Washington had wisely cautioned against entanglements with the European great powers and urged distance. His view maintained peace and unity. But after his departure came a period of rule by the heavier hand of the unfortunate John Adams. For Adams, the nation faced grave perils from abroad and retrenchment of civil liberties was therefore needed. He secured—though by a single vote in the House—passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, under which measures of political repression were taken against those who opposed the Federalists (which was roughly half the country). In many ways, Adams’s heavy-handed rule resembles that of George W. Bush more than two hundred years later.Sounds familiar doesn't it? But there is more.
And this is what Jefferson called the “reign of witches” in his famous letter to John Taylor, reproduced in part as today’s quote. Jefferson believed that the Federalists had overplayed their hand—that they had manipulated threats from abroad to seize for themselves vastly greater powers than the Constitution permitted them. He also believed that their demonization and mistreatment of the political opposition was an abuse of the powers of office and an assault upon the body politick. Adams had used the power of criminal prosecution to destroy the reputations of dozens of opposition political leaders, and to throw many of them behind bars. Even Jefferson expressed concern that he might be prosecuted (in fact he cautions Taylor to be careful about this letter; he is even concerned that it will be intercepted and read by Adams’s agents).
Jefferson is troubled by a growing divide in the nation—by the fact that Massachusetts and Connecticut were increasingly embracing intolerant theocratic values and the political interests of a rising merchant class. But in Virginia and the more agricultural states of the Mid-Atlantic and South, the views were “liberal”—that is, “liberal” the way Jefferson and Washington used the word, namely opposed to a church-state, embracing freedom of religion, tolerance, and suspicious of government intrusion into private life and commerce.The geography may have flipped but this too sounds familiar today. This period of American history passed as Jefferson predicted it would.
Jefferson had faith in the democratic process, and in the ability of the country to set itself right through new elections. “The witches,” as he called the fearmongering Federalists, might well hold the public in their thrall for a few years, but in time experience and reason would cause their spells to fade. Jefferson’s prognosis was, of course, correct. Within two years the Federalists were sent packing and Jefferson assumed the presidency.With all of that said I think it would be a serious mistake to compare John Adams to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the rest of the felons currently in charge of the country. Without the sacrifice, intelligence and hard work of John Adams this country would never have come to be. Although he made mistakes John Adams was truly a great American and a key founding father. I doubt that anyone will ever be able to say any of those things about any member of the Bush administration.