We’ve been here before. The presidency of Donald Trump is unprecedented in many ways, but not as many as most would believe. Aspects of this current administration strongly resemble those of an older presidency: that of John Adams.
Adams is memorialized as one of the key Founding Fathers. He helped write the Declaration of Independence and served as our second president. Dig a little deeper into his legacy, however, and some of the luster fades. In 1798, the Adams administration passed four laws that clamped down on immigration and restricted freedom of speech. The Alien Friends Act legalized the deportation and imprisonment of immigrants who were deemed dangerous, and the Alien Enemies Act did the same for immigrants from “hostile” nations during a time of war. The Naturalization Act made it much harder to become a naturalized citizen. The Sedition Act criminalized criticizing or opposing “any measure or measures of the government of the United States,” as well as other more nefarious actions, such as insurrection. Together, they are known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.
To be fair to Adams, it was not the easiest time to govern. The United States was under threat of invasion from Great Britain while simultaneously waging the infamous “Quasi War” with France. Adams had to govern a populace embroiled in a partisan fight between Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. The office of the presidency was only nine years old, and Adams’ predecessor was George Washington, a unifying leader.
I wouldn’t have wanted to be Adams in 1798.
Adams was inaugurated into a changing and chaotic world. His electorate was sharply divided by bitter partisanship, and he was obsessed with the legacy of his predecessor. To solidify his grip on power, he scapegoated immigration and threatened free speech.
The example of Adams is not historical justification for Trump’s administration. Instead, I want to focus on why the U.S. survived the constitutional infringements of the Adams administration, so we may survive those of the Trump administration.
Adams was a one-termer. He was voted out of office during the election of 1800 and replaced by Jefferson, who ran on a platform based on criticizing the governmental overreach of the Adams administration.
Additionally, Adams seems to have signed the Alien and Sedition Acts out of genuine concern for national security. Both the Alien Friends Act and the Sedition Act were enacted with expiration dates and were allowed to expire by the end of Adams’ administration. The Jefferson administration repealed the Naturalization Act in 1802. Only the Alien Enemies Act remains in U.S. Code. Most recently, it has been used by conservatives to justify Trump’s travel bans. However, the Act only allows for discrimination against immigrants who are citizens of a “hostile nation or government” at war with the U.S. or that is threatening to invade U.S. soil. Currently, only North Korea might feasibly fit this description.
What lessons can we glean from the Adams administration? First, remember the power of the vote. By voting Adams out, the American electorate effectively voted out all but one of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Vote out a president, vote out their policies. We’ve witnessed this firsthand over the past year. Trump has reversed former President Barack Obama’s policies on a wide range of issues, many of which were thought to be etched in stone once enacted.
Second, Adams’ experiences teach us to create careful policy. The expiration dates attached to the Alien Friends Act and the Sedition Act were an insurance policy. Adams was a brilliant lawyer who undoubtedly understood the Constitution, and, therefore, how the two Acts possibly infringed on it. So he gave the Acts lifespans of two and three years, respectively. If the laws did not benefit American governance, they could be easily abandoned, ending the bad policies and simultaneously protecting Federalists from prosecution by a future Democratic-Republican presidency.
The Alien and Sedition Acts were disastrous, and Adams let them expire. A more bullish president and Congress may not have had the foresight to include the political insurance of expiration dates. Americans could have been stripped of the freedom of speech as a result. It is unfortunate the Naturalization Act and the Alien Enemies Act did not also come with a “sell by” date, but nobody’s perfect.
Adams tied himself to the mast of a sinking ship, but supplied the rest of the country with lifeboats. He silently acknowledged that his actions could be mistaken — and accounted for that possibility. He didn’t assume what seemed necessary and best for one party in one moment would still be so in another. So far, the same cannot be said of Trump. That is dangerous. The Trump administration — and, for that matter, any presidency — should heed the example of Adams. His political self-awareness just might have saved our young government and the ideals it is built upon.
Schneider is a member of the Class of 2019 and a history major.
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