because often these rights must be protected from politicians' attempts to dismantle them -- which has been true almost from the very beginning.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


12 Comments on “Happy Bill Of Rights Day”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I agree that if we don't exercise our rights we will wake up one morning and they will be gone. Everyday the government is trying to take away our rights. It is our responsibility to be informed, critical and active citizens.


  2. [2] 
    Hawk Owl wrote:

    Well, ~ shorter than usual, but very much to the point. And it's a good one. As Ecclesiastes said "there is no thing new under the sun," and, having had the chance to read some of those 18th C. screeds, I often think how Fox News, Rachel Maddow, John Daly, et al are "nothing new." Ferment is freedom (or should it be vice versa?) and these responses in this blog do my heart good.

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    As I look over the sweeping bans contained within the text of the Sedition Act, it's easy for me to see that roughly ninety percent of what I write and publish here would most likely have made me a target for prosecution under this ignoble law.

    Oh, perish that thought! I can’t even imagine such as thing as that ever happening to you.

    Besides, even if you were actually put on trial, you would have the unadulterated facts on your side and you would be infinitely capable of winning the entire jury over to your side. Of that, I have no doubt. And, on top of that, you would have the incumbent powers that be wary of ever doing or saying anything that would bring them the wrath of Weigant! :)

  4. [4] 
    dsws wrote:

    Two hundred and twenty years ago today (perhaps I should say "eleven score years ago...") America ratified the Bill of Rights

    Or more precisely, Virginia ratified the Bill of Rights on this date, and articles 3-12 went into effect as amendments 1-10.

  5. [5] 
    dsws wrote:

    Krugman writes, New polls suggest that in Iowa, at least, we have already passed peak Gingrich. Next up: Representative Ron Paul.

    If that's how it plays out, who gets the quatloos for calling the lack of a Newtsplosion?

    DerFarm wrote, "IT AIN'T GONNA HAPPEN.
    This leaves Gingrich or a Republican to be named later. Since we are talking about Gingrich tonite, it will be Gingrich."

    I wrote, He won't even do anything on that date that really ought to matter; rather, right-wingers who didn't like him two weeks ago (or two years ago, either) will be reminded why they didn't like him. I don't know how they'll be reminded. Even when it happens, it still won't make much sense to me.

    My guesses in past months have been all over the map. So almost no matter what happens, I can look prescient or look like a fool, depending on which predictions we dredge up.

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    What do you say we just give you both a swift kick in the pants - or two, for good measure, you know - in recognition of your efforts! :)

  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Elizabeth [3] -

    Back then, believe it or not, you couldn't introduce the defense of "but what I said was true" either in sedition cases or even in slander or libel cases. It wasn't allowed by the courts.

    We have, indeed come a long way.

    dsws [4] -

    So what were the two items left off? I have vague memories of this, but have momentarily forgotten...


  8. [8] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Liz -

    Oh, forgot to ask...

    Michale? What's that "can't handle the truth" quote? Seems to be appropriate (see above comment to Liz).


  9. [9] 
    dsws wrote:

    Article of amendment I: one representative per 50k inhabitants, after a phase-in.

    Article of amendment II: no pay changes for Congress within a term.

    I had to look it up.

  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:


    Michale? What's that "can't handle the truth" quote? Seems to be appropriate (see above comment to Liz).

    "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!! Son, we live in a world that has walls and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Whose going to do it? You!? You, Lt Weinberg!!? I have more responsibility than you can possibly fathom! You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury! You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.
    You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you WANT me on that wall!! You NEED me on that wall!!
    We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something! You use them as a punch line! I have neither the time, nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the very blanket of freedom that I provide and then QUESTIONS the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said 'thank you' and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post.

    -Jack Nicholson, A FEW GOOD MEN


    Believe it or not, I actually typed that entire scene from memory... :D


  11. [11] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    Thanks. Looks like the XXVIIth Amendment fixed one of them. The other one would have been overturned anyway when they set the ceiling at 435 in the House.

    Michale -

    That's pretty good, if it's from memory! I'm impressed!


  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:


    That's pretty good, if it's from memory! I'm impressed!

    It is..

    That movie is a favorite amongst my family. Even my daughter AND my wife can quote it verbatim.. :D

    It's a classic.... No courtroom movie to date has EVER come close to the raw power of Nicholson on the witness stand and Cruise taking him apart, piece by logical piece... :D


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