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An eye-opening political thriller...
on September 8, 2004
Can historical source material make for an exciting and engaging read? This book answers that question in the extreme affirmative. It contains documents mainly from the 18th century, but it reads like a political thriller. It also provides valuable peeks into the formation of the United States as we know it today. Magma hot controversy surrounded that formation. The press on all sides fervently spewed accusations that seem nearly heretical even today. Did John Adams want to be king? Was George Washington a bumbling and incompetent general? Did the French win the revolution for us, thanks to the diplomatic powers of Benjamin Franklin? Was Thomas Jefferson an atheistical French sympathizer? In light of these claims, Who is really the "father of our country?" Many unconventional opinions see light in this book. Some cherished political figures get shredded to bits, sometimes by their own words and sometimes by the words of others. In the end, no one is safe from abuse. Not even Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Shocking claims await on almost every page.
The drama begins in the city of Philadelphia in 1798. At this time it served as the capital for the very young United States (the government moved to Washington in 1800). John Adams holds the presidency. George Washington still has a year to live. Benjamin Franklin has been dead for eight years. His grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache runs a newspaper called the Aurora General Advertiser (or just "The Aurora"). For reporting on certain congressmen's less than professional behavior (spitting, insults, etc), congress bars the paper from the floor of both houses. The Aurora gets shoved into the balconies of congress, far above the whispers of congressman that Bache so often reported on without approval from the House Speaker. Congress marks the Aurora as a troublemaker. This begins the first section of the book, where the Aurora accuses president Adams of wanting to be king of the United States. More than mere conjecture or metaphor spurned this accusation. Adams presented his idea of "titles" to Congress on May 9, 1789. He suggested a verbose title for the president: "His Highness, the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same." Along with this, he proposed that the president and all senators should hold their offices for life. These ideas deeply disturbed Bache, and the exposure of Adams' goals became a predominant goal of his paper. In addition, Bache accused the Adams administration of purposefully alienating France. The Aurora and other news sources of 1789 reported on the terrifying prospect of a French invasion of the United States. It never happened, and Bache yelled foul from his printing press. The more he yelled the more the Adams administration responded. The Sedition Act, supposedly created to silence the Aurora, came before Congress and passed in 1789. On top of that the the Alien Bill also passed, which enabled the president to deport any illegal alien without trial. Bache argued the unconstitutionality of both Acts. The inevitable arrest came soon after. Bache posted bail for trial for indictment under the Sedition Act. The yellow fever epidemic of the same year altered the proceedings. Other arrests and trials of newspaper editors continued. Many were convicted, spent time in prison, and paid heavy fines.
Part Two of the book goes back in time to before the American Revolution. This section will raise the most eyebrows. It begins with an accusation that George Washington started the French Indian War of 1756. The section goes on to argue that Washington bungled the Revolutionary war so badly that Benjamin Franklin had to go to France and beg for help. Surprising letters from Washington's Generals and other government officials dot the entire section. Other revelations include Alexander Hamilton's avowal that monarchy best suits the new constitution's checks and balances, Adams' ideas behind a two house legislature, Benjamin Franklin's support of a unicameral legislature, and the alleged flouting of the French Treaty of 1778 under the Washington administration. Washington in particular fares badly in this section.
The Third and final section returns to 1798. William Duane now heads up the Aurora (you can guess what happened). He continues the fight against the Adams administration's policies, particularly in the critical election year of 1800. The government arrests Duane under the Sedition Act, and even the United States Senate arrests Duane for "breach of privilege". Duane spends much of this section in hiding. This section also sheds some light on the origins of the Second Amendment concerning the subject of standing armies. Much, much more gets coverage in this section. Far too much to summarize here, but the election of 1800 (Adams vs. Jefferson) receives more than ample coverage.
Throughout, the reader gets more perspectives than just the Aurora's. The Federalists (Adams' party) also get plenty of space. Numerous passages from the Gazette of the United States and Porcupine's Gazette (both Federalist papers of Philadelphia) provide vitriolic responses to Bache's and Duane's Democratic-Republican claims. Candor was not something practiced by the press of the time. Articles sometimes resulted in personal assaults on editors with opposing papers cheering on the abusers. Rough times indeed.
Though the book provides many perspectives, the book mainly argues that Bache and Duane's Aurora saved the United States from monarchy (even Thomas Jefferson made this claim in 1823), and that freedom of the press provided the means. The book takes a decidedly anti-Federalist stance.
Engaging and powerful, this book will provide at least another perspective on the founding of the United States and its major personalities. It accomplishes this mostly through excerpts from newspapers, The Annals of Congress, and personal letters of the time (the book contains over 2000 direct citations). At times it feels close to time travel. A long and arduous but ultimately extremely rewarding read.