On our angry politics

‘RAGE POLITICS IS NOTHING NEW’
At the start of the 19th century, the newly minted nation was deeply divided between Federalists aligned with John Adams and Democratic-Republicans aligned with Thomas Jefferson. President Adams labeled Jeffersonians as “seditionists,” while Jefferson referred to the Adams administration as “the reign of the witches.”

Adams sought to punish his opponents through the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts. Vermont Rep. Matthew Lyon was prosecuted for criticizing Adams’ “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.” Adams seemed eager to prove the point through partisan prosecutions. Twenty-five leading Democratic-Republicans were arrested, including journalists; others were threatened with arrest if they uttered such thoughts.

Federalist journalist William Cobbett called Jeffersonians “frog-eating, man-eating, blood-drinking cannibals” and the “refuse of nations.” Federalist newspapers predicted that if the Jeffersonians prevailed, then “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.”

Not unlike today, Supreme Court justices also were threatened. Then-Chief Justice John Jay was hated for his negotiation of what became known as the Jay Treaty with Great Britain; he was a target of Democratic-Republicans who considered the court a cabal of political activists. One editorial declared: “John Jay, ah! The Arch traitor — seize him, drown him, flay him alive.” Crowds burned Jay in effigy, including a Kentucky mob that stuffed its effigy with gunpowder, guillotined it, then blew it up. Jay remarked that he could travel the “country at night by the light of [my] burning effigies.”

Later, Chief Justice John Marshall also was burned in effigy after writing the famous opinion in Marbury v. Madison. While the opinion is known for laying the foundations of judicial authority, it was an outgrowth of Adams’ attempt to appoint a slew of “Midnight judges” in his final hours as president, in order to dominate the courts. (Sound familiar?)

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