Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Imperfect Value of History. Reflections From Miller.

There are no certain ways to predict outcomes of policies or trends in human society. No scientific tests. But one element we have to instruct us is experience of the past. Undeniably, this is a flawed resource. Interpretations differ, some information cannot be recovered and future human behavior is unpredictable. But, if we witness incidents recurring, political acts producing similar results, we at least have some minimal guidance.

In 1794, the major parties were the Federalists and the Republicans.  That year, the US signed Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain. This treaty upset Britain’s chief enemy of the time, revolutionary France, who “retaliated by withdrawing its minister from Philadelphia…and seizing [US] shipping on the high seas.” When the Federalist President, John Adams, sent a delegation to Paris, they were “approached by agents (designated in the American minister’s dispatches as X, Y and Z) of Talleyrand, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who demanded a bribe for the Directory and a loan to France as prerequisites to negotiations…it was a fatal miscalculation: the XYZ Correspondence was published by the United States government; the country was swept by an unexampled wave of patriotic feeling.” (Miller, p. 4).

Since Republicans had favored an alliance with France over Great Britain, they found themselves in an unpopular position. Reading the national sentiment, the Federalists decided to capitalize. They claimed that there was a “French faction” in the US, and that the “political allegiance of the Republican party and this French faction were identical.” All things French became suspect. “Jacobins were everywhere…Even children’s books must be scanned…Jacobins were seeking to corrupt the younger generation.” Republicans were accused of taking “orders directly from the [French] Directory.” (Miller, pp. 11-13).

Feeling their advantage, the Federalists proposed the Alien and Sedition Acts. In brief, these acts permitted US officials to both eject foreigners considered to be undermining the US, and suppress free speech by citizens and newspapers thought to be critical of the federal government. These acts were signed into law by President Adams in 1798.

This campaign to tar Republicans with the brush of Jacobinism, along with a paranoiac fear of foreigners felt by the populace and encouraged by the Federalists, will remind careful readers of other events in US history. During the first Red Scare in 1919 (aka the Palmer Raids), union and leftist offices were ransacked by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s agents, as punishment for exercising their rights of free speech and assembly. At that time, over 5,000 foreign-born citizens were deported from the US. During the second Red Scare (aka the McCarthy Era), purges of US citizens from institutions as broadly different as Hollywood and the US Army occurred. In each of the two Red Scares, the label “Bolshevism” was applied to our country’s alleged, foreign-allied enemies, in the same way that “Jacobinism” was applied to Republicans in 1798. In each of the two Red Scares, the charge that traitorous Americans were taking orders from Moscow, mirrored the 1798 accusation that Republicans were taking orders from Paris.

While repetition of occurrences in  history does not  guarantee identical recurrences in the future, it does indicate behavior of which we  should observe with concern. It  is helpful to have a grasp of historical events. In this way, when a demagogic individual or group arises again and asserts that we should persecute foreign-born citizens, repress freedom of speech or otherwise make decisions based upon fear, we will  have the information to resist infringements on Constitutional Rights. History is  not  a science; it is only memory. Memory is an imperfect quality and predictor. But if it is one of  the faculties we possess to examine societies, we should use it.

Miller, John C. Crisis in Freedom. The Alien and Sedition Acts. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.