James T. Callender

James T. Callender

James Callender (1758-1803) was a political pamphleteer and newspaper writer who initiated controversies in his native Scotland and the United States. His contemporary reputation is as a "scandalmonger", due to the salacious content of some of his reporting, which has overshadowed the political content. In the United States he was a central figure in the press wars between the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties. His authority and veracity have been a matter of contention for more than 200 years.


Callender was born in Scotland. He did not gain a formal education, but secured employment as a sub clerk in the Edinburgh Sasine office, the equivalent of the Recorder of Deeds. While working in that office Callender published satirical pamphlets in criticism of writer Samuel Johnson. "Deformities of Samuel Johnson", written anonymously, appealed to populist Scottish sentiments. [ Durey 1990, p.6]

Later he wrote pamphlets attacking political corruption. Callender's political writings were tinged with radical democratic egalitarianism, Scottish nationalism and a pessimistic view of human nature, and were critical of the liberal notion of progress. [ Durey 1990, p.9] An admirer of Jonathan Swift, Callender's writings sought to cut the wealthy and the powerful down to size.

Callender clashed with his employers and lost his employment in the Sasine office. In 1791 Callender wrote a pamphlet criticizing an excise tax, paid for by the brewers who resented it. His writing attracted the attention of some reform-minded members of the Scottish nobility: Francis Garden, Lord Gardenstone, became his patron. [ Durey 1990, p.22] In 1792 he published "The Political Progress of Britain", a controversial critique of war, imperialism and corruption. He then fled to Ireland and to America to avoid prosecution. After Callender left Scotland, Lord Gardenstone exposed Callender as the author, although Callender's reputation was also marred by the rumor that he had implicated Gardenstone. [ Durey 1990, p.44]


Callender quickly gained a position as a congressional reporter in Philadelphia, and wrote anonymously for the partisan press. His first American article lambasted pro-war sentiment. [ Durey 1990, p. 53, 55] Although he was frequently dogged by poverty and unemployment, by 1794 Callender was a regular freelance commentator on American politics. He remained at the epicenter of the new nation's political life until his death. [ Durey 1990, p.64]

Over the next few years, while supporting himself mostly with ghostwriting and piecemeal assignments, he became one of a group of radical Republican journalists who socialized together and held similar views on democracy and economic nationalism. Unlike the others, whose work was dominated by the controversies of the moment, during this period he produced a series of pamphlets in which he attempted to frame a comprehensive political theory, advocating for the government's duty to the poor (in the form of progressive taxation), economic independence from Europe, and the promotion of native industry. These goals put him at odds with the Federalists, and with some of the more conservative and agrarian Republicans. [Durey 1990, p.74 - 83]

His writings attacked Federalist positions with a mix of reasoned argument, satire and personal invective. His first pamphlet challenged the introduction of an excise tax into American commerce, but it was his invective against America's early national heroes - Washington, Adams, and Hamilton - and against their policies and failings, that gained him notoriety. His crowning success came with the exposure, in his pamphlet "History of 1796", of a sexual relationship between Alexander Hamilton and a married woman, Maria Reynolds, the subsequent blackmail against Hamilton, and Hamilton's alleged financial corruption. Callender presented compelling evidence of adultery, but in 1797's "Sketches of the History of America" he wrote that the affair was merely a distraction from Hamilton's more nefarious offense: partnering with Reynolds' husband in corrupt financial dealings. [Durey 1990, p.102] Hamilton vehemently denied being a party to any improper financial matter, although he confessed to the adultery. According to Callender, that was just a smokescreen. Although the financial charges were never proven, Hamilton never again held public office.

Callender's success was short-lived. By 1798 his fortunes were in a downward spiral: he was forced to seek poor relief, his wife died of yellow fever, and the authorship of his anonymously published political broadsides had been exposed by a rival pamphleteer, William Cobbet, putting him in legal jeopardy and physical danger. [ Durey 1990, p.103 -106] He fled from Philadelphia to Virginia, leaving his children behind.

Prosecution for Sedition

Thomas Jefferson, impressed with Callender's attack on Hamilton, and eager to create a counterforce to the Federalist press, [ Durey 1990, p.106] sought to use Callendar's talents against John Adams. Subsequent to meeting him in Philadelphia, Jefferson financially supported Callender and provided feedback on early proofs of Callender's anti-Federalist pamphlet "The Prospect Before Us". [ Miller 1977, p.148 -151] [ [http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/adams/peopleevents/p_callender.html] PBS.org "John and Abigail Adams -James Callender"] Prior to the publication of the pamphlet, Callender was compelled to flee on foot from Philadelphia to Virginia, finding temporary refuge at the plantation of Senator Stevens Thomas Mason.

