On May 7th, 1798, a crowd of roughly 1,200 Philadelphians, mostly young men in their teens and twenties, gathered at Market Street for an impromptu rally. Some carried flags and banners with patriotic slogans, others wore a black cockade in their hats (which had become the Federalist symbol in response to the Republican tricolor). After some carousing and singing, these patriots made their way to President John Adams’ home. Respected but never loved by the public, Adams relished this unexpected outburst of popularity and played it to the hilt.
When the President appeared before the cheering crowd, he wore a military uniform and a ceremonial sword (somewhat outlandish for a man who’d never served in uniform). He delivered a brief, stirring address, urging his visitors to “act…in defense of the honor and independence of your country” and praising them as “one of [America’s] firmest bulwarks.” The response was rapturous; the crowd serenaded the Adamses with “Hail, Columbia” and other patriotic ballads, then slowly dispersed, continuing their uproar elsewhere. Abigail Adams noted approvingly that “this city, which was formerly torpid with indolence and fettered with Quakerism, has become one military school…a Band of Brothers joined.”
These patriots took the President’s words to heart. Afterwards, marched through Philadelphia, knocking down lampposts and defacing a statue of Benjamin Franklin with mud. This was no coincidence; Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, published the Philadelphia Aurora, one of Adams’ bitterest press enemies and already a constant target of Federalist abuse. Some of the crowd even sang a vulgar parody of “Yankee Doodle,” reportedly written by John Ward Fenno of the Gazette of the United States, which denounced Bache as “the curse of any nation” and caricatured the Republican philosophy thus:
Fire and murder, keep it up
Plunder is the dandy
When some folks get the upper hand
With heads they’ll be so handy.
That evening, a large, drunken remnant of this mob manifested outside Bache’s home. Bache himself was absent, but his pregnant wife Peggy and young children were present. The crowd continued their singing, which escalated into violence as they smashed the Bache’s windows and attempted to force entrance into the home. Eventually, Bache’s friends and neighbors appeared and convinced the mob to disperse before they inflicted any casualties; the next day, Republicans sporting muskets and tricolor cockades stood guard at Bache’s home and the Aurora press office to deter further violence.
Afterwards Bache, implicitly blaming the outrage on the President, wondered that “they are now called upon to arm themselves; what are we to expect from them?” And this was merely the first round; several days later, a large gang of Federalists attacked the Aurora, smashed its windows and attempted to destroy the printing press. Worse, Adams soon decided to bring to bear the Federal government’s full power to suppress Bache and his paper, a vendetta that continued beyond the editor’s grave.
Bache (widely nicknamed “Lightning Rod Junior”) proved a worthy successor to his famous grandfather; he had, in fact, accompanied Franklin on his diplomatic missions to France as a child, then followed him into the newspaper business after education in Geneva (where he studied with John Quincy Adams) and the University of Pennsylvania. After Franklin’s death in 1790, Bache inherited his ancestor’s printing equipment, books and a fair portion of his money, resolving to keep the Franklin legacy alive. As Franklin used his Pennsylvania Gazette to air colonial grievances against England, so did Bache use his Aurora to inveigh against Federalist abuses.
While many Americans of the 1790s lacked formal education, they were remarkably well-informed, after a fashion. Rare was the American, whether a city dweller or rural frontiersman, who didn’t read a local newspaper (over 300 of which circulated around the turn of the 18th Century), magazine or broadside to keep current on the day’s pressing issues. Alexander Boloni Farkas, a Romanian diplomat traveling through Ohio in the early 1800s, marveled that “no matter how poor a settler may be, nor how far in the wilderness he may be from the civilized world, he will read a newspaper.” Yet such widespread information came at the expense of objectivity or levelheadness.
For newspapers of the early Republic were, with few exceptions, unabashedly partisan. Some even received sinecures from leading politicians: Alexander Hamilton personally funded Fenno’s Gazette, which Fenno even hoped would serve as George Washington’s official paper. Republicans were similarly complicit, with Thomas Jefferson funding Philip Freneau’s attacks on Washington (even hiring him for a State Department post as he savaged the President) and encouraging James T. Callender’s attacks on Hamilton. Not infrequently, politicians and public figures openly feuded through editorials and open letters in their pages. Where most news outlets today make at least a pretense of balance and objectivity, early newspapers didn’t try.
Proclaiming “the freedom of the press is the bulwark of liberty,” Bache’s Aurora mixed high-minded editorials with savage, often personal attacks on Federalist leaders. He had constantly imprecated George Washington’s leadership during the Revolution while assailing his presidency and character. “If ever a nation has been debauched by a man,” Bache thundered, “the American nation was debauched by Washington.” Where most viewed Washington as the benevolent Father of Our Country, Bache cast him as an incompetent, power-hungry monarch. In response, Washington raged that Bache’s “calumnies are to be exceeded only by his impudence.”
