DR. WARPENSTEIN'S SCIENCE & SOCIETY
BURNING THE FLAG and the 1798 SEDITION ACTS
by: Bennie M. Beaver
In 1798, the then vice president Thomas Jefferson of our fledgling new United States of America, was benumbed when Federalist passed a sedition bill which he said, “undertook to make printing certain matters criminal, though (the First Amendment) to the Constitution has so expressly taken religion, printing presses, etc., out of their coercion.”
Originally, the Federalist proclaimed a need for exacting internal measures to prepare for war with France even though an envoy John Marshall denied reports that France intended making war on America. The acts took on an even more sinister role in beating down Thomas Jefferson’s party of the Republicans.
Still the perdurable optimist Jefferson wrote on June 27, “A little patience and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight, restoring their government to its true principles.”
Nonetheless, shortly thereafter, congress passed on July 6, 1798 a second and permanent Alien Act, allowing the president to imprison or deport all aliens of an enemy power in wartime. Again on July 14, they passed a Sedition act enforced in peacetime or war, making it a crime for any American citizen to conspire to oppose any government measure, or preventing government officers from doing their duties or to aid “any insurrection, riot, unlawful assembly or combination.” It included writing, speaking, or publishing “any false, scandalous and malicious writing” toward the president, Congress, or the government.
Thomas Jefferson said about the act, calling it “an experiment on the American mind to see how far it will bear an avowed violation of the Constitution.”
The law made it possible that the Vice President of the United States of America (Thomas Jefferson, at the time) could be prosecuted for violation of any of these Acts. Jefferson’s friends swore secrecy when Jefferson completed drafting a new resolution attacking the unconstitutionality of the acts.
This Sedition Act preceded a most secretive period in Jefferson’s life as he launched counterattacks against the acts. He and his friends protected his identity as he continued resistance to the acts.
Thomas Jefferson believed that a union of States legislatures could render the Alien and Sedition Acts null and void. He worked hard to accomplish this end. However, it was not until he had run for office of the president of the United States of America and won on February 17, 1801 on the thirty-sixth ballot that Jefferson did within four days after his inauguration, order a halt to all prosecutions under the Sedition Act and ordered all fines refunded.
. . . The 1800 presidential campaign is known to be one of the most brutal in American history. The Federalist did attack Jefferson’s deist religious views. Yale University President Timothy Dwight, a Congregationalist divine represented a fiery sermon that if Jefferson is elected, and the Jacobins get into authority, that those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin, which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence, defend our property from plunder and devastation and shield our religion from contempt and profanation, will not be trampled upon? . . .
You may be wondering what possible relevance the sedition bills of 1798 have to do with BURNING THE FLAG, or the prime objective of this web site on SCIENCE AND SOCIETY? Well, we’re talking about constitutional rights of dissension. Those same issues and arguments plagued the sedition acts of 1798. Also, we’re talking about the Federalist attacks on Jefferson’s views on science and religion. I believe that some of today thinking of conservatism regarding FLAG BURNING; the Terri Schiavo vegetative state debate and the Federal Governments interference into States rights in a private case which had already been extensively litigated in State courts; arguments by the Intelligent Design proponents that evolution is just-a-theory . . . Well, gravity is just a theory (read my page on the objectives of this web site, and other article on religion).
Don’t get me wrong. I take issue with many views espoused by extremist in both parties. I’m not an antagonist to every conviction of either party. However, that is not the point of this editorial. I hold strongly to a persuasion that conservatism sentiments on these issues is dangerous to the future of freedom, religion, and science.
As abhorrent as burning the flag may seem to you, I believe that the greater concern is when dissenters advocate the violent overthrow of government. This is true even though I believe that civil disobedience can sometimes garner a degree of tolerance. Nonetheless, those in power who are the focus of the disobedience will take such activities as a threat, and will react accordingly. The only recourse is from the people who may support one side over the other. The issue is a delicate balance between rights and responsibilities. This is the beauty of our constitutional republic in that the people may vote their leaders in or out, and the leaders must continually consult the people for direction. The problem often comes when the leaders ignore the majority. However, all things are tempered by our representative government which may risk the fury of the people.
For example, when president Roosevelt eluded the judgment of the American people, who early on didn’t support the Second World War, by secretly meeting with Churchill on a ship off shore to ascertain England’s military needs to defend against the German onslaught. Our government is an elected representative government within the rules of our constitution. This constitutional balancing act is what has occurred in our present today when president Bush went to war with Afghanistan and Iraq. If the American people adjudge the action to be, or has become a quagmire, then the president and his party will be out.
I for one, believe that president Bush made a judgment call regarding Iraq which goes like this: Something like Roosevelt in the Second World War, and knowing that most leaders in the free world believed that Saddam Hussein should be out - including democratic president Clinton - He decide that the evidence and risk justified the emphasis of justification. The only question in my mind is, did he create intelligence information. Embellishing does not equated to creating evidence for his actions in my mind. The jury is still out regarding the success of president Bush’s war in Iraq. Making decisions as president are often judgement calls at best, even with the best intelligence available. Still, a president will reap the glory or consequence for success or failure.
Another thing regarding president Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq is because the only time that the American people would likely support a war with Saddam Hussein was right after 9-11. Bush understood the psychology of politics very well and knew that was the time to act. Emphasizing the evidence may have seem important for gaining the American peoples assured support. History will decide whether he made the right decision.
(I have some good things to say about president Clinton later. I am an independent. I have an issue with the extremist in both parties. I understand that many people believe that we should not have gone to war in Iraq, and I’m still listening to evidence one way or the other. Still, I have not been convinced that he was wrong. Even Thomas Jefferson understood that one must confront evil wherever it raises its ugly head.)
Well, you get the point, I hope. Furthermore, our flag is already protected by our Constitution and principals of free speech and a free peoples. As long as those values remain in the hearts of men/women, the flag will fly. And yes, there are already laws against the burning of the FLAG. One can’t burn my flag, or burn your flag, or burn the flag down at the court house. One may only burn ones own flag. For every flag burning I see millions still flying HIGH.
Bibliography: Willard Sterne Randall’s book titled, “Thomas Jefferson - A Life - HarperPerennial - A division of HarperCollins Publishers (1993) Reprinted by: Henry Holt and Company.