In Virginia, he completed "The Prospect Before Us", whose subject was the pervasiveness of political corruption, particularly among Federalists and the Adams administration. His populist style had his targets permanently on the defensive. [ Durey 1990, p.109, 124 - 125] In June 1800, in retaliation for the "The Prospect", Callender was prosecuted under the Sedition Act by the Adams administration. His trial was presided over by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, who was later impeached, in part due to his handing of the Callender trial. Callender was fined $200 and received the longest jail term of the journalists who had been prosecuted under the Sedition Act. He was released on the last day of the Adams administration, in March 1801. After his release, Callender and the others who had been prosecuted were pardoned by the new president, Thomas Jefferson.

Attacks on Thomas Jefferson

Out of jail, seeking less controversial and more stable employment, Callender asked Jefferson to appoint him Postmaster of Richmond, Virginia, warning that if Jefferson did not, there would be consequences. Callender believed erroneously that Jefferson was conspiring to deprive him of money owed to him by the government after the pardon, and that Jefferson was insufficiently appreciative of the sacrifices he had made on his behalf. Jefferson refused to make the appointment: placing the ill-tempered Callender in a position of authority in the Federalist stronghold of Richmond would have been, in the words of Jefferson biographer R.B. Bernstein, "like whacking a hornet's nest with a stick." [Bernstein, R.B. "Thomas Jefferson" (Oxford University Press, 2003) p. 154]

With his career and his upward social ambitions thwarted, Callender returned to newspaper work, as editor of a Federalist newspaper, the "Richmond Recorder". In a series of articles in which he struck out at corruption on all sides, Callender eventually targeted Jefferson, revealing that Jefferson had funded his pamphleteering. After denials were issued, he published Jefferson's letters to him to prove the relationship. Later, angered by the response of Jefferson supporters, which included the smear that Callender had abandoned his wife, leaving her to die of a venereal disease, [ Thomas Jefferson: A Life, Willard S. Randall, Henry Holt & Co., 1993, p.556] Callender wrote in a series of articles that Jefferson fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemings. [ Miller 1977, p.152 - 153] Gordon-Reed, Annette. "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy". University of Virginia Press (April 1997). p 59-61. ISBN 0813916984.]

Callender's reporting on the Jefferson - Hemings relationship was infused with an exaggeratedly racist rhetoric; ironically, although he had expressed vehement anti-slavery views when he first arrived in the United States, he eventually adopted a position on slavery and race similar to Jefferson's in Notes on the State of Virginia. [ Durey 1990, p.138]

After the Hemings controversy ran its course, Callender then turned to publicizing Jefferson's attempt to seduce a married neighbor decades earlier, to which Jefferson later admitted.

Death and Legacy

By some accounts, Callender was slated to provide testimony for a New York trial, "The People vs. Croswell," which involved libel charges against a publisher, Harry Croswell, who had reprinted claims that Thomas Jefferson paid Callender to defame George Washington. Croswell's lawyer was Alexander Hamilton. [ Robert A. Henderickson, "The Rise and Fall of Alexander Hamilton," (New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981), 579. ] President Jefferson, wary of the controversy generated by the Adams administration's sedition prosecutions, had begun a selective campaign against individual newspaper critics.

Despite his popularity among newspaper readers, Callender's situation was increasingly tenuous. Former allies had turned against him: in a surprise attack that occurred in December 1802, he was clubbed in the head with a walking stick by one of his former defense attorneys, George Hay, in retaliation for an article about an international incident to which Hay had ties. [Durey 1990, p. 164] In 1803, Callender's children joined him in Richmond, perhaps removed from Philadelphia due to the Jefferson controversy; consequently he had a falling out with the owner of the "Richmond Recorder" over money. In March, the offices of the newspaper were attacked by young Republicans from Hay's law firm.

On July 17, 1803, Callender drowned in two feet of water in the James River, reportedly too drunk to save himself.

Meriwether Jones, who was a friend and supporter of Thomas Jefferson "and" James Callender, had written an open letter to Callender in December, 1802:

The James River you tell us, has suffered to cleanse your body; is there any menstrum capable of cleansing your mind... Oh! could a dose of James river, like Lethe, have blessed you with forgetfulness, for once you would have neglected your whiskey. [Brodie, Fawn. "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait" (WW Norton, 1974) p. 356]

In 1990, an Australian, Michael Durey, wrote a biography covering Callender's turbulent life. Durey noted that Callender's present-day reputation as a liar, drunkard and mere scandalmonger has been uncritically based on the original attacks against Callender by his political targets and rivals in the press, obscuring his message of democratic egalitarianism, his relevance to the early formation of Republican politics, and his role in the birth of political journalism. [Durey 1990, p.173 - 174]

In 2001, journalist and author William Safire published a historical novel, "Scandalmonger", based on Callender's life in the United States.



*Michael Durey, "With the Hammer of Truth, James Thomson Callender," (Charlottesville, Univ. Press of VA, 1990).
*Miller, John Chester,"The Wolf by the Ears", (The Free Press, 1977).

Further reading

* William Safire, "Scandal Monger," Ft. Washington, PA, Harvest Books, 2001)
* Byron Woodson , "A President in the Family," (Westport, CT, Praeger, 2001)

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