How Long Did the Limits Last?
In 1798, a mere ten years after the ratification of the Constitution war with France seemed imminent. In reaction to opposition regarding the policies of the government John Adams, hero of the Revolution, co–author of the Declaration of Independence, one of the Framers of the Constitution, and only the second President of the United States Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Congress eventually passed four of these laws in an effort to strengthen the Federal government against internal dissent. The former supporters of the Constitution, now known as Federalists sponsored the legislation meant to silence political opposition which was coming mainly from the Democratic Republicans and their leader Thomas Jefferson.
First Congress passed the Naturalization Act which required people to be residents of the United States for fourteen years instead of five years before becoming eligible for U.S. citizenship.
Then they passed the Alien Act which authorized the President to deport aliens who the government determined to be dangerous or a threat to the peace and/or safety of the United States. It must be remembered that while many believed America was under a threat of war this law was passed and enforced during peacetime.
Seeking to extend the power of the central government even further Congress next passed the Alien Enemies Act. This third act allowed the arrest, imprisonment, and deportation of aliens who were from to an enemy country.
Finally Congress added the Sedition Act, aimed at any action deemed by the government to be treason. This included the publication of any material judged to be false, scandalous, or malicious. No matter what the Bill of Rights said the government declared these activities to be a severe misdemeanor that was punishable by both fine and imprisonment.
Under these bills twenty-five men, including numerous editors of newspapers, were arrested. In addition, their newspapers were shut down.
The net of suspicion was spread so far that it included Benjamin Franklin Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson who was the editor of a Philadelphia newspaper. He was charged with libeling President Adams. This arrest elicited a mounting public reaction against all four of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Many Americans questioned the constitutionality of these laws. Indeed, public opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts was so great that they were in part responsible for the election of Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, to the presidency in 1800. Once in office, Jefferson pardoned all those convicted under the Sedition Act, while Congress restored all fines paid with interest.
The unpopularity and questionable legality of these acts led to Adams being the first one-term president. And these actions by one of the foremost Framers and most vocal supporters during the ratification process used these oppressive laws to silence opposition. Here at the very beginning of the Constitutional republic one of the architects of the document believed it gave him and Congress the power to silence the people when the people disagreed.
Jefferson and his Democratic Republicans defeated Adams’ bid for a second term by capitalizing on the public’s disgust at what were perceived to be unconstitutional and repressive actions by the very people who wrote and led the fight for the adoption of the constitution. Now those who portrayed themselves as the protectors of liberty would make sure that the limits placed upon the Federal Government were strictly observed.
In 1803, during their long wars with England and in need of financial relief France offered to sell Louisiana to the United States. This caused a novel situation and became the cause of a grave constitutional question and a major problem for President Thomas Jefferson and his ruling party. Seeing the opportunity to double the size of the United States, President Jefferson immediately wanted to purchase the territory.
This was rather surprising in that Jefferson advocated a narrow or strict interpretation of the Constitution. And no matter how you read the document nowhere in it does it authorize the President or even the Congress to buy additional territory. Not debating this point, not disputing this limitation but at the same time feeling the need to act quickly, and believing there was not time for the amendment process to legally change the Constitution.
This being the case, President Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans merely passed legislation giving the President permission to sign a treaty obligating the United States to pay the money and to take possession of Louisiana. In addition, the Democratic-Republicans also appropriated the money to pay France for the territory. Where did Democratic-Republicans in Congress believe they acquired the authority to do this? They claimed to act under the provision of the Constitution (Article 5, Section 3) which gave Congress the power to regulate the territories.
The third President and a compliant Congress interpreted the Constitution to do what they wanted to do even though it violated their own previously stated position.
As a third and final example of how soon the limited government promised by the Framers of the constitution began to encroach upon the liberty it was meant to preserve let us look at the Monroe Doctrine.
During the presidency of James Monroe there occurred several revolutions against Spanish rule in South and Central America. The United States quickly recognized these newly established countries. Believing there was a strong possibility that European governments would intervene and try to reassert their control over the former colonies; President Monroe declared the doctrine in 1823. This doctrine declared that from that time forward America saw itself as the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere. It also warned that European interference in the Americas would not be allowed. The Doctrine consists of three principles:
1. The United States would remain neutral in European wars unless American interests were involved
2. Both North and South America were no longer subject to colonization by European powers.
3. The United States would consider any and all attempt at European colonization in the New World as an “unfriendly act.”
And although the United States did not have the military power to enforce these claims, the declaration had symbolic importance: announcing the United States’ posture as the power to be reckoned with in the New World.
Monroe’s Doctrine aggressively asserted the position of dominance claimed by the United States in the Americas, and it has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy ever since.
An interesting point that is little mentioned or considered is that this doctrine (and every doctrine proclaimed since) is not law but merely a declaration of a presidential policy. It is this fact that persuaded Monroe that as President he was authorized without any Constitutional authorization, to establish a foreign policy that commits the United States to military action without a declaration of war by Congress. Thus following in the footsteps of the second and the third our fifth president moved well beyond the limits the Constitution had imposed.
How long did the limits last? The Anti-Federalists were still active in politics as the warnings they gave were realized and the children of the Revolution took their first steps down the road to tyranny. These earliest assaults upon limits were followed by:
Jackson used the spoils system to pack the federal bureaucracy with his supporters. Jackson advocated the removal of all Native Americans across the Mississippi in violation of numerous treaties passing the Indian Removal Act. When the Supreme Court ruled that Georgia’s expropriation and removal of the Cherokee was unconstitutional, referring to the Chief Justice Jackson said, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” He then used the standing army the anti-federalists had warned against to complete the deportation acting as ruthlessly and as arrogantly as any Babylonian king. Lincoln decided that States which had voluntarily joined could not leave though this is stated nowhere in the Constitution.
Teddy Roosevelt ran rough shod over Latin America with his gunboat diplomacy. He provoked a revolution in Columbia, established Panama as a near colony, seized the Canal Zone, and in many ways used his big stick like a cudgel to establish and maintain an American Empire from Asia to the Dominican Republic in contravention to the advice of Washington and the words of the Constitution.
Wilson rounded up and interred Italians and Germans during WWI, took over mines and factories, fixed prices, took over the transportation and communications networks, and strictly managed the production and distribution of food.
FDR stretched the Constitution in so many ways it never snapped back. Since our first President for life established the bloated federal bureaucracy and its symbiotic military-industrial complex we have seen a succession of undeclared wars for peace, the welfare state, the Patriot Act, and preemptive war become emblems of a system that practice government of Washington, by Washington, and for Washington.
Congress has declared war on only five occasions: the War of 1812; the Mexican War; the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. However, this has not been the extent of our involvement in armed conflict. When American citizens have challenged the constitutionality of these wars without a declaration Federal Courts have ruled a declaration is not required.
Ask yourself: How long did the limits last? Where did the limits go? How many limits are left? Which leads to the ultimate question: How can we get the limits back? Keep the faith. Keep the peace. We shall overcome.
Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College. He is the author of the History of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com View the trailer for Dr. Owens’ latest book @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ypkoS0gGn8 © 2011 Robert R. Owens [email protected] Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook.