A Tale of Two Documents

May 29, 1813 – June 15, 1813

An Act Concerning Aliens (June 25, 1798)
Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States at any time during the continuance of this act, to order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or shall have reasonable grounds to suspect are concerned in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof, to depart out of the territory of the United States… [complete text]

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, June 14, 1813: “As your name is subscribed to that law, as Vice President, and mine as President, I know not why you are not as responsible for it as I am. Neither of Us were concerned in the formation of it. We were then at war with France: French spies then swarmed in our Cities and in the Country. Some of them were, intollerably, turbulent, impudent and seditious. To check these was the design of this law. Was there ever a Government, which had not Authority to defend itself against Spies in its own Bosom? Spies of an ennemy at war? This law was never executed by me, in any instance. . . Every Government has by the Law of Nations a right to make prisoners of War, of every subject of an Enemy.”

Senate Joint Resolution 23: Authorization For Use of the United States Armed Forces (September 14, 2001)
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled . . . That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons… [complete text]

Public statement by President George W. Bush, September 18, 2001:
“Senate Joint Resolution 23 recognizes the seriousness of the terrorist threat to our Nation and the authority of the President under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of terrorism against the United States. In signing this resolution, I maintain the longstanding position of the executive branch regarding the President’s constitutional authority to use force, including the Armed Forces of the United States and regarding the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution.” [complete text]

Here’s a fun scenario. You, President of the USofA, are sitting in the oval office and a nifty document lands on your desk giving you authority to do just about whatever you want in order to make the country safe. To sign or not to sign? “Oh, I really shouldn’t, but…”

The two resolutions above are obviously not perfect parallels, but the question of wartime executive power is a continuous thread in the narrative of American history. JA’s Alien Law (part of what are better known as the Alien and Sedition Acts) was very unpopular in 1798 and in this 1813 letter to TJ, he’s on the defensive about it, as usual. His observation that Congress actually wrote up the law, not him, and that TJ also shares responsibility (so stop criticizing me, bucko), could be considered clever or cowardly, depending on what current political scenario you are comparing this too and how you wish to interpret it to suit your agenda. Sorry, that was cynical.

The 2001 Authorization For Use of the United States Armed Forces was passed by Congress in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In his public statement above, President Bush isn’t exactly defending S.J.R. 23, just pontificating about why it’s so great (the resolution was passed by the Senate and House with just one opposing vote).

What is my point, other than presenting a nifty parallel between past and present? (Nifty is the word of the day.) Here’s a softball answer: War promotes powerful presidents. Or, conflict causes Congress to cave.

But this also has me thinking more broadly about what we’re trying to learn from history. Was Adams wrong? Was Bush wrong? (Rhetorical questions, there.) Does the answer to the first question matter any more? Will the answer to the second question matter in 200 years? If we make a judgment, what purpose does it serve? If we don’t make a judgment, what are we left with? Is it even history? I find that after reading history “on the ground,” as in these letters between JA and TJ, which reveal the political and personal conflicts surrounding well-known events, the answer to my own judgment questions is inevitably something along the lines of “It’s complicated.” That can, and often is, a cop-out to serve an indecisive nature, but it is also a resistance to black-and-white interpretations of history that tend to serve a political, religious, or other agenda.

Perhaps the lessons of history are not found by applying a past event to a current predicament. I don’t think that’s the meaning of the oft-repeated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There seems to be enough historical and current evidence to disprove the sentiment as much as support it. The recent war in Iraq is a good example: Two hundred years of military experience didn’t seem to prepare the USA for managing the situation; it had to be learned on the job. And on a personal level, all of the biographies of great men and women that I’ve read haven’t led me down a path to greatness. (Not yet, anyway!)

Is learning history more of a spiritual value, an osmotic collecting and distilling of wisdom, caution, and prudence?

Actually, I think it’s this:

Courtesy of xkcd

4 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Documents

  1. You’ve certainly got me thinking about what JA actually did under the provisions of the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts. Is it true he never acted to arrest or detain anyone? Or, if he did, was it defensible, commensurate with the threat, etc.

    Another parallel during the past ten years was President Bush’s Patriot Act that allowed enhanced surveillance and wiretapping (I think) though with court supervision. While the critics howled, I’m not sure their dire predictions of an unchecked police state ever came close. And under a new administration, the howling certainly evaporated though the act was not repealed (I think).

    I also go back to FDR’s rounding up of Japanese Americans in 1941 and 42 … an instance where thousands ended up incarcerated, stripped of assets, etc. A wartime provision that makes JA’s Alien Law pale in comparison.

    Finally, President Obama’s “drone doctrine” apparently the new accepted approach to fighting terror. It has in fact been used to kill an American citizen without trial, and the defense provided by the administration is based on whether “someone” judges it would be too difficult to attempt to incarcerate said citizen. (Thus, as a reader in the UK recently noted, “its okay to take out an individual from 15,000 ft without notice or warning, and accepting there will be family members killed in the process – collateral damage – but it is not okay to pour water up the nose of one actually captured as an avowed terrorist …”)

    It is right to struggle for reasonable conclusions and lessons – they don’t come easy.

  2. “Power attracts the corruptible”- Frank Herbert via a mind-blowing character in one of his mind-blowing “Dune” books.

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