Despite Bache’s brief detente towards Adams (which Adams warily suggested was merely an attempt to “create a coolness between me and Mr. Washington”), he parted ways with the President after the XYZ Affair and escalating tensions with France. In his most famous editorial, Bache described the President as “old, querulous, Bald, blind, crippled, Toothless Adams” and encouraged Americans to “come forward in a manly tone of remonstrance to induce Mr. Adams to resign the helm to safer hands before it be too late to retrieve our deranged affairs.”
Bache’s hot-tempered words won respect and hatred in equal measure. William Cobbett, no slouch in spewing venom himself, said that Bache “has outraged every principle of decency, of morality, of religion and of nature” and recommended that fellow Federalists treat him “as we would a Turk, a Jew, a Jacobin, or a dog.” Abigail Adams, always fiercely protective of her husband’s reputation, warned that “the wrath of an insulted people will by and by break upon [Bache].”
Many Federalists obliged the First Lady, and not only when backed by a mob. Jack Fenno, son of John Ward Fenno, was so incensed by an editorial Bache ran about his father that, in June 1798, he nearly challenged the Republican to a duel. Friends prevented this fatal encounter, which didn’t stop young Fenno from retaliating in a less honorable fashion. Spotting Bache in the street one day, Fenno rushed over, grabbed Bache by the collar and punched his adversary several times in the face. Bache responded by pinning the young Federalist against the wall and “inflicting the merited chastisement” with his walking stick. William Cobbett remarked that the incident proved that “Bache’s skull was even more impenetrable than could have been supposed.”
Bache’s end didn’t come merely by insulting rival editors, however. On June 18th, shortly after his encounter with Jack Fenno, Bache published a letter from Talleyrand to the American ministers in France, which offered a rebuttal to President Adams’ narrative of the XYZ Affair. Evidently obtained from a Republican in the State Department, the correspondence hardly exculpated the French or their defenders in the United States, as Bache clearly hoped. Nonetheless, the mere fact that he published such a paper allowed Bache’s enemies, in government and the Federalist press, another opportunity to brand him a traitor.
Backlash wasn’t long in coming. Predictable foes weighed in: William Cobbett took time out from Jew-baiting and Illuminati-conjuring to proclaim that Bache’s “object…was to deceive the people…and prepare the way for an invasion [by France.” John Ward Fenno wondered whether “the Editor of the Aurora is an official agent of the French Directory.” More ominously, a few weeks later, Bache received an indictment under the newly-passed Sedition Act, receiving a summons for trial in Federal court in October.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, Bache didn’t live to see trial. Yellow fever ravaged Philadelphia that summer, as it commonly did in that era. Bache refused entreaties to leave the city, considering it his duty to keep the Republican flag flying in the capital even as disease scourged its occupants. (That his wife was ill, and that his assistant editor, James Callender, had fled Philadelphia for Richmond further reinforced his decision.) Bache’s stand was brave but foolhardy; he soon contracted the fever himself, dying on September 10, 1798.
Bache’s death inspired predictably polarized reactions. The Independent Chronicle, another Republican paper, eulogized the editor as “the heart, the seat of life…[the] strength of the party.” One Federalist editor chose to gloat: “Bile is the basis of the yellow fever. Is it surprising that it killed Bache?” (By that logic, it wasn’t surprising that the fever also claimed Bache’s rival, John Ward Fenno, shortly afterwards.) President Adams certainly didn’t regret Bache’s demise, remarking that “the Yellow Fever arrested him in his detestable Career, and sent him to his Grandfather, from whom he inherited a dirty, envious, jealous and revengeful spite against me.”
If Adams and other Federalists hoped that Bache’s death would stifle the Aurora, they were sorely mistaken. For Peggy Bache, a strong-willed woman in her own right, decided to continue publishing the paper in her husband’s memory. As a further act of defiance, she appointed William Duane, another irascible Republican (whose wife had also perished in the summer’s plague), as her publisher. Not only did the two become allies, shortly afterwards they would remarry, forming a strong alliance for Republicanism.
Duane was an even more colorful provocateur than Bache. Though born in New York, he spent most of his life in Ireland and England and became enamored of radical movements in both of those countries. More recently, he founded and edited The Bengal Journal, a newspaper in Calcutta, India, where his enthusiasm for the French Revolution and criticisms of British policy earned the wrath of the East India Company. Deported in 1794 for libeling the French royal family, he relocated to the United States and continued his career unabated.
After several months of editorials savaging Adams, the Alien and Sedition Acts and Federalist military build-up, Duane landed in hot water for an incident which only peripherally involved him. He was present when Dr. James Reynolds, an associate of the late Irish rebel Wolfe Tone (and no relation to the James Reynolds scandalously connected with Alexander Hamilton), gave a speech supporting Irish independence at St. Mary’s Church, Philadelphia, in February 1799. Assorted Philadelphians heckled and threatened Reynolds, who responded by aiming a pistol at one of his assailants (by one account, a fifteen year old boy). The furious crowd attacked Reynolds, Duane and two other associates and carried them to the Mayor’s office, urging that they be charged with conspiracy and attempted murder.
