Friday, July 12, 2024

Founders’ July 4th lesson: Divided by politics but united in core values of a free people


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For many of us, the Fourth of July is a favorite holiday as families gather around barbecues and picnic blankets to this quintessential American experience. Yet, in the midst of the food, fireworks and friends, it is also a holiday to reflect, if only briefly, on what brings us to this moment each year in celebration of the Declaration of Independence.

This year, the holiday seems even more important. The core values that define us as a people are again under attack, particularly the right that defines us as a people: free speech.

In my book, “The Indispensable Right: Free Speech in an Age of Rage,” I discuss our struggle with free speech through the stories of the heroes and villains of our Republic. Two of those figures, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, also happened to die on this date.

Jefferson and Adams

Thomas Jefferson, left, defeated President John Adams in the bitterly divisive election of 1800. They were allies in the cause of liberty and political enemies in the new nation, but developed a warm friendship in later life. (Kean Collection/Getty Images | Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Adams and Jefferson were fierce political enemies who would rekindle their friendship in their final years before they both died on the very same day, July 4, 1826. Jefferson died first at Monticello, Virginia, around noon, He was 83. A few hours later (without knowing of his friend’s death), Adams passed away in Quincy, Massachusetts, at the age of 90.

AGE OF RAGE VS. FREE SPEECH: WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE AND HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED

In his 1826 eulogy for both men, Daniel Webster (like many in the country) could not escape the weighty significance of the date of their mutual passing or accept that it was mere coincidence. For Webster, it was “Providence” that “the heavens should open to receive them both at once.”

As explored in my book, Adams and Jefferson are complex figures who displayed some of the same doubts about core rights that many today harbor. While they would be unlikely to declare our Constitution “trash” on MSNBC or demand that we “reclaim America from constitutionalism,” they had their own crises of faith.

Adams displayed the most shocking collapse in faith after he became president. The man who praised the “Dignity, Majesty, [and] Sublimity” of the Boston Tea Party, immediately turned on his political opponents with a crackdown under the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts. Even members of Congress were not immune from the arrests as he met citizen rage with state rage.

James Madison and Jefferson were appalled by the attack on free speech and even used code in letters to protect their own communications. Madison referred to these prosecutions as the “monster” that dwells within our legal system, emerging during times of fear or anger.

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Jefferson would ultimately pardon those convicted under Adams. Yet, he would also yield to that “monster” in using the criminal system to target his own critics, though to a lesser extent as his predecessor.

The story of Adams and Jefferson should seem all too familiar to many today in this presidential election. Jefferson ran against Adams in 1800 on his crackdown of free speech and his use of the criminal justice system against his opponents. He won in part on the issue of free speech, a lesson that should not be lost on Donald Trump, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Jill Stein, Chase Oliver and Cornel West.

If they want history to repeat itself in November, they should make free speech a central issue in their campaigns. Joe Biden is undeniably the most anti-free speech president since Adams in his support for an unprecedented censorship system that a federal court called “Orwellian.”

Yet, there is a broader lesson for the rest of us. Our country in 1800 was as divided and angry as it is today. Indeed, these politicians were not just talking like they wanted to kill each other, they were actually trying to kill each other with the use of sedition prosecutions. Jefferson referred to Adams and his Federalist administration as “the reign of the witches.” Federalists denounced Jeffersonians as “Jacobins” and “traitors.”

TREATMENT OF ASSANGE WAS A SHAMEFUL STAIN ON OUR FIRST AMENDMENT

Today President Biden and his allies are declaring that democracy will end if Trump is elected and that he will, according to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, “throw away” democracy. On ABC’s “The View,” host Whoopi Goldberg warned journalists and “gay folk” that Trump is planning to round them up and “disappear you.” Former Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., warned that, if Trump wins, this “may well be the last real vote you ever get to cast.”

Back then, the rhetoric was equally overwrought. Media was also openly biased and Federalist newspapers declared that “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

Conversely, a Jeffersonian writer warned that, if the Federalists were elected, “chains, dungeons, transportation, and perhaps the gibbet” awaited citizens. Others predicted that under Adams they “would instantaneously be put to death.”

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So our Constitution and Bill of Rights were written not just for times like our own but in a time like our own.

However, something happened. We came together as a nation. Indeed, in their final years, these two fierce enemies would exchange warm letters and reestablish their friendship and mutual respect.

That may be the greatest lesson of all. If John Adams and Thomas Jefferson could find a core shared identity as Americans, there must be hope for the rest of us. All of the political tensions and animus that followed in our history pales in comparison to that one transcendent moment when we declared as a people that we would be free.

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It was a shared moment for Adams and Jefferson that would rekindle as friendship. At the very end of their lives, they remembered who they were and what they meant to each other. It is a moment still shared by all Americans. It reminds us that what we have in common as a free people is far greater than what divides us.

So Happy Fourth of July to us all.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM JONATHAN TURLEY



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