The Fragile Republic

The Fragile Republic

  • American Democracy Has Never Faced So Many Threats All at Once

When the U.S. president used his power to target immigrants, the press, and his political opponents, the sheer overreach of his actions shocked many citizens. Tensions among the country’s political leaders had been escalating for years. Embroiled in one intense conflict after another, both sides had grown increasingly distrustful of each other. Every action by one camp provoked a greater counterreaction from the other, sometimes straining the limits of the Constitution. Fights and mob violence often followed.

Leaders of the dominant party grew convinced that their only hope for fixing the government was to do everything possible to weaken their opponents and silence dissent. The president signed into law provisions that made it more difficult for immigrants (who tended to support the opposition) to attain citizenship and that mandated the deportation of those who were deemed dangerous or who came from “hostile” states. Another law allowed for the prosecution of those who openly criticized his administration, such as newspaper publishers.

Much of this may sound familiar to anyone living through the present moment in the United States. But the year was 1798. The president was John Adams, and the legislation was known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams’s allies in Congress, the Federalists, argued that in anticipation of a possible war with France, these measures were necessary to protect the country from internal spies, subversive elements, and dissent. The Federalists disapproved of immigrants, viewing them as a threat to the purity of the national character. They particularly disliked the Irish, the largest immigrant group, who sympathized with the French and tended to favor the opposition party, the Republicans. As one Federalist member of Congress put it, there was no need to “invite hordes of Wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all the world, to come here with a basic view to distract our tranquility.”