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Re: This One’s For Brookhiser


Kathryn linked to a longish piece–a Jeffersonian account of the Sedition Act and Jefferson’s political response to it. The basic points are true–the Sedition Act was a grotesque botch, capriciously and cruelly enforced. Jefferson’s handling of the crisis was masterly–he managed to win both the moral high ground and the White House, two valuable pieces of real estate.

There are various howlers in the link–it mangles the name and origin of Jefferson’s party; it tries to equate the two parties of that day to the two parties of this; it slights the foreign context that started the crisis (France was boorish and menacing, which got the XYZ affair going, and it remained so even after Adams’s last-minute peace treaty). Jefferson was also a more complex figure: he talked a good game on press freedom, but in practice he approved of state sedition laws, so long as they were enforced by his friends against his critics. Leonard Levy laid this out thirty years ago.

What would Jefferson think of Mrs. Sheehan, the peg for this look at history? Jefferson was a shy, courteous man who detested confrontation; his charm was legendary, but only when he could exercise it on his own terms (e.g., White House dinners that he hosted). He might certainly use her as a political pawn, even as he used James Callender. I can’t imagine him meeting her once, much less twice. John Adams would have lost his temper and chewed her out. George Washington would have listened gravely and uttered sententious sentiments that strike us as platitudes only because we are less noble.

As for Jefferson and the war context, it is true he was anti-war, whenever revolutionary France was concerned. But he and his Mini-me, James Madison, were also the only founding presidents to fight Moslem rogue states (see Richard Zacks’ The Pirate Coast for a ripping account).

BTW my next book, due out in 2006, will be What Would the Founders Do: Our Problems, Their Solutions. It will be much more of the same.


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