Can We Build a New Jefferson?


Teaching the Alien and Sedition Acts to my journalism students the other day, I concentrated on this passage:

The vituperative quality of the opposition press began to worry even the Federalists more and more, especially President Adams (even though the Federalist press was doing pretty much the same thing). A touchy and proud man at the best of times, Adams couldn’t see the attacks on him as simply part of the political debate, but instead felt that they were attacks on the nation that he,, as president, represented. Adams, therefore was not averse to proposed laws that would control the press.

Getting wind of the bills that were under consideration for reigning in the press, Jefferson, who was by now thoroughly convinced of the importance off the press in the evolving American political process—and who, quite correctly, assumed that enforcement would be against that part of the press that supported him—took the already partisan issue and made it part of what would grow into his 1800 campaign for the presidency. He saw what would come to be  called the Alien and Sedition Acts as a direct attack on his supporters but even on the Bill of Rights itself.

He was right to be concerned. By 1798, with renewed possibilities of war with France as the excuse, the government felt it had the support necessary for doing something about opposition papers and other entities that it felt were undermining the new republic. In June and July of 1798, Congress did pass a series of acts calling for, among other things, the imprisonment or deportation of enemy aliens as well as limits on what could be said  in the press. The final Sedition Act contained a sunset clause coinciding with the end of Adam’s administration, making its political element quite clear even to the most naïve….

In part because of the opposition of Jefferson and his allies, this first and most famous attempt to muzzle opposition expression ultimately did more to confirm the First Amendment’s protection of freedom the press than to undermine it.

That’s from The Rise of the Blogosphere, a history of American news media that I wrote more than a decade ago. Looking at it in class, even I was shocked by how closely the situation resembles what is happening today, where the president can call the news media the ‘enemy of the American people’ and can focus on ‘aliens’ in part to distract attention from even less popular activities.

The thing we don’t have today (not so far, at least) is a Jefferson, someone who can rally the opposition into an effective political force, one that can wrest power away from the leaders of the House and the Senate in 2018 and then from the President in 2020. For all of his many flaws, Jefferson was an intellectual as well as a politician. He read deeply and widely and was constantly learning—even as president. His ethics, though certainly myopic and sometimes dreadful (in regards to ownership of slaves, certainly), did lead him; expediency wasn’t his only guide. We need an ethical leader now, an honest one who can provide a clear alternative to the venal politicians now populating Washington and many of our State capitols. A Jefferson without his flaws.

I got a phone call the other day from the Democratic National Committee asking for money. I told the caller, “No. The DNC, with its connections to Wall Street and focus on political insiders, helped bring us to the state we are in. You have not changed that so are not an opposition but are part of the problem.” Without a leader, without a clear vision of a better direction for the country expressed with morality  and without uncertainty, the Democrats are going to continue the pattern of failure of the last twenty years. Their only success came when they did have a leader, but their support for him was always rather tepid—unlike the support Republicans, even those who strongly opposed him, are now showing for Donald Trump.

True, we don’t need to fall into a goose-stepping line in order to combat the current administration. But we do need to find someone we can all get behind, even if only as an unruly crowd. As AAUP members, we want to make sure that person will be sympathetic to the needs of American higher education, but we don’t need to agree with him or her in every particular. We’re not going to win if we insist on pushing only our own agendas; we need to see others as just as important and to build coalitions. We need to discover where we of disparate backgrounds agree and use that as the means for unseating those now in power, those whose goal, it sometimes seems, is destruction of our centuries-old way of governing.

One review of that book I quote above dismissed it as “canned.” It is; little in it was new even when it was published. I was simply attempting to relate history to events of the present day in a way making the teaching of journalism easier. By the same token, what I am saying about leadership and opposition is also old hat. But I am saying it in light of the situation today—and to help (I hope) make the rise of a new leader easier.

What’s old never disappears, but simply comes around again in new clothes (or none at all, like our president, but that’s another story). Our job is to facilitate the return of the good and the kicking of the bad back into the past.

The AAUP is already showing it will be part of that. Support it, and strongly, but also look beyond for new partners, to our unions, to other unions, to organizations of immigrants, to rights groups—to all of the others who, working together, can reverse the current trend of American politics.

2 thoughts on “Can We Build a New Jefferson?

  1. Typo – “You have not changed that so are not an opposition but are part of the problem.”
    My version – Universities, with their connections to Wall Street and funding from politicians, helped bring us to the state we are in. You have not changed, so are not an opposition but are part of the problem. …Without a clear vision of a better direction for higher education expressed with morality and without uncertainty, Universities are going to continue the pattern of failure of the last twenty years.

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