The Logan Act.

Early modern European politics focused on the competition of “factions” organized around powerful individuals, rather than on “parties” organized around competing ideologies.  Hence, the Founding Fathers did not expect political parties to occupy the political system created by the Constitution.  Things didn’t work out as expected.[1]

Early National American politics quickly polarized into Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.  The two parties reflected different strands of the American Revolution in terms of attitudes to the power of the central government and of social groups.  However, the party competition also incited a degree of personal animus that challenged the generally desired rationality of the time.

In a further surprise, although the Patriots had sought to separate themselves from Europe, foreign affairs repeatedly intruded into the political life of the Early Republic.  An anti-monarchical revolution in France initially won broad support in America, then took a radical turn that divided Americans.  Opinion quickly swung from “Oh, they’re like us” to “What if that could happen here?”  Then war broke out between the new French Republic and, well, almost everyone.  Most important to the United States of all the combatants was Britain because of the Royal Navy’s control of the seas and of the trade that used those seas.  Federalists came to loathe the French Revolution and see a natural alignment with Britain, while the Democratic-Republicans sympathized with the aspirations of the sister-republic and put down its excesses to a temporary war expedient.

The debates on these matters between the two parties quickly soured.  Since the Federalists held the White House from 1789 to 1801, they had charge of American foreign policy.  Three things then happened: the Americans and the French fell into a naval Quasi-War (1798-1800)[2]; the Democratic-Republican press made the Federalists the butt of withering attacks[3]; and the Federalists rammed through a battery of “Alien and Sedition Acts” intended to stifle opposition voices.[4]  The Alien and Sedition Acts contributed to a revulsion against the Federalists that brought the Democratic-Republicans into power in 1801.

Although not normally lumped with the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Logan Act (1799) fits well with the general Federalist effort to squash political opposition.  George Logan,[5] a Democratic-Republican with a lifetime of poor judgement behind him, had made a purely personal visit to France during the Quasi-War in hopes of patching things up.   The Logan Act criminalized private individuals interfering in relations between the United States and other countries.  Unlike the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Logan Act neither sunsetted nor was repealed.

 

How has the Logan Act been applied?  Citing the Logan Act is wrapping oneself in the flag to harass political opponents.

In 1803, France controlled the mouth of the Mississippi river and obstructed American trade through the port of New Orleans.  Western farmers became exasperated with the barrier to getting their crops to market.  A farmer gave public voice to what must have been common tavern conversation after the second mug of rye.  He wrote a letter to a newspaper arguing that Kentucky should secede from the Union and form an alliance with France.  The newspaper published it.  The outraged United States Attorney in Kentucky—a Federalist hold-over from the Adams administration–got a grand jury to indict the farmer.  It never went any further than that.  Would have had to put him in front of a jury of locals.[6]

After service with the U.S. Navy in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), the Philadelphia-born Jewish-American merchant and sea captain Jonas Levy (1807-1883) stayed on in Mexico.  He came from a family of enterprising people and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.  Looking for business opportunities, he proposed to the Mexican government to build a railroad from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.  The isthmus is the narrowest point of Mexico and the Pacific end passes through a gap in the Sierra Madre.  Lots of people wanted to build a railroad there, but one group was in Washington and had the ear of Secretary of State Daniel Webster.  But Levy was on the ground, spoke Spanish, and was very go-ahead.  In 1852, Levy pitched it to the Mexican government.  The Mexicans seemed inclined to go with Levy’s plan, so Webster exerted pressure on behalf of the “American” plan.  Levy wrote to the president of Mexico arguing for his own proposal.  When American diplomats reported this to Washington, Webster got Levy indicted.  The trouble was he didn’t have any evidence, just hearsay.  The indictment went nowhere.

Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) made a fortune as a mining engineer, did a fantastic job organizing American civilian relief aid for Europe in the First World War, served as Secretary of Commerce, and won election as President in 1928.  Then the Depression hit and he got creamed in the 1932 election.  Hoover stomped off into retirement to sulk and fulminate against Franklin D. Roosevelt and all his works.  When the Second World War first broke out, Roosevelt offered Hoover an olive branch in the form of co-ordinating American relief for European civilians.  Hoover turned down the offer, but only because he hated Roosevelt.  He got busy organizing his own program of relief for Poland and then for Belgium.  By mid-1940, the situation had changed.  Poland and France had been defeated, Britain stood alone, and Britain’s naval blockade of Continental Europe offered an important source of pressure on Germany.  Nevertheless, Hoover pressed ahead.  In February 1941, Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles publically warned that Hoover might be in violation of the Logan Act.

More recently, a chain of people have been described as violating the Logan Act.  Some were Democrats: George McGovern, Jesse Jackson, Nancy Pelosi, and John Kerry.  Some were Republicans: 47 Senators, candidate Donald Trump, and Rudi Giuliani.  None have been prosecuted.

In December 2017, as they prepared to interview National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn, FBI agents discussed trying to get Flynn to admit he had violated the Logan Act.

[1] Richard Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780–1840 (1969).

[2] See: Alexander De Conde, The Quasi-War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War with France, 1797-1801 (1966).  An oldie, but a goody.

[3] See, for example James Callender.  Michael Durey, With the Hammer of Truth, James Thomson Callender (1990). 

[4] John Miller, Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts (1951).  Same as De Conde.  The point here is that if the necessary documents are available and a good historian gives them a careful analysis, then most of the subsequent scholarly literature is just an elaboration.

[5] Frederick B. Tolles, George Logan of Philadelphia (1953).

[6] In much political theory, Senators serving six-year terms and appointed officials are supposed to have a braking effect on “populist” impulsiveness and passion.  However, the opposite may also be true.

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