The 1800 presidential campaign between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson is known among historians for the heated arguments and exaggerated language employed by Federalist and Republican partisans. Leading up to the election, Republicans accused Adams and his Federalist Party of being English-loving “monocrats,” while Federalists accused Jefferson and his Republican Party of being atheists in favor of the French Revolution. In fact, Federalists in Congress went so far as to pass Alien and Sedition Acts that sought to unfairly restrict the political speech, and immigration from foreign countries, of those who they suspected of being in favor of Jefferson’s Republican Party.
This crisis in American political history was resolved when two statesmen took magnanimous action for the good of the country. Unlike our most recent presidential transition, Adams recognized the legitimacy of the presidential election results and peacefully handed over power to his political rival on March 4, 1801. That same day, Jefferson healed the nation’s political wounds by turning the other cheek. Having taken control of Congress and the presidency, Republicans could have passed their own Sedition Act to now persecute their Federalist opponents. Instead, Jefferson transcended partisan combat.
In Jefferson’s famous First Inaugural Address, the past author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and future founder of the University of Virginia, explained why Americans should embrace freedom of conscience in both political and religious matters:
Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. … Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.
Jefferson understood that persecuting someone for their political beliefs can be just as disastrous as persecuting someone for their religious beliefs.
But what about dangerous political ideas? After all, can a republic endure if it does not censor political speech that is aimed at undermining that republic? According to Jefferson and his political ally James Madison, the architect of the First Amendment, “Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself. … She is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”
The difference between Jefferson’s magnanimity in 1801 and the impulse among today’s partisans to cancel dissenting viewpoints is due to what professor Arthur Brooks calls “a culture of contempt” that pervades our contemporary political discourse. Team Blue and Team Red hate each other so much that many members of these tribes are willing to resort to violence and the suppression of speech to avoid losing an election or even listening to a dissenting viewpoint.
For example, on March 9, Stanford Law students disrupted and tried to cancel the speech of Judge Kyle Duncan on campus. These students threw a tantrum when a Federalist Society chapter at Stanford invited a Trump-appointed federal appeals court judge to speak at the law school. Using a false “left-right” political spectrum as justification, they mistakenly believed that if they disagreed with Duncan on some issues, then he must be wrong about everything because all his issue positions, they erroneously reasoned, must flow out of an evil and benighted political philosophy. They shouted down Duncan and would not allow their interested classmates to even hear his ideas about jurisprudence.
By hurling insults and screaming profanity at someone they viewed to be their political opponent, the Stanford students mimicked the behavior of the politician, Donald Trump, they claim to despise. America’s young people are watching, and learning, from their elders.
Stanford Law School even had an associate dean in attendance at the event who watched with satisfaction the students’ demonstration of ideological narrow-mindedness and dogmatism. After Duncan repeatedly asked for an administrator to intervene and stop the heckling and shouting so the event could proceed, the “diversity dean” took the podium and went on to praise her students and lecture Duncan about his assumed political views. In this way, she, too, followed the example of Trump, who praises his followers when they resort to shouting, heckling and violence to get their way.
The current path of partisan contempt, misguided “left-right” thinking, public heckling, vicious name-calling and the canceling of dissenting ideas leads to disunion. The only way that we can preserve our constitutional republic is to turn to the principles of Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address and Madison’s First Amendment. Now, more than ever, we need a renewed commitment to being peacemakers, thinking outside the false “left-right” paradigm, rational deliberation in representative legislatures, a willingness to calmly engage with different arguments, and the promotion of universities as places where different ideas are explored, discussed, and tested.
I am hopeful that people of good faith can stop the madness that has taken hold of our public discourse by resisting the impulse to heckle, protest, insult and advocate for violence against those in an opposing political party. To her credit, the Stanford Law School dean eventually published an admirable defense of free speech and viewpoint diversity. In her letter, she corrected the misguided associate dean who had previously praised the Stanford culture warriors.
While the first impulse of Stanford students and “diversity administrators” was to use the heckler’s veto to promote their tribe’s political orthodoxy, the founder of a different university showed a better way: what one person deems to be “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
Verlan Lewis is the Stirling Professor of Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University, a former doctoral student at the University of Virginia, a former postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, and co-author of the new book “The Myth of Left and Right: How the Political Spectrum Misleads and Harms America.”