James T. Callender

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James Thomson Callender (1758 – July 17, 1803) was a political pamphleteer and journalist whose writing was controversial in his native Scotland and the United States. His contemporary reputation was as a "scandalmonger", due to the content of some of his reporting, which overshadowed the political content. In the United States, he was a central figure in the press wars between the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties, and reported on President Thomas Jefferson's alleged children by his slave concubine Sally Hemings. Callender's authority and veracity have been controversial, but his statements about Jefferson are thought by some to have been confirmed by a 1998 DNA analysis and the weight of historical evidence, as shown by the historian Annette Gordon-Reed and others. The testing showed that a male of the Jefferson family fathered at least one of Sally Hemings' children.

Scotland[edit]

Callender was born in Scotland. He did not gain a formal education, but secured employment as a sub clerk in the Edinburgh Sasine office, the equivalent of the Recorder of Deeds. While working in that office, Callender published satirical pamphlets criticizing the writer Samuel Johnson. "Deformities of Samuel Johnson", published anonymously, appealed to populist Scottish sentiments.[1] Later he wrote pamphlets attacking political corruption. Callender's political writings were tinged with radical democratic egalitarianism, Scottish nationalism and a pessimistic view of human nature, and were critical of the liberal notion of progress.[2] An admirer of Jonathan Swift, Callender sought to cut the wealthy and the powerful down to size in his writing.

After clashes with his employers, Callender lost his job in the Sasine office. In 1791 Callender wrote a pamphlet criticizing an excise tax, paid for by the brewers who resented it. His writing attracted the attention of some reform-minded members of the Scottish nobility: Francis Garden, Lord Gardenstone, became his patron.[3] In 1792 he published The Political Progress of Britain, a controversial critique of war, imperialism and corruption. He fled to Ireland and to the United States to avoid prosecution. After Callender left Scotland, Lord Gardenstone exposed him as the author; the journalist's reputation was also marred by the rumor that he had implicated Gardenstone.[4]

Philadelphia[edit]

Callender quickly gained a position as a Congressional reporter in Philadelphia, and wrote anonymously for the partisan press. His first American article lambasted pro-war sentiment.[5] Although he was frequently dogged by poverty and unemployment, by 1794 Callender was a regular freelance commentator on American politics. He remained at the epicenter of the new nation's political life until his death.[6]

Over the next few years, while living by ghostwriting and piecemeal assignments, Callender became one of a group of radical Republican journalists who socialized together and held similar views on democracy and economic nationalism. During this period, he produced a series of pamphlets in which he attempted to frame a comprehensive political theory, advocating for the government's duty to the poor (in the form of progressive taxation), economic independence from Europe, and the promotion of native industry. These goals put him at odds with the Federalists, and with some of the more conservative and agrarian Republicans.[7]

Title page, Observations of certain documents contained in no. V & VI of 'The history of the United States for the year 1796,' in which the charge of speculation against Alexander Hamilton, late secretary of the Treasury, is fully refuted. Written by himself. Printed at Philadelphia, 1797
Title page, The Prospect Before Us, by James T. Callender. Printed for the author by M. Jones, Jr., and J. Lyon, 1800.

His writings attacked Federalist positions with a mix of reasoned argument, satire and personal invective. His first pamphlet challenged the introduction of an excise tax into American commerce, but it was his invective against America's early national heroes - Washington, Adams, and Hamilton - and against their policies and failings, that gained him notoriety. In his pamphlet History of 1796, he exposed the sexual relationship between Alexander Hamilton and a married woman, Maria Reynolds, the subsequent blackmail against Hamilton, and Hamilton's alleged financial corruption. Callender presented compelling evidence of adultery, but in 1797's Sketches of the History of America, he wrote that the affair was a distraction from Hamilton's greater offense: partnering with Reynolds' husband in corrupt financial dealings.[8] Hamilton denied being a party to any improper financial matter, although he confessed to the adultery. According to Callender, that was just a smokescreen. Although the financial charges were never proven, Hamilton never again held public office.

Callender's success was short-lived. By 1798 his fortunes were in a downward spiral: he was forced to seek poor relief, his wife died of yellow fever, and his anonymously published political broadsides were exposed as his by a rival pamphleteer, William Cobbet, putting Callender in legal jeopardy and physical danger.[9] He fled from Philadelphia to Virginia, leaving his children behind.

Prosecution for sedition[edit]

Thomas Jefferson, impressed with Callender's attack on Hamilton, and eager to create a counterforce to the Federalist press,[10] sought to use Callendar's talents against John Adams. Subsequent to meeting him in Philadelphia, Jefferson financially supported Callender and provided feedback on early proofs of Callender's anti-Federalist pamphlet The Prospect Before Us.[11][12] Prior to the publication of the pamphlet, Callender was compelled to flee on foot from Philadelphia to Virginia, finding temporary refuge at the plantation of Senator Stevens Thomas Mason. This is due to his fleeing of the acts against him on sedition, after calling out Hamilton.

In Virginia, he completed The Prospect Before Us, whose subject was the pervasiveness of political corruption, particularly among Federalists and the Adams administration. His populist style had his targets permanently on the defensive.[13] In June 1800, in retaliation for The Prospect, Callender was prosecuted under the Sedition Act by the Adams administration. His trial was presided over by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, who was later impeached, in part due to his handling of the Callender trial. Callender was fined $200 and received the longest jail term of the journalists who had been prosecuted under the Sedition Act. He was released on the last day of the Adams administration, in March 1801. After his release, Callender and the others who had been prosecuted were pardoned by the new president, Thomas Jefferson.

