While the infamous “Reynolds Pamphlet” on Alexander Hamilton’s sex scandal takes center stage in the Broadway musical phenomenon “Hamilton,” the assault on the free press and the First Amendment in its bitter aftermath might be the most chilling cautionary tale for our times.
Move on Alexander Hamilton. Meet Benjamin Franklin Bache, the first journalist “enemy of the people.”
Politics were bitterly divided in 1798, too.
Noah Webster, whose hallowed dictionary we all cherish now, employed a few choice words against the Democratic Republicans and journalists in opposition to the Federalists: “The refuse, the sweepings of the most depraved part of mankind from the most corrupt nations on earth.”
An inordinate fear and fearmongering over a growing immigrant population took place among politicians in those times, too.
President John Adams touted an Aliens Friends Act to deport anyone he deemed dangerous. But an alien invasion from France was the least of his concerns.
Adam was a thin-skinned president, vaguely reminiscent of present-day office holders. He brisked at the giggles over his moniker as “His Rotundity,” and railed against what he considered deceptive and false characterizations of his administration by certain journalists. Fake news, in today’s parlance.
Enter Benjamin Franklin Bache, the badass grandson of the inventor, and muckraking editor of the Philadelphia Aurora newspaper, who didn’t cower to Adam’s monarchical haughtiness.
The European-educated Bache had already been banned earlier that year from covering the proceedings of the House of Representative on the floor with the rest of the journalists after his reports exposed some salty language from a brawl. “The right of the people of the United States to listen to the sentiments of their representatives,” he declared in vain, “was acknowledged by the first agents whom they appointed to express their voice in that assembly.”
Adams might recall a certain president today in more than one way. He once wrote about preferring the title of “His Highness, the President of the United State and Protector of the Rights of the Same.”
Bache simply found him an “old, querulous, Bald, blind, crippled, Toothless Adams.”
It was Bache’s Aurora newspaper that chastised Adams for Alexander Hamilton’s infamous case of adultery, after the release of James Thomson Callender’s scandalous “Reynolds Pamphlet.”
Bache didn’t earn a musical―and his role as the first journalist to hold the line on the freedom of the press has been forgotten in history.
Far from ignoring Bache and others, Adams, and other Federalists, had other ways to deal with journalists they considered the opposition.
This is the cautionary tale that didn’t go well for Americans.
Under the guise of a threatened nation, invoking unholy French alliances among the American press and supposed spies, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798 intently to clamp down on the emerging free press hailed by Bache.
“To write, print, utter or publish, or cause it to be done, or assist in it, any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President”―-this was now a high misdemeanor, warranting imprisonment for journalists.
What President Trump deemed the “enemy of the people,” in other words, was not simply dismissed on twitter—but jailed, in a harrowing reminder of political power gone awry.
Even before the law was passed, a Federalist-appointed judge issued an arrest warrant for Bache, who was hauled to the Philadelphia jail. He was charged with “tending to excite sedition, and opposition to the laws, by sundry publications.”
Released from jail, Bache wouldn’t back down. His newspaper office was attacked repeatedly with rocks. “Like the British monarch, John Adams now has the Alien and Sedition Acts to silence his critics,” he wrote to his readers. He defended the First Amendment in defiance. Legions of other newspapers and critics defied Adams and the Federalists.
Unfortunately, Bache would never have his day in court; he died a few months later from the scourge of yellow fever. The scourge of the Sedition Act witch hunts would continue against select journalists for another year, including Hamilton critic Callender, though not without consequence.
Every musical has its last epic scene.
Igniting a backlash against Adams and the Federalists, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led a movement in Virginia and Kentucky against the repressive acts against free speech and freedom of the press, leading to Jefferson’s presidential election in 1800. The Acts expired three days before Jefferson’s inauguration.
An unfortunate footnote in history, Bache’s admonition to other journalists, and all American citizens, should resonate today: What alternative do we have between an abandonment of the constitution and resistance?
It may take a musical on Broadway, unless we see the revival of Alien and Sedition Acts in 2017 from a White House and Congress offended by journalistic inquiry and challenge, to answer that question.