The first great test of the American Constitution came in 1798, when President John Adams became so agitated with his critics that he disregarded the Bill of Rights and the rule of law and arranged for the arrest of dissenting elected officials and editors.
Adams was so lawless that his own vice president, Thomas Jefferson, organized the opposition. Two years later, Adams was the first American president to be removed from office by the electorate. And rightly so.
James Madison, the essential drafter of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, referred to the "Alien and Sedition Acts" that Adams and his associates used to justify their assault on the First Amendment as "a monster that must forever disgrace its parents."
Unfortunately, the monster still breaks loose. And not just in Washington.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is no John Adams. But prospective Republican presidential candidate's delusions of imperial grandeur have led him to cobble together a set of rules that he is using to have dozens of dissenters (including veterans, grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers with children and top teachers) arrested for assembling in the rotunda of the state capitol and singing labor songs.
Never mind that the "Solidarity Sing Alongs" were held peacefully, and without significant incident, before the governor's crackdown began this summer.
The arrests escalated on Thursday. And, though Walker plays on a small stage, those familiar with the basic outlines of American constitutional history will note a certain historical irony in the drama the governor has scripted.
First, an elected official, Madison Alder Mark Clear, the former president of the city council, was arrested for joining in the singing of "This Land Is Your Land."
Then, just a few minutes later, Progressive magazine editor Matt Rothschild was detained when he attempted to record what was happening. Rothschild informed the arresting officers that he was a journalist and that he had every right to cover the story.
Clear and his fellow singers can point to a US Constitution that guarantees that Americans may assemble and petition for the redress of grievances -- and to a Wisconsin Constitution that is even more explicit, declaring, "The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged."
Rothschild can point to a US Constitution that guards against any abridging of the freedom of the press -- and to a Wisconsin Constitution that is even more explicit, declaring that "no laws shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press."
Yet, both men were arrested. The governor and his allies argue that a federal court ruling that allows officials to establish permit requirements has cleared the way for a wholesale rejection of constitutional values. They will find they are wrong, just as Adams and his associates did when they had Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon and editor Benjamin Franklin Bache arrested. But the fact that judges and juries will eventually reject Walker's flawed premises does not clean up the mess that the governor has made. When local elected officials and magazine editors are being arrested, real damage is done to the rule of law and to the broad understanding of basic liberties.
But the damage will eventually be undone. Walker is going too far, just as Adams did. And, as Jefferson explained in the darkest days of his struggle, "A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles."