Chapter 1: George Washington
George Washington entered the presidency in 1789 with no particular animus toward the press, though he already had ample reason to be on his guard. During the Revolutionary War, he had grown alarmed by the publication of "injurious" bulletins reporting the movements of his army. The commanding general feared these reports might fall into enemy hands and place his men in peril. Yet the closest he came to censure was to express his mild wish "that our Printers were more discreet."
Six months before his first election, Washington still optimistically regarded newspapers as "vehicles of knowledge more happily calculated than any other to preserve liberty, stimulate the industry, and meliorate the morals of an enlightened and free people." Washington hoped the "common Gazettes," as he called them without irony, "might be spread through every city, town and village in America." As president, he would subscribe to five different daily papers and devour all of them hungrily.
Once in office, Washington even weighed an economic stimulus for newspapers by exempting them from prohibitive federal postal rates. This burden he regarded as a "tax on the transportation of public prints." For a young industry dependent on mail subscriptions, such relief would have provided a boon. Free postage never materialized, but a grateful press remained for a time relatively free of complaint about the nation's first chief executive-for reasons that of course went beyond his magnanimous gesture regarding postal rates. Washington remained a living icon; to question him was akin to criticizing the new nation itself. But the state of mutual admiration did not last.
Toward the end of Washington's first term, Americans, once relatively unified in the quest for independence, began splitting into warring political factions devoted to markedly different aspirations. Pro-Washington, pro-Alexander Hamilton Federalists pledged to strengthen the new national government, regulate fiscal policy, and re-establish ties with Great Britain. The emerging Democratic-Republicans, led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and the father of the Constitution, James Madison, advocated smaller government and states' rights. Infatuated by the French Revolution, Jeffersonians favored shunning America's mother country and embracing Enlightenment France. Federalists viewed recent upheavals there as a mobocratic threat to global stability, while populist Republicans regarded the French uprising as an inspirational outgrowth of America's successful revolt against England. Jeffersonians feared the imposition of a British-style class system here; Hamiltonians in turn dreaded a Jacobin-style reign of terror.
As the chasm widened, newspapers aligned with one or the other party ratcheted up their criticism of the respective opposition. In openly choosing sides, some editors abandoned original commitments to objectivity and embraced new roles as propagandists. Others established their journals under the direct auspices of party leaders, fully committed to their platforms from the start. Whether a divided America emboldened the rise of a partisan press, or the partisan press widened an existing political gulf, remains open to debate. In either case, most newspaper readers seemed to enjoy the lively new journalism. Colorfully written vitriol deflected subscribers' attention from cheap paper, coarse printing, and an overabundance of dull advertising. For his part, Washington "lamented" when "the Editors of the different Gazettes in the Union" first began "stuffing their papers with scurrility and nonsensical declamation."
The escalating editorial invective coincided with a revolution in printing technology. Ever-faster presses meant that more papers could be produced more rapidly. As biweeklies matured into weeklies, and weeklies morphed into dailies, readership skyrocketed. Only one hundred papers existed in the United States at the dawn of Washington's presidency in 1790. Within ten years, that number more than doubled, and the press began attracting two million readers per month. Remarkably, this explosive growth occurred in a nation where half the population was sixteen years old or younger, a fifth were enslaved African Americans discouraged or forbidden by law from reading, and most subscribers shared their newspapers with as many as twenty relatives and friends. As the future lexicographer Noah Webster marveled, "In no other country on earth, not even in Great Britain, are Newspapers so generally circulated among the body of the people, as in America." Thirteen years before publishing his first dictionary, Webster secured a $1,500 loan from none other than Alexander Hamilton and in 1793 established his own pro-Federalist newspaper in New York: the American Minerva. It was the first, but not the last, investment Hamilton would make in partisan journalism.
By then, the secretary of the treasury had become not only Washington's closest policy advisor but also his chief press strategist, the forerunner of the modern White House communications director-and more. Hamilton not only devised and implemented policy; he transmitted Washington's instructions to friendly editors, contributed his own anti-Republican screeds under a variety of noms de plume, and, as the Webster episode demonstrates, helped finance pro-administration journals.
