In his essay “What Would Jefferson Do?” (Views, August), Stephen B. Presser implies that Thomas Jefferson would support efforts to silence the critics of the war in Iraq. While it is true that, during his second term, Jefferson supported some illiberal measures (the embargo episode being a prime example), Dr. Presser ignores Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution and the Revolution of 1800.
In the summer of 1798, the Federalists made criticism of the national government a crime via the Sedition Act. Jefferson and Madison drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions to combat both this oppressive measure and the liberal interpretation of the Constitution that gave birth to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Under the Sedition Act, at least 25 people were arrested and 14 were indicted—many of them for criticizing President Adams’ efforts to wage war against France. Though the Sedition Act expired just before Jefferson assumed the presidency, he pardoned those convicted under this oppressive measure. As for those Americans who had supported the acts and the Federalists, Jefferson described them as “dupes of artful maneuvers, and made for a moment to be willing instruments in forging chains for themselves.” Such actions and words simply do not support Dr. Presser’s characterization of Jefferson as one to inclined to circumscribe the parameters of political debate.
—William J. Watkins, Jr.
Dr. Presser Replies:
What Dr. Watkins writes regarding the Federalists’ seditious-libel prosecutions is certainly correct, and I think he nicely underscores the point that, for Jefferson, dissent is perfectly permissible—indeed, to be encouraged—when he is out of power and wants to criticize those he wishes to replace. Once he is in power, however, his toleration for dissent seems to decrease dramatically. Those wishing to explore the information that leads me to conclude that, for Jefferson, civil liberties were a matter of whose ox was being gored will enjoy Leonard Levy’s book, Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side (Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1989).