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1791 Two Hundred Years Ago

June 2024
1min read

Tabloid Wars

The National Gazette , which Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton called “an incendiary and pernicious publication,” first appeared October 31 in Philadelphia. Hamilton claimed the semiweekly’s sole purpose was to “vilify and depreciate the government of the United States,” but in fact it was the inspiration of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to challenge John Fenno’s Gazette of the United States , in which Hamilton, under various psuedonyms, was attacking Jeffersonian republican positions.

For editor of the National Gazette , Madison chose the poet and mariner Philip Freneau, his classmate at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), who, after a stormy and peripatetic career, allowed himself to be lured from New York City to the new capital of Philadelphia. He was employed part-time by Secretary of State Jefferson as “clerk for foreign languages,” but his chief reason for leaving New York, where he had worked at the Daily Advertiser , was to edit the new journal.

Jefferson saw the paper as a forum to “give free place to pieces written against the aristocratical and monarchical principles.” Even President Washington, he feared, was not sufficiently on his guard against those who wanted a monarchy.

Although Jefferson probably never wrote explicitly for the National Gazette , he did provide it with information not available to other editors. Madison was a vigorous contributor, writing as “Brutus” to criticize the Federalist line. The Gazette ’s enemies were the “monied aristocracy,” or “monocrats,” it proclaimed: “an irredeemable debt … is hereditary monarchy in another shape. It creates an influence in the executive part of the government, which will soon render it an overmatch for the legislature. It is the worst species of king’s evil .”

Freneau proved unrestrainable on certain subjects. He routinely attacked Hamilton and was doctrinaire in his support of France’s bloody revolutionaries. Hamilton countercharged that the Gazette was “a news paper instituted by a public officer, and the Editor of it regularly pensioned with the public money. …” Freneau responded that Hamilton’s paper’s editor, Fenno, was a “vile sycophant” whose principles were “utterly subversive” to republican government.

President Washington finally spoke to Secretary of State Jefferson about his battle by proxy with Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton. He asked Jefferson to rein in the editor, perhaps by firing him from his government post. Jefferson refused, but not without distancing himself a bit from the paper’s ad hominem tone. “My expectations looked only to the chastisement of the aristocratical and monarchical writers,” he insisted, “and not to any criticisms on the proceedings of the government.”

Freneau’s attacks on the government lost readers in the end, and he may have alienated the last of them through his humorous treatment of the devastating 1793 plague.

Doctors raving and disputing, Death’s pale army still recruiting What a pother One with t’other! Some a-writing, some a-shooting.

Freneau finally resigned his government position October 11, 1793, and two weeks later, two years after it had begun, his National Gazette went under.

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