John Fenno (Aug. 12, 1751 (O.S.) – Sept. 14, 1798), was a Federalist Party editor and major figure in the history of American newspapers. His Gazette of the United States played a major role in shaping the beginnings of party politics in the United States in the 1790s.
Fenno was born in Boston, the son of Ephraim Fenno, leather-dresser and alehouse keeper, and Mary Chapman.
Fenno spent some early years as a teacher, and was secretary to General Artemas Ward during part of the American Revolution. Failure of an import business led to a move to New York City, which at that time was the nation's capital. Having previously written for the Massachusetts Centinel, Fenno on April 11, 1789 in New York City published the first issue of the Gazette of the United States to support Federalist Party positions. Fenno moved it to Philadelphia when the national capital moved there in 1790.
As opposing factions, centered on Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, developed within President Washington's administration, political newspapers such as the Gazette became increasingly important. Fenno's little three-column folio, printed on a sheet seventeen by twenty-one inches, became the semi-official government newspaper, with a share of the government's printing and with contributions from prominent Federalists such as John Adams. Hamilton was especially active, writing articles under various pseudonyms and rescuing the editor from bankruptcy in 1793 by raising $2,000 to pay off creditors.
Jefferson and his colleagues, angry at Fenno's attempt "to make way for a king, lords, and Commons" set up rival newspapers, the Aurora edited by Benjamin F. Bache and the National Gazette edited by Philip Freneau, to promote the newly formed Democratic-Republican Party. As a highly visible Federalist spokesman, Fenno was engaged in verbal disputes that once led to fisticuffs with Bache. The tone of the Gazette of the United States was somewhat above the average of its contemporaries, and the Federalists were well served through its columns, although the circulation never exceeded 1,400. Copies circulated to major cities where other Federalist newspapers freely copied the news and editorials.
After his death in 1798 from yellow fever, his son, John Ward Fenno, carried on with the paper until it was sold in 1800.
On May 8, 1777, he wed Mary Curtis, of Roxbury, Massachusetts, and the couple had thirteen children, including:
- John Ward Fenno
- Harriet Fenno (d. 1808), who married John Rodman and they had a daughter
- Maria Fenno (1781–1823), who married New York Attorney General Josiah Ogden Hoffman on August 7, 1802. Their son was Charles Fenno Hoffman (1806–1884).
- Mary Eliza Fenno (d. 1817), who married Gulian C. Verplanck in 1811. They had two sons before her death in 1817 in Paris, where she was buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Fenno, along with his wife and a newborn daughter, died in Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic of 1798.
- Humphrey, Carol Sue. The Press of the Young Republic, 1783–1833 (1993)
- Jerry W. Knudson. Jefferson And the Press: Crucible of Liberty (2006) how 4 Republican and 4 Federalist papers covered election of 1800; Thomas Paine; Louisiana Purchase; Hamilton-Burr duel; impeachment of Chase; and the embargo
- McCormick, Thomas Denton. "John Fenno" Dictionary of American Biography (1934)
- Pasley, Jeffrey L. "The Two National Gazettes," Early American Literature (2000) 35#1 pp 51–86
- Pasley. Jeffrey L. "The Tyranny of Printers": Newspaper Politics in the Early Republic (2001) online review
- "Letters of John Fenno and John Ward Fenno, 1779–1800 Part I: 1779–1799" Edited by John B. Hench Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 89 (2): 299–368. (1979)
- " Letters of John Fenno and John Ward Fenno, 1779–1800 Part II: 1792–1800" Edited by John B. Hench Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 90 (1): 163–234
- Fenno-Hoffman Family Papers – notes – William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.