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. The possibility of 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. In fact, it had a name — the Quasi-War.
France didn’t appreciate America declaring neutrality in European conflicts, especially after all it had done to help win the War for Independence. Nor did France appreciate George Washington cozying up to England. So U.S. foreign policy led to the French seizing U.S. ships in the Caribbean.
The French had captured close to 400 American ships, and an American military buildup pushed back against French ships.
The Adams administration had tried for several years to bring the fighting to a halt, but it had failed. The release of papers detailing the negotiations, sent Americans into an uproar. They revealed that French negotiators asked the United States to pay $250,000 to start peace talks. The papers had expunged the names of the three French negotiators, replacing them with the letters X, Y and Z.
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 their government to demand French repayment – not to make payment to France.
Some in America urged war.
In 1798, the Congress gave Adams expanded powers to limit the entry of foreigners to the country and expel foreign agitators. It further criminalized fake news, or making false criticisms of the federal government.
Under the law, known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, some of Adams’ political enemies received fines and jail sentences. Though Adams never deported anyone using his expanded powers he did fine and jail two political enemies from Vermont: 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. An ally of George Washington’s in the Senate and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, he confounded his opponents by operating in secrecy.
With political turmoil in France having turned power over to Napoleon, the three-member team reached a quick agreement with the French. However, they had to concede that the United States, not France, would repay damages to U.S. ship owners.
The terms of the treaty were not positively received in the United States. But they did reflect 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 U.S. Congress ultimately ratified the Treaty of Mortefontaine, though well after Thomas Jefferson took 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. He proclaimed 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.
This story last updated in 2022.