Government criticism of 'Fake news' is nothing new. And trying to silence it was as unpopular in the early days of the United States as it is today.
By 1799, U.S. and French relations had reached new lows and the proposition of U.S. war against France weighed heavily on John Adams’ mind as his presidency neared its end.
In all but name only, the two nations were already waging war. Fallout from America declaring neutrality in European conflicts and its cozying up to England under George Washington had led to the French seizing U.S. ships in the Caribbean. Close to 400 American ships had been captured, and an American military buildup was pushing back against French ships.
The Adams administration had tried for several years to bring the fighting to a halt, but its negotiations had failed. With the release of papers detailing the negotiations, America was in an uproar. The names of the three French negotiators had been expunged from the papers, replaced with the letters X, Y and Z.
Thus, the scandal surrounding the negotiations got its name: The X, Y, Z Affair. Some in America urged war. At the bottom of the scandal was American indignation at a French request that the U.S. should pay $250,000 tribute for the right to open negotiations with France.
Though such payments weren’t uncommon in Europe, the request smacked of extortion in the United States. French ships had seized some $20 million worth of American goods aboard ships in Caribbean waters. U.S. ship owners expected the government messengers were headed to France to demand French repayment – not to make payment to France.
In 1798, the Congress gave Adams expanded powers to limit the entry of foreigners to the country and expel foreign agitators. It further criminalized making false statements that were critical of the federal government. Though Adams never deported anyone using his expanded powers under the Alien and Sedition Acts, several of his political enemies were fined and imprisoned for making anti-Adams statements, including two Vermonters: U.S. Rep. Mathew Lyon and publisher Anthony Haswell.
The government even imprisoned one of Adams critics who heard a gun salute to the president and said, "I hope it hit Adams in the arse." The crackdown on freedom of expression did not endear Adams to much of the public.
Adams finally threw away all hope for a second term as president to win peace with France. Adams first ordered William Vans Murray, U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands and an unquestioning Adams loyalist to negotiate peace with France. When Congress and members of his own cabinet erupted in outrage, Adams added Connecticut’s Oliver Ellsworth and North Carolinian William Richardson Davie to the negotiating team.
Ellsworth was a consummate political insider. He was an ally of George Washington’s in the Senate and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who confounded his opponents by operating in secrecy.
With political turmoil in France having returned power to Napoleon, the three-member team reached a quick agreement with the French, though they had to concede that the United States would be responsible for repaying damages to U.S. ship owners.
The terms of the treaty were not positively received in the United States, though they reflected the reality of America’s position vis-à-vis Europe. If the U.S. entered the fighting between England and France, its puny Navy would have negligible effect. But if it stayed neutral, it could perhaps be valuable as a supplier of food.
The Treaty of Mortefontaine was ultimately ratified by the U.S. Congress, though well after Thomas Jefferson had taken control of the presidency. Jefferson’s government would repeal most of the Alien and Sedition Acts that gave government power to imprison and silence its critics.
Adams would later say that his all-in pursuit of peace with France was worth putting the final nail in his presidential coffin, proclaiming he would be completely satisfied if his epitaph read: “Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of the peace with France in the year 1800.”
Of course, his critics might have argued the country would never have come so close to war if not for his leadership. But they could have been imprisoned for saying it.