Trump Isn’t the First President to Attack ‘Enemies of the People’
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- At a news conference last week, President Donald Trump reprised some of his greatest hits: He demonized journalists as enemies of the people and painted immigrants as invaders. And he signaled that he intends to continue these attacks to shore up support among his base.
He should be careful. History shows that such tactics can backfire.
In the 1790s, President John Adams and his Federalist Party mounted a sustained assault on immigration and the freedom of the press as a way to maintain their supremacy. Then, as now, the president’s party controlled most of the levers of power in the country, and wanted to win a decisive, permanent victory against the opposition.
Many of the political issues and the tone of the discourse of the U.S.’s formative years seem eerily familiar, even though different nationalities are being targeted today. The Federalist Party’s attacks focused on French and Irish migrants, in no small part because these newcomers tended to gravitate toward the emergent political opposition: Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party.
Prominent Federalists like Harrison Gray Otis railed against the alleged “hordes of wild Irishmen [who] come here with a view to disturb our tranquility.” Another famous Federalist, Noah Webster, prefiguring Trump’s outbursts about “shithole countries” and criminals pouring over the southern border, declared that for every reputable immigrant, “We receive three or four discontented, factious men … the convicts, fugitives of justice, hirelings of France, and disaffected offscourings of other nations.”
To head off this threat, Federalists in Congress amended the existing Naturalization Act to make it more difficult for recent immigrants to become full-fledged citizens. New arrivals were required to wait 14 years, instead of five, to apply for citizenship. This legislation, passed in 1798, undercut the opposition’s ability to recruit voters. A related law — the Alien Acts — also conferred upon the president the power to imprison and deport foreigners deemed a threat to the nation.
Even though they controlled most of the national government, the Federalists, like today’s Republicans, had little faith in their ability to maintain their grip on power, and took steps to cement their hold. Foremost among these was a concerted attack on a handful of newspaper publishers who favored the Democratic Republicans. It helped that the most famous of these, William Duane, publisher of the Philadelphia Aurora, was an Irish immigrant.
But newspapers were a strange target for the Federalists, who actually had a lock on the media: Three-quarters of the nation’s publications in 1795 had a Federalist bias or steered clear of politics altogether.
Moreover, the more vocal Federalist papers rivaled Fox News in serving up red meat. One Federalist editor, William Cobbett, for example, described the Democratic Republicans as “the refuse of nations” and “frog-eating, man-eating, blood-drinking cannibals.” Such insults — and even more scurrilous language — make Sean Hannity look like a measured and respectable journalist.
Yet that wasn’t enough. In 1798, the Federalists passed the infamous Sedition Act, which made it a crime to “write, print, utter, or publish” any “false, scandalous and malicious writing” about the national government, Congress and the president. It also sought to punish any attempt to bring these officials “into contempt or disrepute” or to stir up the “good people of the United States” against them. Although it was framed without reference to the Democratic Republicans, the legislation was meant to cow the opposition press.
Federalists wasted no time in going after their political enemies. Opposition newspaper publishers and pamphleteers were arrested and prosecuted. Among the first to run afoul of the Sedition Act law was James Thomsom Callender, a Scottish immigrant and troublemaker who cut his teeth publicizing Alexander Hamilton’s extramarital dalliances before going on to publish a two-volume take-down of President Adams.
Callender described Adams as having “a hideous hermaphrodtical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and the sensibility of a woman.” For good measure, he also described him as a “hoary headed incendiary” and “mentally deranged.” Callender was promptly tried, convicted and imprisoned. Federalist officials prosecuted almost 30 people under the Sedition Law in the two years of its existence.
But a funny thing happened along the way. As the historian Jeff Pasley showed, the number of opposition papers soared as the political risks intensified. These new publications, largely started by scrappy artisans radicalized by Federalist oppression, didn’t even pay lip service to the idea of impartial reporting. As one printer-turned-editor put it: “American people have long enough been imposed upon by the pretended impartiality of printers; it is all delusion; every party will have its printer, as well as every sect its preacher.”
These new partisan papers — some published by recent immigrants — helped propel Jefferson and his party to the presidency in 1800. Jefferson let the Alien and Sedition Acts expire, and in 1802, signed a new Naturalization Act that reduced the time it took for immigrants to become citizens to five years.
Over the next decade, the Federalist Party would slowly wither away. Federalists blamed growing numbers of immigrant voters and a partisan media for their fate, but this conveniently ignored the deeper history of their downfall. At the height of its power, when they controlled virtually everything in the country, the party had unnecessarily and viciously targeted both immigrants and the press.
This fateful error lead to a backlash so strong and systemic that the party never recovered, a disastrous outcome that should give today’s Republicans food for thought.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.
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