Callender, James Thomson (1758-1803)
James Thomson Callender (1758-1803)
Flight . Born in Scotland around 1758, James Thomson Callender wrote a pamphlet called Political Progress of Britain (1792), which led to his indictment for sedition in 1793. He fled first to Ireland and then to the United States, where he found part-time work with both Mathew Carey, writing a section for a new edition of William Guthrie’s A New System of Modern Geography (1770) and for John Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser. In December Callender was hired by the Federal Gazette to record congressional speeches.
Congressional Reporter . Congress did not have an official stenographer; instead, newspaper reporters would try to take down what was said in shorthand, leading to many accidental and intentional inaccuracies. Callender was a fast writer with a passion for accuracy and precision. He delighted in recording the impromptu comments of some members of Congress, sharing with newspaper readers the sometimes incomprehensible ramblings of their representatives. His Political Register (1795), a compilation of his recordings of the debates of 1794 and 1795, stirred congressional wrath from both Federalists and Republicans. In January 1796 Congress considered replacing the newspaper reporters with an official stenographer. Though Congress did not do this at the time, Callender’s employer fired him.
Hired Writer . With a wife and four children to support, Callender began writing for pay. Philadelphia’s tobacco manufacturers hired him to write A Short History of the Nature and Consequence of Excise Laws (1795), an attack on trade taxes and on the Federalist economic program. He followed this with a pamphlet in support of a Pennsylvania congressional candidate. Callender became more involved in Republican politics, especially in opposition to Jay’s Treaty with England. But Callender went far beyond other Republicans in denouncing George Washington, writing, “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by WASHINGTON.” In addition he warned of Washington’s “foulest designs against the liberties of the people.”
Hamilton and Reynolds . Callender was not afraid to castigate America’s most powerful and beloved men. In 1797 he published his History of the United States for 1796, which unveiled former secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s scandalous relationship with James Reynolds, a speculator in military accounts. In 1790 and 1791 the government tried to pay its soldiers; Reynolds, acting as agent for a New York investor, had obtained a list of soldiers from an accomplice in the treasury and had bought their pay certificates at a reduced price; he then hoped to collect their full share. Hamilton was probably not involved in this speculation. When Congress began investigating the story in 1792, during the height of a partisan campaign with Hamilton at its center, the secretary of the treasury had put the congressional committee (which included James Monroe) off the trail of possible corruption by telling them of his adulterous relationship with Maria Reynolds, that her husband had discovered the affair and was now using his knowledge to blackmail Hamilton. The committee, interested only in public wrongdoing, dropped their investigation. But Callender in 1796 heard rumors that Hamilton might be aspiring to the presidency. He also knew that Hamilton and other Federalists were charging Monroe with incompetence on his recent mission to France. Callender responded with his History of the United States for 1796, charging Hamilton with using a personal scandal to bring shame upon his own wife and family in order to cover up the more significant political scandal. Callender in fact charged that Hamilton had invented his affair with Maria Reynolds to conceal his guilt in the worse offense of speculation. Monroe believed that Hamilton had engaged in the affair with Maria Reynolds while also engaged in illicit speculation with James Reynolds. The truth is lost to history. Though Alexander Hamilton continued to be an influential Federalist, his reputation was badly tarnished.
Failure . Callender’s success as a polemicist did not help to feed his family. His patron, John Swanwick, died of yellow fever, and the epidemic severely threatened the city’s press. He published the American Annual Register (1797) and several compilations of his newspaper essays; none was a financial success. His wife died, and Callender in 1798 was left to support his four children in an increasingly hostile city. He filled in for Benjamin Franklin Bache at the Aurora, and his vituperative editorials in March 1798 helped lead to the Sedition Act, after which Callender left his children with a patron and fled to Virginia.
