The security worries that were maneuvered to push through the Alien and Sedition Acts were an offshoot of the bloody direction taken during the French Revolution. Thomas Jefferson was considered the leading spokesman for the Anti-Federalist contingent and he was known for his cozy relationship with France. Because of Thomas Jefferson’s ties to French politics, the process of whipping up Anti-Federalist emotions by fanning the flames of distrust of anyone who was deemed to support the French violence of the Revolution was an exercise in easy propagandizing. French immigrants were predominantly lower class and view with suspicion by the Federalist elite. While the Alien Laws were erected to deal with objectionable foreigners, the Sedition Act endeavored mainly to restrict the rights of Americans. The Sedition Act essentially made it an crime not only to obstruct the policies of the US government, but even just to verbally impugn the government officials themselves. Freedom of speech was not the only First Amendment victim of the Sedition Act; the media was subject to equivalent punishment for being audacious enough to openly raise inquiries into the policies of the Federalist President John Adams. To put it bluntly, the very same action that produced America–the writing of the Declaration of Independence–would have been in violation of the Sedition Act had it not already existed. Although the very quintessence of these laws were transparently unconstitutional, not only was a Federalist-dominated Supreme Court not concerned with striking them down, but the average citizen was also passionately supportive of them. Conservatives had been astonishingly successful in translating anti-French panic into a dread of the unknown great enough to cause a hefty portion of the population to enthusiastically sacrifice actual civil rights for empty promises of more security.
History has a way of being jarringly harmonious. Pres. Bush and the rest of the Republican rat-bastard pack swiftly confiscated the fear provoked by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to create a panic in which the American public was once again keen to agree to any procedures that promised greater security, whatever the consequences of the price for that promise. Substituting the French as the entity of fear in the 21st century was the entire religion of Islam. The prime difference between the circumstances that led to the Alien and Seditions Acts and the state of affairs that led to the Patriot Act was the incidence of actual threat on American soil. The nation had real motivation to be alarmed, but that fear was exaggerated and manipulated for maximum political effect. Without delay, Pres. Bush committed hard-press foul by demanding of Congress legislation designed to relax certain limitations on civil rights with the objective of facilitating the investigation of suspected terrorists. The Patriot Act made it feasible for investigators to more easily obtain search warrants and win approval for eavesdropping.
The unadventurous might suggest that since the issues occupies the no-man’s-land between total commitment to security and total commitment civil rights then there must obviously be an exceedingly narrow line in the dirt somewhere separating these two oppositional ideas. This could not be more untrue. The administration of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are counterpoised to each other in really remarkable ways sharing almost nothing in the way of policy or results. What may be most striking, nevertheless, is the actuality that the single most significant policy contrast between the Clinton and Bush presidencies originates from the single most significant similarity. Although it is easy to forget-and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney go to bed every night desperately hoping you have forgotten-both Pres. Clinton and Pres. Bush occupied the White House during a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Pres. Bush responded by introducing a series of laws that have deprived Americans of the rights fought for them by generations of fallen warriors with the promise that it would happen again under his watch. While the promise may still yet prove to be as empty as all the others from this administation, Pres. Bill Clinton realized the promise by ending his two-term Presidency without another foreign terrorist assault on American shores. And he did it without having to resort to unnecessary legislation. The divergence in response from these two men should be studied as a tutorial in how political manipulation of fear fashions a false dichotomy intended to serve the interests of the ruling power.
Is it really possible that it is merely coincidental that it was the conservative political parties that are answerable for stimulating fear among Americans in order to sustain support for legislation that restricts what they view as perilous rights? Or do these two incidents in American history instead point to an essential ideological element at work in conservative political thought that sees civil rights as a threat? The Alien and Sedition Acts did nothing to augment the security of America; it has yet to be proven that the Patriot Act has done so. Conversely, the Federalists strengthened their power in the elections following the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts and Pres. Bush used categorically specious evidence regarding the efficacy of the Patriot Act to eke out an unlikely second term and maintain Republican control of Congress.