Attacks on Thomas Jefferson[edit]

Out of jail, Callender asked Jefferson to appoint him Postmaster of Richmond, Virginia, warning that if Jefferson did not, there would be consequences. Callender believed erroneously that Jefferson was conspiring to deprive him of money owed to him by the government after the pardon, and that Jefferson did not appreciate his sacrifices. Jefferson refused to make the appointment: placing the ill-tempered Callender in a position of authority in the Federalist stronghold of Richmond would have been, in the words of the Jefferson biographer R.B. Bernstein, "like whacking a hornet's nest with a stick."[14]

With his career and his social ambitions thwarted, Callender returned to newspaper work, as editor of a Federalist newspaper, the Richmond Recorder. In a series of articles attacking corruption on all sides, Callender targeted Jefferson, revealing that Jefferson had funded his pamphleteering. After denials were issued, he published Jefferson's letters to him to prove the relationship. Later, angered by the criticism by Jefferson supporters, who asserted that Callender had abandoned his wife to die of a venereal disease,[15] Callender reported in a series of articles that Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings.[16][17]

Callender's reporting on the Jefferson-Hemings relationship used racist rhetoric of the time. Although he had expressed anti-slavery views when he first arrived in the United States, he eventually adopted a position on slavery and race similar to that of Jefferson's in Notes on the State of Virginia.[18] After the Hemings' controversy ran its course, Callender turned to publicizing Jefferson's earlier attempt to seduce a married neighbor decades before.

Death and legacy[edit]

By some accounts, Callender was slated to provide testimony for a New York trial, The People vs. Croswell, which involved libel charges against a publisher, Harry Croswell, who had reprinted claims that Thomas Jefferson paid Callender to defame George Washington. Croswell's lawyer was Alexander Hamilton.[19] President Jefferson, wary of the controversy generated by the Adams administration's sedition prosecutions, had begun a selective campaign against individual newspaper critics.

Despite his popularity among newspaper readers, Callender had an uneasy situation. Former allies had turned against him: in a surprise attack in December 1802, George Hay, one of his former defense attorneys, clubbed him in the head with a walking stick in retaliation for an article about an international incident to which Hay had ties.[20] In 1803, Callender's children joined him in Richmond, perhaps removed from Philadelphia due to the Jefferson controversy; he had a falling out with the owner of the Richmond Recorder over money. In March, the offices of the newspaper were attacked by young Republicans from Hay's law firm. On July 17, 1803, Callender drowned in three feet of water in the James River, reportedly too drunk to save himself.

Meriwether Jones, a friend and supporter of Thomas Jefferson and James Callender, had published an open letter to Callender in December 1802:

The James River you tell us, has suffered to cleanse your body; is there any menstrum [solvent] capable of cleansing your mind... Oh! could a dose of James river, like Lethe, have blessed you with forgetfulness, for once you would have neglected your whiskey.[21]

In 1990, the Australian writer Michael Durey published a biography covering Callender's life. Durey noted that Callender's then-reputation as a liar, drunkard and scandalmonger had been uncritically based on the original attacks against Callender by his political targets and rivals in the press. He believed their attacks obscured Callender's message of democratic egalitarianism, his relevance to the early formation of Republican politics, and his role in the birth of political journalism.[22]

In 1997, the historian Annette Gordon-Reed published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, showing in detail how historians had traditionally discounted some of the evidence supporting the allegations of Jefferson's paternity of slave children. In 1998, a DNA analysis confirmed that Eston Hemings Jefferson's descendants were related to the Jefferson male line. Together with the historical evidence, the biographers Joseph Ellis and Andrew Burstein, as well the National Genealogical Society, published their conclusions that Jefferson had a long-term relationship and several children by Sally Hemings. In 2010 Gordon-Reed won a MacArthur Fellowship for "dramatically changing the course of Jeffersonian scholarship."[23]

In 2000, the journalist and author William Safire published a historical novel, Scandalmonger, about Callender's life in the United States and based on letters of notable people of the time, including presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Forty-four pages at the end of the hardcover edition of the book are what Safire calls "the underbook", a section distinguishing the historical information from fiction and including notes and sources.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Durey 1990, p. 6
  2. ^ Durey 1990, p. 9
  3. ^ Durey 1990, p. 22
  4. ^ Durey 1990, p. 44
  5. ^ Durey 1990, pp. 53, 55
  6. ^ Durey 1990, p. 64
  7. ^ Durey 1990, pp. 74–83
  8. ^ Durey 1990, p. 102
  9. ^ Durey 1990, pp.103–106
  10. ^ Durey 1990, p.106
  11. ^ Miller 1977, pp. 148–151
  12. ^ [1] PBS.org John and Abigail Adams -James Callender
  13. ^ Durey 1990, pp.109, 124–125
  14. ^ Bernstein, R.B. Thomas Jefferson (Oxford University Press, 2003) p. 154
  15. ^ Willard S. Randall, Thomas Jefferson: A Life, Henry Holt & Co., 1993, p. 556
  16. ^ Miller 1977, pp. 152–153
  17. ^ Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. University of Virginia Press (April 1997), pp. 59–61. ISBN 0-8139-1698-4
  18. ^ Durey 1990, p. 138
  19. ^ Robert A. Henderickson, The Rise and Fall of Alexander Hamilton, (New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981), 579.
  20. ^ Durey 1990, p. 164
  21. ^ Brodie, Fawn. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait (WW Norton, 1974) p. 356
  22. ^ Durey 1990, pp. 173–174
  23. ^ "Annette Gordon-Reed", MacArthur Foundation, accessed 9 February 2011

References[edit]

  • Michael Durey, With the Hammer of Truth, James Thomson Callender, (Charlottesville, Univ. Press of VA, 1990).
  • Miller, John Chester,The Wolf by the Ears, (The Free Press, 1977).

Further reading[edit]

  • Byron Woodson, A President in the Family, (Westport, CT, Praeger, 2001)

External links[edit]