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Archive for July 17th, 2012

James Callender.  The name probably means little to you.  The name meant nothing to me until I started reading about this country’s Founding Fathers a few years back.  But you would certainly know the type of man he was if I gave you just a one-word description.  That word, first used by Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century (as I learned on Jeopardy a few days ago), is “muck-raker”.  Wait, is that two words?  One word?

Whatever, James Callender was a muck-raker.  In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow describes him as a “hack writer“, an “ugly, misshapen little man who made a career of spewing venom.”   He spent most of his life doing it and, as we’ll soon see, his life ended in muck.  That’s the kind of guy he was.

He arrived in the United States, having left Scotland, in the early 1790s.  Well, “left” is something of a euphemism…”got out of town in a hurry” is more apt, fleeing the country to escape a sedition rap from the British government.  It didn’t take him long to anger folks on this side of the pond, either.

He got in with Republican interests early on, landing a job with Benjamin Franklin Bache’s newspaper, the Aurora.  Firing darts at Federalists like Washington, Adams, and Hamilton made him really good friends with Republicans like Jefferson.  In fact, our third President called Callender “a man of genius” and “a man of science fled from persecution.”

It was all tea and crumpets when James Callender released History of 1796, a pamphlet which exposed to the public a scandal involving “the prime mover of the federal party.”  He enticed his audience by writing that “we shall presently see this great master of morality, although himself the father of a family, confessing that he had an illicit correspondence with another man’s wife.”  He then went on to publish all the papers concerning Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds.  These were the accounts Hamilton had given to James Monroe, Frederick Muhlenberg, and Abraham Venable.

As we remember, these three men approached Hamilton because they believed the Treasury Secretary was involved in some sort of financial corruption with James Reynolds.  When he buried them with the details of the affair and the extortion, the men left knowing that Hamilton, while acting immorally, was not acting illegally.  Of course, Callender paid no attention to niceties like the truth, and published the corruption stuff anyways.

But Callender was an equal-opportunity muck-raker.  In 1802, he broke another story, this one about the relationship between President Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.  It was probably at this time that Jefferson’s opinion of James Callender changed from that of a man of science to “hypochondriac, drunken, penniless, and unprincipled.

And then there was the court case in 1803.  The People vs. Croswell involved Harry Croswell, a publisher charged with libel who claimed that Thomas Jefferson had paid Callender to defame President George Washington.  Of course, that meant that James Callender would likely be called to the witness stand.  He never made it.

On July 17, 1803, his body was found in the James River.  Apparently, he was in a drunken stupor and drowned in three feet of water…or did he?  History is unclear.

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