POWDERED WIGS and "Yankee Doodle" are out; body piercing and the Macarena are in.(Well, the Macarena was in.) Yet nothing really changes. Here are the opening words of a new book:
"It was a special time in the history of America. The Vice President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, called it a 'reign of witches.' A short, fat man who puffed at 'seegars' and believed in monarchy was President of the United States. At incautious moments, he predicted the nation's conversion to a kingdom with a titled nobility to oversee Congress. Presumably, he would be king."
The book is "American Aurora," a new history by Richard N. Rosenfeld. It focuses on the years 1798 to 1801, arguing that the struggle between President John Adams' Federalists and Jefferson's Republicans (ancestors of today's Democrats) secured the future of American liberty.
The scene is Philadelphia, then the national capital (the future city of Washington was being built). The narrators are those who lived the history -- newspaper editors and politicians and cultural figures. Contemporary engravings show a Philadelphia still familiar to tourists who visit the city's historic district.
The genius of the book is to make us eyewitnesses to history, taking life as it is lived, a day at a time. We read the Tuesday and then the Wednesday and then the Thursday editorials (edited for clarity and brevity) from the anti-government newspaper Aurora. (Can a president make war without a declaration from Congress?) We read the ripostes from the papers that supported Adams.
Vice President Jefferson grumbles to James Madison, and we read the letters. Abigail Adams complains to her sister about unfair press attacks on her husband, the president. A Quaker doctor sets off on a personal peace mission to France. A yellow fever epidemic convulses the city. A pro-Adams song is introduced at the New Theatre and becomes a hit. And then we read what happened on the next days, on Friday and Saturday and Sunday.
We moderns may revere the Founding Fathers, but their contemporaries didn't. Ben Franklin is mocked as a windbag and libertine; Thomas Jefferson ("an intellectual, not a fighter") flees to Virginia when the going gets tough; George Washington is derided as an inept general who lucked into victory only because France intervened against Britain.
In yesterday's news radical college professors subvert impressionable youth; red-tape legalisms keep things from getting done; bigoted partisans talk past each other in Congress; a carping, negative press stokes public cynicism; smear campaigns anticipate McCarthyism.
The overarching story is of John Adams' attempt to tilt America's nominal neutrality in favor of monarchist Britain in its war with revolutionary France. Americans choose up sides like Montagues and Capulets -- or like belligerent teens flaunting gang colors. The Adams (pro-British) partisans wear a folded black ribbon on their hats; the pro-French Jeffersonians sport a red-white-and-blue tricolor ribbon.
Adams decides to scapegoat foreigners and the press. He proposes the Alien and Sedition Acts to deport un-American elements and muzzle the critical press. Can he get away with it? The Bill of Rights, only seven years old, bars Congress from infringing freedom of the press. But should editors be allowed to turn the people against their government? It's a compelling story that will pull you through this book, even though, 199 years later, of course we know how it all came out.
Or do we? Censorship and due-process and church-and-state issues inflame tempers today. The battle for liberty is never finished
Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion Commentary page.
Pub Date: 4/26/97