The Contagion of Fear Can Threaten Liberty

Fear, fear of the enemy within, constitutes one of the gravest threats to individual liberty. Even American patriots can overreact to perceived threats to the nation. When John Adams assumed the presidency in 1796, bitter political divisions had emerged. A Republican faction was sharply critical of Adams and other Federalists, deeming their backing of a national bank and other fiscal policies as tools to enrich the few at the expense of the many. Even worse, from the Federalist’s perspective, many Republicans glorified the French Revolution, ignoring its violent excesses.

Adams, however, wanted to avoid war. He sent envoys to France to see if peace could be maintained, but French officials responded by asking for a bribe.  When the president released the diplomatic dispatches revealing this French chicanery Americans were outraged. War fever gripped the nation and even Adams got caught up in it. He took to wearing military regalia with a sword strapped to his side. The federalists in Congress were even more exercised and promptly passed four laws collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The new laws made it harder for immigrants to become citizens, changing the residency requirement from five to fourteen years, authorized a registry and surveillance system for foreign nationals, empowered the president to deport aliens deemed a threat and made it a crime to make statements bringing “into contempt or disrepute” members of Congress or the president. Tellingly, no crime was created for criticizing the Vice President, Thomas Jefferson, a supporter of the Republican cause. Indictments and jailings of Republican opponents soon followed.

In time it became clear that the Federalists had overplayed their hand. There was a strong push back with two states, Kentucky and Virginia, passing resolutions denouncing the new laws. In the end the laws were repealed. Lady Liberty had survived her first major test and America remained a land that cherished freedom of the press and vigorous democratic debate.

Catholic teaching also commends democratic forms of government and observes that: “An authentic democracy is not merely the result of a formal observation of a set of rules but is the fruit of a convinced acceptance of the values that inspire democratic procedures: the dignity of every human person, the respect of human rights, commitment to the common good as the purpose and guiding criterion for political life.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, par. 407)

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