The Die was Cast

The threat of disunion appeared long before either the Civil War, or the insurrection on January 6, 2021. The architects laying the chaotic cornerstone? President John Adams, and his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson.

David McCullough in his celebrated biography, John Adams, portrayed this Founding Father as a brilliant man, and that is true. However, his self righteous streak succeeded in undercutting his talent and better judgement. As the second president of the United States, John Adams, proved to be a prickly, and thin-skinned chief executive. A dour Yankee, Adams could not tolerate public criticism, and as many later presidents, came to view the press as an adversary—enemies of the government.

In a rage over newspapers excoriating his administration, Adams shepherded the Sedition Act through Congress in 1798. Opposition editors soon found themselves in the President’s cross hairs, and some were actually jailed. The Alien Act, also passed in 1798, aimed to delay new voters, by lengthening time for naturalization, as immigrants were certain to vote against Adams and his Federalist Party. (Hmm. The press, immigrants, and voting rights. Imagine that).

Jefferson, (still Adams’ Vice President), promptly took action to counter Adams’ wrong-headed legislation.

Launching a full out, but anonymous denunciation of the Adams Administration, Vice President Jefferson published tracts vilifying Adams, and emphasized the sovereignty of the states guaranteed under 10th Amendment.

Returning from France, where he had served as American ambassador, Jefferson had been appalled by the powerful Federal Constitution created in his absence. As a ‘natural aristocrat,’ and slave master, Jefferson was unwilling to cede power to any higher authority than himself, and his fellow patricians. Instead the “Sage of Monticello,” asserted the right of states not to obey laws they didn’t like.

Two state legislatures agreed to debate Jefferson’s counter measures, Virginia and Kentucky. Penned secretly by Jefferson, and Madison, these resolutions insisted the states were the final arbiters of what was legally binding. A new term emerged from this controversy—Nullification.

The die was cast, the seeds of disunion sown. In the years following, nullification intensified, fertilized particularly in 1832 by John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina Senator. That that state became the first to secede in 1861, sparking the US Civil War, is no coincidence.

The traitors who invaded the halls of Congress last January took their cue from Jefferson, as if they, too battled the evils of John Adams. Scapegoating the media, immigrants and the Federal government has left a long, bloody stain on American history. As I write, the States of Georgia, and Texas among others, are attempting to limit voting rights once again. Texas has also taken a nullifying stance, limiting a woman’s right to her own body, despite Federal protections.                        

No government has a self-destruct button, none. John Adam’s pique, and Thomas Jefferson’s reaction stamped an incompatibility that still, today, inflames American politics. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

It’s Only Fair

In his 1975 book, “The Russians,” author Hedrick Smith tells a story about a domestic fire in Moscow. He noticed passersby strolling along without a glance, despite urgent smoke and water damage. Neither Tass, nor Pravda covered the story–for Soviets, there was no bad news. This lack of public reaction, Smith concluded came from weary resignation. Citizens had long ago given up on honesty from Party authorities.

In stark contrast, an informed electorate founded the American system; information an essential component of our democracy. Cynical will not do. Without facts reported by a free press, it is game over.

Recognizing the influence of television as a news source, Congress, in 1949, codified equal time when broadcasts touched on public policy. The Fairness Doctrine the second of its kind (the first governed radio) was enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandating broadcasters to present equal sides of public information, or lose their license to operate.

And that doctrine governed news coverage until killed by the smiling, ever popular Ronald Reagan in 1987. His personal charm camouflaged the catastrophe his administration lobbed against journalism and, in turn, our democracy.

In 1968 when the most revered news anchor of his day, Walter Cronkite, returned from assignment in Vietnam, he broke with precedent by publicly admitting Vietnam a lost cause. Later the anchor conceded Woodward and Bernstein were probably on to something with Watergate. Cronkite’s statements spelled the end for both the war, and the Nixon Administration.

The modern GOP hasn’t cared much about the equal time component since Richard Nixon crashed and burned in 1974. From his earliest days “Tricky Dickey” gained attention as a ruthless Communist-hunter, first in the House, as a Senator, and then as Vice President. Following his 1960 loss to JFK, Nixon loathed the press and like Trump saw the media as “The Enemy of the People.” In Nixon V The New York Times, the White House challenged publication of the Pentagon Papers, and lost, then in US V Nixon, ruled the release of the disastrous tapes proving Nixon’s Watergate coverup.

Nixon and other Republicans believed reporters, the networks, and the media, in general, was out to get them.

Before his own 1973 resignation in a separate scandal, Vice President Spiro Agnew did not mince words concerning the press. Agnew referred to the media as the “Nattering Nabobs of Negativity.” Soon the press found there was quite a bit to natter on, when Agnew pleaded guilty to bribery and resigned.

Today, the far Right has capitalized on the end of the Doctrine, manipulating facts, and generally reporting misinformation, without even a blush.

In some respects the end of the Fairness Doctrine has set a course for gutting American democracy.

To hear about it now, the fiasco of January 6, 2021, according to the right-wing media, was no more than a pleasant tour group visiting the nation’s capitol. That violence we all witnessed, is just a misunderstanding. Bear spray, tear gas, and baseball bats used against the D.C police didn’t actually happen. The “Liberal” press exaggerates.

Perhaps before 1987 Americans actually wanted to know whether or not a national fire was raging.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com