The Prospect Before Us . Callender had been supported by some small loans from Thomas Jefferson, who recognized Callender’s value as a polemicist but needed to keep a discreet distance from the controversial journalist. As the election year of 1800 approached, with the Sedition Act shutting down the Republican press, Callender promised Jefferson a “Tornado as no Govt ever got before, for there is in American history a specie of ignorance, absurdity, and imbecility unknown to the annals of any other nation.” In 1800 he wrote The Prospect Before Us in an attempt to show the corruption and incompetence of the Adams administration.
Sedition and Jail . On 24 May 1800 Callender was indicted for sedition and in June tried in Richmond before Justice Samuel Chase. Callender was represented by Virginia attorney general Philip Nicholas, by Monroe’s son-in-law George Hay, and by future U.S. attorney general William Wirt. Even though Callender was convicted, his lawyers succeeded in making the Sedition Act the central issue and in presenting their client as a persecuted victim of oppression. Justice Chase, a bitter foe of democracy, gave Callender a relatively light sentence: a $480 fine and nine months in jail. Virginia’s Republicans brought his three surviving children to Richmond and started a defense fund to support them as well as pay for their father’s fine. A stream of dignitaries, including Gov. James Monroe and Virginia chancellor George Wythe, visited the imprisoned journalist, who continued to write from his cell. When word arrived in January that Jefferson had been elected, Callender was ecstatic. On 2 March 1801, two days before Jefferson became president, Callender’s sentence expired, and he was free.
Disappointment and Revenge . Callender expected a reward for his services to the new administration. On 16 March Jefferson pardoned Callender and ordered the fine to be repaid to him. Callender desperately needed the money, but it took over a month to resolve the legal issue of repaying a fine. Callender also expected a government job and applied for the lucrative position of Richmond postmaster. But Jefferson’s administration was wary of Callender and would not reward him with a position. Callender finally found work with Henry Pace, another exile, who had fled from England to Virginia after being charged with sedition. Pace’s Richmond Recorder; or Lady’s and Gentleman’s Miscellany was the fourth newspaper in Richmond, and to boost circulation Callender and Pace launched vicious attacks on the Republican administration. Callender’s attacks were aimed at Virginia’s aristocracy, naming prominent slaveholders who had white wives and black concubines, showing their utter moral depravity. The Republican press responded, printing exposés of Callender’s own troubled life. On 25 August 1802 the Aurora wrote that while Callender’s wife had been dying of syphilis and their children were starving, he had been “having his usual pint of brandy at breakfast.”
Sally Hemings . Callender was enraged by this story and responded on 1 September by publishing a story which had circulated in Virginia since the 1790s. “It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY. The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the president himself. The boy is ten or twelve years of age. His mother went to France in the same vessel with Mr. Jefferson and his two daughters. The delicacy of this arrangement must strike every person of common sensibilities. What a sublime pattern for an American ambassador to place before the eyes of two young ladies! … By this wench Sally, our president has had several children.… THE AFRICAN VENUS is said to officiate, as housekeeper at Monticello.”
Aftermath . The story did not destroy Jefferson, though it has continued to circulate to this day. No one will be able to prove or disprove the truth of the Sally Hemings story; it achieved its immediate goal of boosting the Richmond Recorder’s circulation to one thousand subscribers by December 1802. Callender and Pace, in another effort to embarrass their opponents, tried to replace a rival as printer to the House of Delegates, launching an exposé of corruption among Virginia Republicans. George Hay, who had defended Callender in his 1800 trial, in December 1802 beat Callender with a stick and then had him arrested for libel. Callender emerged from jail with support, even from newspaper editors who disagreed with his falsehoods but recognized the power of his writing. In early 1803 Callender and Pace quarreled; Callender wanted a fair share of the paper’s profits, but Pace disagreed and then fired him. On Saturday, 16 July 1803, Callender was seen walking through Richmond extremely drunk. Early the next morning his body was found in the James River. The coroner reported that he had drowned accidentally while intoxicated.
Michael Durey, “With the Hammer of Truth”: James Thomson Callender and America’s Early National Heroes (Charlottesville & London: University Press of Virginia, 1990);
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