Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Should We Repeal the Logan Act?


It's funny how obscure laws passed during the administration of John Adams keep surfacing at the oddest of times. John Adams was a British-leaning, one term president who signed into law a very unpopular legislation package called the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798.

John Adams Source: Wikipedia

The Sedition Act, which was a part of this package, provided for a punishment of up to two years imprisonment for "opposing or resisting any law of the United States or writing or publishing false, scandalous and malicious writing about the President of the United States or Congress, but not about the Vice President."(Source: Wikipedia)  Opposing any law of the United States under the Sedition Act did not mean violating that law: it meant campaigning to have it repealed. Writing scandalous and malicious things about the President did not mean, apparently, just libel and defamation, as there were already measures against that. It meant writing things about them which may be true, though scandalous. (The "and" in "false, scandalous and malicious" was interpreted as an "or".) The Vice President, on the other hand, was not shielded by these laws from having scandalous but true things written about him, because the Vice President at the time was Adams' chief rival, Thomas Jefferson. When Jefferson came to power, he allowed the Alien and Sedition Act to expire, and he compensated all the people who were harmed by it.

However, the Logan Act, passed during the same period,(January 30, 1799) was not ever repealed. It has also not ever been successfully prosecuted, and its constitutionality is in question. 

The Logan  Act is named for Dr. George Logan of Pennsylvania, who during Adams' undeclared and unconstitutional war with France, took it upon himself to try to improve matters between the two countries. According to Kevin Kearney:

Upon his arrival in Paris, he met with various French officials, including Talleyrand. During these meetings, he identified himself as a private citizen, discussed matters of general interest to the French, and told his audience that anti-French sentiment was prevalent in the United States. Logan's conversation with Merlin de Douai, who occupied the highest political office in the French republic, was typical. Logan stated that he did not intend to explain the American government's position, nor to criticize that of France. Instead, he suggested ways in which France could improve relations with the United States, to the benefit of both countries. He also told Merlin that pro-British propagandists in the United States were portraying the French as corrupt and anxious for war, and were stating that any friend of French principles necessarily was an enemy of the United States. Within days of Logan's last meeting, the French took steps to relieve the tensions between the two nations; they lifted the trade embargo then in place, and released American seamen held captive in French jails.
The Federalist Party, and John Adams at its head, were very jealous about the praise showered on Dr. Logan for his successful negotiation with the French, so  they passed a law forbidding any American from ever doing something like that again. Logan was later elected to Congress, during Jefferson's term of office, but for some reason, he was never able to get the Logan Act repealed, though he did try. 

Only one person was ever indicted under the Logan Act and that was in 1803. Nobody has ever been convicted under it. Its constitutionality has never been upheld. 

Should we repeal the Logan Act? Or is this legacy from John Adams restricting Americans from speaking on behalf of other Americans to foreign governments to be upheld? Was what Dr, Logan did in France really so very bad?


 Kearney, Kevin M. (1987). "Private Citizens in Foreign Affairs: A Constitutional Analysis". Emory Law Journal. 36. (winter)

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