The Jack Miller Center asked Pulitzer Prize winning historian, and JMC Faculty member, Gordon S. Wood, for his thoughts on the most divisive campaign in U.S. History:
In 1801 Thomas Jefferson had just been elected president after a hard-fought and bitter campaign between the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans. It was in fact one of themost tumultuous and vicious electoral campaigns in American history. The Federalist press had tagged Jefferson with every epithet they could think of–a coward, a radical, an atheist, and, most alarming, the leader of a gang of Jacobins who were trying to take over the American government and make it a satellite of revolutionary France. For their part the Republicans gave as good as they got, accusing the Federalists of trying to foist an English-style monarchy on America. Never in American history has the press been as abusive and as vituperative as it was in the electoral campaign of 1800.
All this newspaper scurrility took place in the wake of the Sedition Act of 1798, by which the Federalist-controlled Congress had attempted to curb the Republican press’s vitriolic attacks on President John Adams and other Federalist leaders. The Federalists had become convinced that elective republican governments could not allow the press to abuse their political leaders and undermine their capacity to rule. How could John Adams exercise his authority as president if he were victimized, as he put it, by “the most envious malignity, the most base, vulgar, sordid, fish-woman scurrility, and the most palpable lies” that had ever been leveled against any public official?
Hence with the Sedition Act of 1798 the Federalists in Congress made it a federal crime to “write, print, utter or publish. . . any false, scandalous, and malicious writing” that brought the president or members of Congress “into contempt or disrepute, or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States.”
Americans believed in freedom of the press and had written that freedom into their Bill of Rights. But they believed in it as Englishmen did, who meant by it, in contrast to the French, no prior restraint or censorship of what was published. Under English law, people were nevertheless held responsible for what they published. If a person’s publications were slanderous and calumnious enough to bring public officials into disrespect, then under the common law the publisher could be prosecuted for seditious libel. The truth of what was published was no defense; indeed, it even aggravated the offense. Furthermore, under the common law judges, not juries, had the responsibility to decide whether or not a publication was seditious.
Although the Sedition Act horrified the Republicans, it was actually a liberalization of the English common law of seditious libel that continued to run in the state courts. Under the new federal statute, which resembled the liberal argument John Peter Zenger’s lawyer had used in 1735, the truth of what was said or published could be admitted as a defense, and juries could decide whether or not a particular piece was libelous and seditious.
The Republicans were in no mood to accept the Federalists liberalization of the common law. In the debate over the sedition law that spilled into the early nineteenth century several Republican libertarian theorists, including George Hay of Virginia and Tunis Wortman of New York, rejected both the old common law restrictions on the liberty of the press and the new legal recognition of the distinction between truth and falsity of opinion that the Federalists had incorporated into the Sedition Act. While the Federalists clung to the eighteenth century’s conception that “truths” were constant and universal and capable of being discovered by enlightened and reasonable men, the Republican libertarians argued that opinions about government and governors were many and diverse and their truth could not be determined simply by individual judges and juries, no matter how reasonable such men were. Hence, they concluded that all political opinions–that is, words as distinct from overt acts–even those opinions that were “false, scandalous, and malicious,” ought to be allowed, as Jefferson put it in his First Inaugural Address, to “stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
The Federalists were dumbfounded by these arguments. “How … could the rights of the people require a liberty to utter falsehood?” they asked. “How could it be right to do wrong?” It was not an easy question to answer, neither then nor later. “Truth,” the Federalists said, “has but one side and listening to error and falsehood is indeed a strange way to discover truth.” Any notion of multiple and varying truths would produce “universal uncertainty, universal misery,” and “set all morality afloat.” People needed to know the “criterion by which we may determine with certainty, who are right, and who are wrong.”
Most Republicans felt they could not deny outright the possibility of truth and falsity in political beliefs, and thus they fell back on a tenuous distinction, developed by Jefferson in his First Inaugural Address, between principles and opinions. Principles, it seemed, were hard and fixed, while opinions were soft and fluid; therefore, said Jefferson, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” Individual opinions did not seem to count as much as they had in the past and thus could be permitted the freest possible expression.
What ultimately made such distinctions and arguments comprehensible was the Republicans’ assumption that opinions about politics were no longer the monopoly of the educated and aristocratic few. Not only were true and false and even malicious opinions equally to be tolerated, but everyone and anyone in the society should be equally able to express them. Sincerity and honesty, the Republican polemicists argued, were far more important in the articulation of ultimate political truth than learning and fancy words that had often been used to deceive and dissimulate. Truth was actually the creation of many voices and many minds, no one of which was more important than another and each of which made its own separate and equally significant contribution to the whole. Solitary opinions of single individuals may now have counted for less, but in their statistical collectivity they now added up to something far more significant than had ever existed before, something that the New York Republican Tunis Wortman referred to as “the extremely complicated term Public Opinion.”
Because American society was not the kind of organic hierarchy with “an intellectual unity” that the Federalists had wanted, public opinion in America, argued Wortman, the most articulate of the new Republican libertarians, could no longer be the consequence of the intellectual leadership of a few learned gentlemen. General public opinion was simply “an aggregation of individual sentiments,” the combined product of multitudes of minds thinking and reflecting independently, communicating their ideas in different ways, causing opinions to collide and blend with one another, to refine and correct each other, leading toward “the ultimate triumph of Truth.” Such a product, such a public opinion, could be trusted because it had so many sources, so many voices and minds, all interacting, that no privileged individual or group could manipulate or dominate the whole.
This vast, impersonal, and democratic idea of public opinion, said Federalist Theodore Sedgwick in disgust, “is of all things the most destructive of personal independence and of that weight of character which a great man ought to possess.” But no matter, it was the people’s opinion, and it could be trusted because no one controlled it and everyone contributed to it. Despite the Federalist warning that a government dependent exclusively on public opinion was a mere “democracy,” in which “opinion shifts with every current of caprice,” there was no turning back. In no country in the world did public opinion become more awesome and powerful than it did in the increasingly democratic America of the early Republic.
This essay is drawn from the forthcoming Oxford History of the Early Republic, Empire of Liberty. Several of Professor Wood’s current books in print are available in our JMC Book Store.