Cultural Crossroads: Jefferson Would Have Stood With Cindy Sheehan
Nationally, it was clearly a phenomenon when several truckers called into a radio show on Sirius Satellite to say that they were interrupting trips through central parts of the USA to head to Crawford, Texas. One even reported live as he experienced a (friendly) reception by the local sheriff, who helped him find a place to park his rig.
Locally here in Oregon, it's not unusual to see cars with signs taped to their rear windows printed in inch-high letters on an 8 1/2" x 11" piece of paper that say variations on: "We're With Cindy!" or "Answer Her Questions!"
Ambassador Joe Wilson represented a political threat to Bush by credibly exposing part of Bush's lie and its methodology, and so Wilson had to be taken out by destroying his wife's career. Cindy Sheehan now represents a similar political threat, and for this job right-wing hate radio, Drudge, and extremist bloggers have zeroed in on her. Meanwhile, thousands of patriotic Americans, tired of being lied to by the Bush regime, are heading to Crawford, or visiting http://www.meetwithcindy.com or http://www.crawfordpeacehouse.org.
Often history tells us how the future may turn out: Bush Junior isn't the first president to have lied to us about foreign affairs and war, or to use lies to justify eviscerating the Constitution. For example, Lyndon Johnson lied about a non-existent attack on the US warship Maddox in the Vietnamese Gulf of Tonkin. William McKinley (the presidency after which Karl Rove has said he's modeling the Bush presidency) lied about an attack on the USS Maine to get us into the Spanish-American war in the Philippines and Cuba.
But most relevant to today's situation were John Adams' version of Bush's Saddam stories when Adams sent three emissaries to France, and criminals soliciting bribes approached them late one evening. Adams referred to these three unidentified Frenchmen as "Mr. X, Mr. Y, and Mr. Z," and made them out to represent such an insult and a threat against America that it may presage war.
An Affair to Remember
Adams' use of "The XYZ Affair" to gain political capital nearly led us to war with France and helped him carve a large (although temporary) hole in the Constitution. Similarly, much like Bush's corralling of protesters at gunpoint into so-called "Free Speech Zones," and saying he has the power to lock up Americans (like Jose Padilla) without charges and without access to a lawyer, John Adams jailed newspaper editors and average citizens alike who spoke out against him and his policies.
At that time in the late 1790s, Adams was President and Jefferson was Vice President. Adams led the Federalist Party (which today could be said to have reincarnated as the Republican Party; thus the attempts by Republican historians to rehabilitate Adams' legacy and trash Jefferson), and Jefferson had just brought together two Anti-Federalist parties — the Democrats and the Republicans — into one party called The Democratic Republicans. (Today they're known as the Democratic Party, the longest-lasting political party in history. They dropped "Republican" from their name in the 1820-1830 era).
Adams and his Federalist cronies, using war hysteria with France as a wedge issue, were pushing the Alien & Sedition Acts through Congress, and even threw into prison Democratic Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont for speaking out against the Federalists on the floor of the House of Representatives. Adams was leading the United States in the direction of a fascistic state with a spectacularly successful strategy of vilifying Jefferson and his Party as anti-American and pro-French. Adams rhetoric was described as "manly" by the Federalist newspapers, which admiringly published dozens of his threatening rants against France, suggesting that Jefferson's Democratic Republicans were less than patriots and perhaps even traitors because of their opposition to the unnecessary war with France that Adams was simultaneously trying to gin up and saying he was working to avoid.
On June 1, 1798 — two weeks before the Alien & Sedition Acts passed Congress by a single vote — Jefferson wrote a thoughtful letter to his old friend John Taylor.
"This is not new," Jefferson said. "It is the old practice of despots; to use a part of the people to keep the rest in order. And those who have once got an ascendancy and possessed themselves of all the resources of the nation, their revenues and offices, have immense means for retaining their advantage.
"But," he added, "our present situation is not a natural one." Jefferson knew that Adams' Federalists did not represent the true heart and soul of America, and commented to Taylor about how Adams had been using divide-and-conquer politics, and fear-mongering about war with France (the "XYZ Affair") with some success.
"But still I repeat it," he wrote again to Taylor, "this is not the natural state."
Jefferson did everything he could to stop that generation's version of the Patriot Act, but Adams had the Federalists in control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and pushed through the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson left town the day they were signed in protest.
Jefferson later wrote in his diary, "Their usurpations and violations of the Constitution at that period, and their majority in both Houses of Congress, were so great, so decided, and so daring, that after combating their aggressions, inch by inch, without being able in the least to check their career, the [Democratic] Republican leaders thought it would be best for them to give up their useless efforts there, go home, get into their respective legislatures, embody whatever of resistance they could be formed into, and if ineffectual, to perish there as in the last ditch."
Democratic Republican Congressman Albert Gallatin submitted legislation that would repeal the Alien & Sedition Acts, and the Federalist majority in the House refused to even consider the motion, while informing Gallatin that he would be the next to be imprisoned if he kept speaking out against "the national security."
The Mighty Pamphlet
But a new force arose.
When Adams shut down the Democratic Republican newspapers, pamphleteers — like those who had helped stir up the American Revolution — went to work, papering towns from New Hampshire to Georgia with posters and leaflets decrying Adams' power grab and encouraging people to stand tall with Thomas Jefferson. One of the best was a short screed by George Nicholas of Kentucky, "Justifying the Kentucky Resolution against the Alien & Sedition Laws" and "Correcting Certain False Statements, Which Have Been Made in the Different States" by Adams' Federalists.
On February 13, 1799, then-Vice President Jefferson sent a copy of Nicholas' pamphlet to his old friend Archibald Stuart (a Virginia legislator, fighter in the War of Independence, and leader of Jefferson's Democratic Republicans).
"I avoid writing to my friends because the fidelity of the post office is very much doubted," he opened his letter to Stuart, concerned that Adams was having his mail inspected because of his anti-war activities. Jefferson pointed out that "France is sincerely anxious for reconciliation, willing to give us a liberal treaty," and that even with the Democratic newspapers shut down by Adams and the Federalist-controlled media being unwilling to speak of Adams' war lies, word was getting out to the people.
Jefferson noted, "All these things are working on the public mind. They are getting back to the point where they were when the X. Y. Z. story was passed off on them. A wonderful and rapid change is taking place in Pennsylvania, Jersey, and New York. Congress is daily plied with petitions against the alien and sedition laws and standing armies."
Jefferson then turned to the need for the pamphleteers' materials to be widely distributed. "The materials now bearing on the public mind will infallibly restore it to its republican soundness in the course of the present summer," he wrote, "if the knowledge of facts can only be disseminated among the people. Under separate cover you will receive some pamphlets written by George Nicholas on the acts of the last session. These I would wish you to distribute…."
The pamphleteer — today he would have been called a blogger — was James Bradford, and he reprinted tens of thousands of copies of Nicholas' pamphlet and distributed it far and wide. Hand to hand, as Jefferson did with his by-courier letter to Stuart — was how what would be today's postings to progressive websites were distributed.
In the face of the pamphleteering and protests, the Federalists fought back with startling venom. Vicious personal attacks were launched in the Federalist press against Jefferson, Madison, and others, and President Adams and Vice President Jefferson were scarcely on speaking terms. Adams' goal was nothing short of the complete destruction of Jefferson's Democratic Party, and he had scared many of them into silence or submission.
"All [Democratic Republicans], therefore, retired," Jefferson wrote in his diary, "leaving Mr. Gallatin alone in the House of Representatives, and myself in the Senate, where I then presided as Vice-President. Remaining at our posts, and bidding defiance to the brow-beatings and insults by which they endeavored to drive us off also, we kept the mass of [Democratic] Republicans in phalanx together, until the legislature could be brought up to the charge; and nothing on earth is more certain, than that if myself particularly, placed by my office of Vice-President at the head of the [Democratic] Republicans, had given way and withdrawn from my post, the [Democratic] Republicans throughout the Union would have given up in despair; and the cause would have been lost forever."
But Jefferson and Gallatin held their posts, and fought back fiercely against Adams, thus saving — quite literally — American democracy. Jefferson and Madison also secretly helped legislators in Virginia and Kentucky submit resolutions in those states' legislatures decrying the Alien & Sedition Acts. The bill in Virginia, in particular, gained traction.
