Criminal Dissent


For Americans who think they are living through a period of unprecedented partisan animosity, Wendell Bird's new book Criminal Dissenta history of prosecutions under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, provides some useful perspective.

The period when those laws were enacted and enforced was marked by deep distrust and rancor between Federalists and Republicans, who charged each other with treason, engaged in vicious personal attacks, spread wild conspiracy theories, and literally assaulted each other on the floor of the House of Representatives. And while our current president periodically talks about using the force of law to punish his critics, President John Adams and his allies actually did it, openly and unashamedly.

Bird, a visiting scholar at Emory University School of Law, emphasizes that the Federalists sincerely believed the opposition was not just wrong but fundamentally illegitimate. In their view, the people got a chance to participate in the political process every few years through elections, and they should otherwise keep quiet if they did not have anything nice to say. Criticizing a duly elected government was disruptive, destabilizing, and subversive—in a word, seditious.

Although truth was supposed to be a defense against seditious libel charges, in practice it didn't help. Federalists dominated the legal system that prosecuted, convicted, fined, and jailed their political opponents, including newspaper publishers, a sitting member of Congress, and even a few drunken jokers.

Contrary to the conventional view, Bird conclusively shows that the cramped construction of free speech underlying those cases was not the pre-1798 consensus. It was the illiberal side of a debate that the Federalists ultimately lost, thereby winning a great victory for modern-day dissenters of all political persuasions.

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  1. Criticizing a duly elected government was disruptive, destabilizing, and subversive—in a word, seditious.

    Ask Hillary Clinton about the propriety of questioning the legitimacy of an election, she’s been on both sides of that issue.

    The Democrats claim Trump is so divisive and they promise to unify the country – how are they going to unify the Trump supporters and the Trump haters? It seems to me the Trump hate is what’s so divisive, do you remember the “Not My President” and the “Impeach The Motherfucker” and the “Stolen Election” protests after Obama got elected? Yeah, me neither. Yet about 5 seconds after Trump got elected, the Democrats started that shit. Remember how so many NeverBernies left the Democrat Party in protest of Bernie not actually being a Democrat and being too extreme in his socialism? Yeah, me neither. Yet plenty of Republicans left the party over Trump.

    See, Republicans generally have the grace to go their own way when they disagree with the majority, they don’t try to force their opinions on everybody else the way Democrats do. And that’s the problem – some of us mostly just want to be left alone, others believe government is just the things we choose to do together and you’re going to be forced to choose to do things together whether you like it or not. There’s just no reconciling individualism and collectivism.

    1. Individualism can simulate collectivism with contracts, where you hand over varying degrees of control over your income and property to some collective association. But collectivism cannot even tolerate individualism, let alone simulate any kind of half-hearted facsimile.

      The greedy graspy collectivist elites would never accept even the most greedy graspy collectivism-by-contract association as their final goal. But I bet most ordinary people would be more than satisfied with the light versions which only had progressive income taxes, occupational licensing, etc.

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  2. I may buy this book just to try to understand how Adams, who had been at the heart of so much of the Founding and Framing, could possibly have such a limited view of freedom of speech and press. He’d have been hung out to dry for his own part, for all the things he said and published, and I cannot understand how he could turn traitor, so to speak, so fast. A little power surely did corrupt him.

    1. Oh well, not for $52.25 for a Kindle version, and $55 for hard cover.

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  3. literally assaulted each other on the floor of the House of Representatives.

    Well, it would make C-SPAN more interesting…

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