|James Thomson Callender, Scandalmonger
|Digital History ID 2968|
He was the new republic's most notorious scandalmonger. During the 1790s, James Thomson Callender published vicious attacks on George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and other leading political figures. Today, he is best known as the journalist who first published the story that Thomas Jefferson had a decades-long affair with one of his slaves.
Born in Scotland in 1758, Callender was an early advocate of Scottish independence from Britain. After being indicted for sedition, he fled to Philadelphia in 1793, where he supported himself as a journalist and political propagandist.
Profoundly suspicious of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's pro-British views on foreign policy, Callender used his pen to discredit Hamilton. In 1797 he published evidence that Hamilton had an adulterous extramarital affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds. Callender also accused Hamilton of misusing government funds. Hamilton acknowledged the affair, but denied the corruption charges, claiming that he was a victim of blackmail. Nevertheless, Hamilton's public reputation was tarnished, and he never held public office again.
In 1798, Hamilton's political party, the Federalists, pushed the Sedition Act through Congress, making it a crime to attack the government or the president with false, scandalous, or malicious statements. In 1800, Callender was one of several journalists indicted, tried, and convicted under the law. He was fined $200 and sentenced to nine months in prison.
By the time he was released, Thomas Jefferson had been elected president. Callender expected the new administration to appoint him as a postmaster. When Jefferson refused, Callender struck back. In 1802, he publicly accused Jefferson of having a lifelong liaison with his slave Sally Hemings. Soon afterward, Callender drowned in three feet of water.
Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife Martha. Her mother had been impregnated by her master, John Wayles, the father of Martha Jefferson. Sally Hemings herself bore five mulatto children out of wedlock. Callender insisted that Jefferson fathered the children. Jefferson's defenders denied this. DNA testing in 1998 indicated that Jefferson fathered at least one of the Hemmings children.
Attacked by his critics as a "traitorous and truculent scoundrel," Callender defended himself on strikingly modern grounds: that the public had a right to know the moral character of people it elected to public office. Although he has often been dismissed as a "pen for hire," willing to defame anyone, Callender was much more important than that.
His life underscored one of the most radical consequences of the American Revolution. The Revolution ensured that ordinary Americans would be the ultimate arbiters of American politics. Callender aimed his political commentary at artisans and immigrants who flocked to seaport towns during the 1790s. As one of the first modern journalists, he appealed to these people with scandal, sensation, and suspicion of the powerful.
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