Fenno, John (1751-1798)
John Fenno (1751-1798)
Federalist newspaper editor
Literary Beginnings. Although he became one of the most prominent newspaper publishers in the new republic, John Fenno was not born to that business. His father was a leather tanner and tavern keeper, and while Fenno had some schooling, he did not attend college or have the classical education that other literary figures enjoyed. Fenno was born in Boston on 23 August 1751 and worked for some years as an assistant teacher at the Old South Writing School. During the Revolution he served as secretary to Gen. Artemas Ward. He entered the publishing world after the failure of an importing business prompted him to move to New York in 1789.
Newspaper. Fenno soon began to make a name for himself among people who had favored the adoption of the new Constitution, the Federalists, headed in New York by Alexander Hamilton. Fenno devised a plan for a newspaper to promote the Federalists’ programs of stronger central government and commercial development. He started the semiweekly Gazette of the United States in April 1789, moving it the next year to Philadelphia, soon to be the nation’s capital. There Fenno countered the efforts of Jeffersonian editors such as Benjamin Franklin Bache of the Aurora and Philip Freneau of the National Gazette. An intense rivalry developed between Fenno and the other editors. At one point Bache even caned Fenno during a street brawl over political differences. Despite the rough atmosphere of the newspaper world, Fenno’s Gazette of the United States was a dignified party paper, appealing to the genteel sensibilities of the merchants and wealthy farmers who sympathized with the Federalists. The Gazette of the United States was helped by having essays from John Adams and Hamilton, but it lost money steadily, as most early American periodicals did. When the 1793 yellow fever epidemic emptied Philadelphia, Fenno suspended the paper for three months, reinventing it as a daily with the help of money from Hamilton and some government printing contracts. Fenno continued editing the paper, slowly building its circulation to a peak of fourteen hundred, until his death on 14 September 1798 during a second yellow fever epidemic. His son continued the Gazette of the United States for two years, then sold it to others who published it until 1818.
John B. Hench, ed., “Letters of John Fenno and John Ward Fenno, 1779–1800,” Proceedings, American Antiquarian Society, 89 (1979): 299–368; 90 (1980): 163–234.
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