As Jefferson noted in his diary, "By holding on, we obtained time for the legislatures to come up with their weight; and those of Virginia and Kentucky particularly, but more especially the former, by their celebrated resolutions, saved the Constitution at its last gasp. No person who was not a witness of the scenes of that gloomy period, can form any idea of the afflicting persecutions and personal indignities we had to brook. They saved our country however. The spirits of the people were so much subdued and reduced to despair by the XYZ imposture, and other stratagems and machinations, that they would have sunk into apathy and monarchy, as the only form of government which could maintain itself."
Rejecting War in the Cool Light of Truth
The efforts of average people like that century's Cindy Sheehans, and fearless politicians like today's Howard Dean, John Conyers, and Bernie Sanders, made great gains. As Jefferson noted in a February 14, 1799 letter to Virginia's Edmund Pendleton, "The violations of the Constitution, propensities to war, to expense, and to a particular foreign connection, which we have lately seen, are becoming evident to the people, and are dispelling that mist which X. Y. Z. had spread before their eyes. This State is coming forward with a boldness not yet seen. Even the German counties of York and Lancaster, hitherto the most devoted [to Adams], have come about, and by petitions with four thousand signers remonstrate against the alien and sedition laws, standing armies, and discretionary powers in the President."
Americans were so angry with Adams, Jefferson noted, that the challenge was to prevent people from taking up arms against Adams' Federalists.
"New York and Jersey are also getting into great agitation. In this State [of Pennsylvania], we fear that the ill-designing may produce insurrection. Nothing could be so fatal. Anything like force would check the progress of the public opinion and rally them round the government. This is not the kind of opposition the American people will permit."
Like Cindy Sheehan, Jefferson knew that peaceful protests had greater power than violence or threats.
"But keep away all show of force," he wrote to Pendleton, "and they will bear down the evil propensities of the government, by the constitutional means of election and petition. If we can keep quiet, therefore, the tide now turning will take a steady and proper direction."
A week later, February 21, 1799, Jefferson wrote to the great Polish general who had fought in the American Revolution, Thaddeus Kosciusko, a close friend who was then living in Russia. War was the great enemy of democracy, Jefferson noted, and peace was its champion. And the American people were increasingly siding with peace and rejecting Adams' call for war.
"The wonderful irritation produced in the minds of our citizens by the X. Y. Z. story, has in a great measure subsided," he noted. "They begin to suspect and to see it coolly in its true light."
But Adams was still President, and for him and his Federalist Party war would have helped tremendously with the upcoming election of 1800. In France some leaders wanted war with America for similar reasons.
Jefferson continued, "What course the government will pursue, I know not. But if we are left in peace, I have no doubt the wonderful turn in the public opinion now manifestly taking place and rapidly increasing, will, in the course of this summer, become so universal and so weighty, that friendship abroad and freedom at home will be firmly established by the influence and constitutional powers of the people at large."
And if Adams' rhetoric led to an attack on America by France? "If we are forced into war," Jefferson noted, "we must give up political differences of opinion, and unite as one man to defend our country. But whether at the close of such a war, we should be as free as we are now, God knows."
The tide was turned, to use Jefferson's phrase, by the election of 1800. The abuses of the Federalists were so burned into the people's minds when Jefferson's party came to power, and he freed the imprisoned newspaper editors so reform-minded newspapers were started back up again, that the Federalists disintegrated altogether as a party over the next two decades. All because average citizens and pamphleteers stood up and challenged the lies of a war-mongering president, and politicians of principle were willing to lead. Cindy Sheehan is the George Nicholas or Rusticus of our age. Jefferson would have stood with her.
America has been burdened by lying presidents before, and even one who tried to destroy our Constitution. But in our era, like in Jefferson's, we are fortunate to have radical truth-tellers like Cindy Sheehan and Joseph Wilson to warn us of treasonous acts for political gain, and bloggers, progressive websites and publications to carry the truth. If we stand in solidarity with today's truth-tellers, and politicians step forward to take a leadership role, then its entirely possible that with the elections of 2006 and 2008 American democracy can once again prevail.
Thom Hartmann is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author, and host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk show and a morning progressive talk show on KPOJ in Portland, Oregon. Please visit http://www.thomhartmann.com for more information. His most recent books are The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, Unequal Protection, We The People, and What Would Jefferson Do? This article was originally published on Monday, August 15, 2005 by http://www.CommonDreams.org.