TABLOID POLITICAL REPORTING NOTHING NEW
On September 1, 1802, during Thomas Jefferson’s second year as president, a story appeared in The Richmond Recorder that shocked the nation. The article said about Jefferson: “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.”
Then came the shocker: “By this wench… our president has had several children.” The author revealed that light-skinned slaves, whom he disparaged as “Yellow Toms,” lived at Jefferson’s home and described the beautiful, young slave mistress as Jefferson’s “mahogany-coloured charmer.”
Sally Hemings, who became known in newspapers as “Dusky Sal” or the “African Venus,” became the first Monica Lewinsky and the young Republic was in the grips of its first explosive presidential scandal. Tabloid-like attacks ensued accused Jefferson of keeping a “Congo harem” in the presidential mansion.
The reporter who broke the story was a disgraced scandalmonger named James Thomson Callender. Born in Scotland in 1758, Callender wrote pamphlets on democratic egalitarianism. But his manifesto, The Political Progress of Britain, published in 1792 and filled with scathing attacks on Britain’s leaders, along with his growing penchant for dishing political dirt, exhausted the patience of his countrymen.
In 1793, Callender was forced to flee to America. He picked up right where he left off, covering the political scene in Philadelphia, the temporary capitol. His fame grew with the publication of History of 1796, which revealed Alexander Hamilton’s adulterous affair with a married woman.
Because Jefferson’s nemesis was Hamilton, the pamphlet caught Jefferson’s attention. Jefferson thus employed Callender to attack his Federalist foes, which he did, going so far as to label George Washington a “revolutionary profiteer” and claim John Adams was a “British spy.”
By 1798 Callender had fallen on hard times. His wife had died, he was broke, and his many enemies forced him out of Philadelphia. He moved to Virginia and became the editor of The Richmond Recorder. There he attacked Adams and defended Jefferson against Federalist charges of being “debauched” and “anti-Christian.”
But Adams tired of Callender and had him prosecuted under the new Sedition Act. The troublemaker was fined $200 and jailed (but released by Adams on the final day of his presidency in 1801). Jefferson beat Adams in that fall’s election and offered Callender a “pardon.” But the unscrupulous Callender demanded payment from Jefferson, a room at Monticello, and the job of Postmaster of Richmond. When Jefferson offered only $50 and the wish to be rid of him, Callender sold his services to the other side. In 1802, he began writing for those he previously attacked and not only broke the story about Jefferson’s slave mistress but uncovered the “Betsy Walker Affair,” Jefferson’s fling with the wife of a good friend and neighbor.
By that December, Callender’s chickens had come home to roost. He was again penniless, threatened with lawsuits, and shunned by both parties. His own attorney, George Hay, blew up at his client and clubbed him in the head. That July, Callender was found dead near Richmond, floating in three feet of water. It was said he drowned in a drunken stupor.
This period marked the birth of political parties in America, with the Federalists coalescing around Adams and Hamilton, while Jefferson led the anti-Federalists. Like today, it was common for reporters to be little more than partisan mouthpieces and to wallow in the mud of political scandal. And so it was that a drunk Scottish scandalmonger shaped the development of the new nation by fanning the war between America’s first political parties.
We may never know the full story, as the Founders’ scandals died with him. But the practice of sensationalized, hack reporting in America was only beginning.
Robert Watson, Ph.D. is a professor and director of American Studies at Lynn University