Duane was acquitted, but opprobrium and violence continued. In May, he vehemently criticized Adams’ use of military force to crush Fries’ Rebellion, a nonviolent tax protest in eastern Pennsylvania (of which, more later). This provoked the wrath of Pennsylvania militiamen, thirty of whom stormed the Aurora‘s office on May 15th as Duane and his staff prepared the following day’s paper. Among their number were Captain Joseph McKean, son of Thomas McKean, Pennsylvania’s Chief Justice (and, ironically, Duane’s friend and political ally) and Peter Meircken, a Federalist merchant.
After McKean demanded and failed to receive an apology for Duane’s harsh words, the mob struck. “Peter Meircken…with several others seized the editor by violence,” Duane would recall, “struck him several times on the head, while others held his hands. By force they dragged him downstairs into Franklin Court, and there repeated their violence by reiterated blows from above ten different persons.” This violence being insufficient, the mob then flogged Duane and left him bleeding in the courtyard.
Even this didn’t seem to be enough; the next day, an even larger Federalist mob appeared at the Aurora, many armed, all bent upon destruction. This time, their arrival was expected; a large body of Republican militia, toting swords, muskets and bayonets, stood off the angry attackers. Threats and insults were exchanged, but no further violence. Unsurprisingly, no one was charged for either day’s rioting, though fear of mass violence reached a fever pitch. “If someone were to discharge a musket,” Duane mused, “this city and perhaps the country could erupt in civil war.”
Still Duane kept writing, until the Federal government decided they’d had enough. In July 1799, Duane published correspondence between the American and British governments which seemed, to Duane’s mind, to suggest a putative alliance between them. Timothy Pickering complained of Duane’s “uninterrupted stream of slander on the American government” and sent instructions to William Rawle, district attorney for Philadelphia: “if the slander on the American government will justify a prosecution against the Editor or Author, be pleased to have it commenced.”
On August 2nd, Duane received an indictment under the Sedition Act. (This wasn’t enough for President Adams, who wondered whether “the matchless effrontery of his Duane merits the execution of the Alien Law.”) Only through the maneuverings of Duane’s defense attorney, Pennsylvania Secretary Alexander James Dallas, was this forestalled, with a formal trial on sedition delayed until June 1800. Fearing that a civil court might throw out charges against Duane, Pickering employed an even craftier device to prosecute him.
In February 1800, Duane published an editorial revealing Federalist plans to appoint a commission overseeing the upcoming presidential election. With Pickering’s encouragement, Federalist Senators cited Duane with contempt for revealing details about legislation not yet before the Senate. It was a flimsy, flagrantly partisan charge, and everyone knew it. On March 24, 1800, Duane was forced to appear before the Senate to account for his words and actions.
It proved an extraordinary spectacle, more befitting a medieval star chamber or Stalinist show trial than due process in a democratic republic. Vice President Thomas Jefferson (despite his personal sympathies for Duane) presided, formally charging the editor with “having published…false, scandalous and malicious assertions and pretended information regarding the said Senate.” Duane responded by asserting “my personal considerations in this case are nothing, but the rights of my country and fellow citizens are everything.”
The remainder of the proceeding proved a farce. Duane’s attorneys, Alexander Dallas and William Cooper, attempted to challenge the Senate’s rights to hold this proceeding, but were curtly rebuffed by Jefferson. Dallas and Cooper then attempted to introduce evidence in their client’s defense, only to have the Senators reject it as immaterial. Frustrated, Dallas and Cooper refused to continue their defense. “To appear before a tribunal which…has prejudged you,” Cooper wrote, “would certainly tend to disgrace your cause and my character.”
Shorn of his attorneys, his legal rights drastically curtailed, Duane refused to appear two days later for another hearing. Senator Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey resolved to indict Duane in contempt, a motion which passed along party lines. Assisted by friends, Duane avoided the indictment by going into hiding, managing to remain out of sight until Congress recessed a few months later. However, he indiscreetly continued publishing his writings, ensuring that Federalist persecution wouldn’t cease.
Incredibly, Duane’s saga still wasn’t over. In October, Duane was yet again indicted under the Sedition Act and briefly jailed. Fortunately, before he could be formally charged or tried, Thomas Jefferson won election to the Presidency. He instantly pardoned Duane, who continued writing and publishing his paper, served as Pennsylvania’s Adjutant General in the War of 1812, and remained involved in Republican politics until his death in 1835.
Bache and Duane were far from the only Republicans persecuted during the Adams Administration. But their combined cases show the lengths to which a fragile government led by insecure men and ideologues will blame their problems on a hostile press – and how limited the press’s recourse can be in the face of official opprobrium. With Americans so eager to jail or kill each other over political disagreements, it seems astonishing that they’d have any time for conflict with a foreign power.
Part Four will discuss the Quasi-War between America and France, the frustrations of the peace committee, and George Logan’s private efforts to end the conflict.