Webster's new American Minerva did not long go unanswered. Envisioning political advantage if they could sully the most deified Federalist of all, Jefferson's press allies commenced a frontal assault on the once-sacrosanct Washington. As a consequence, the initial and, as it turned out, longest-ever press honeymoon in the history of the American presidency came to a halt. Beginning in late 1792, at the end of his first term, Republican editors subjected Washington to wholesale disparagement, some of it based on genuine differences over issues, but much of it personal, and some close to libelous.
He did count many defenders. Among them were Webster in New York and, in Boston, onetime stonemason and Revolutionary War veteran Benjamin B. Russell, who wholeheartedly devoted his biweekly, the Columbian Centinel, to supporting the Federalist agenda. Russell defended Federalists on the streets as well. In 1793, he spat in the face of pro-Republican editor Benjamin Austin Jr. The transgression cost Russell a twenty-shilling fine and did nothing to thaw partisan rancor.
Serving from the early years of Washington's presidency as a quasi-official administration mouthpiece was a newspaper called the Gazette of the United States. Edited by schoolmaster-turned-journalist John Ward Fenno, a loyal Hamiltonian, it debuted in New York just six weeks after Washington's inauguration. Although the paper's early articles evinced restraint, from the outset it advocated controlling "the turbulent passions of men"-meaning Jeffersonians-and strengthening "the tone of government," in other words, the ruling Federalists. When the national capital moved from New York to Philadelphia, Fenno took his printing press and followed, and there cemented the paper's status as a government organ. Hamilton made sure Fenno secured enough government printing orders to keep his presses busy and his new operation solvent. Such subsidies fell comfortably within the loose ethical standards of the age. By then, readers expected their newspapers to be political, and in turn editors like Fenno expected the political parties they backed to support them.
Launched only as a biweekly, Fenno's paper never reached more than 1,400 subscribers and consistently lost money. For it to survive, Fenno at one point pleaded for a new loan from Hamilton along with cash contributions from readers. Yet the Gazette exerted outsize national influence. Fenno obtained and exclusively published government news-the equivalent of modern-day press releases-which other editors then reprinted (and praised, in precursors of political spin) in like-minded journals across the republic. Simultaneously, Fenno lobbed attacks at Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Some came pseudonymously from the pen of Hamilton himself, encouraging the belief that Washington authorized such assaults and stimulating bitter counterattacks. Washington may have come to rue the advent of politically motivated press attacks, but in truth many originated in a newspaper founded to support him.
The growing power of the Gazette of the United States made it inevitable that an opposition journal would emerge to counter it. Behind the scenes, launching a decades-long practice in stealth journalism, Jefferson himself proved crucial in this development. As adroit as his rival Hamilton at promoting a party agenda, and equally bold when it came to securing financial emoluments for press allies, Jefferson encouraged another gifted writer, known as the "poet of the American Revolution," Philip Morin Freneau, to move from New York to Philadelphia to launch his own national paper there. To be called the National Gazette, it would of course prove sympathetic to France and Jeffersonians and hostile to England and Hamiltonians-"written in a contrary spirit to that of Fenno," in Jefferson's own words.
By birth and experience alike, the "slight," "muscular," and "engaging" thirty-eight-year-old Freneau seemed an ideal choice for the task. Not only was he descended from French Huguenots, but he nursed a seething hatred for the British, having suffered near-fatal hardships aboard an enemy prison ship during the American Revolution. Moreover, Freneau had attended Princeton, where James Madison was his roommate. Believing a new paper would provide "an antidote" to "discourses circulated in favor of Monarchy and Aristocracy," Madison now joined Jefferson in urging Freneau to establish a Republican sheet in the national capital.
But Freneau was not wealthy. So, to provide financial security for his new venture, Jefferson obtained for the editor a $250-per-year government job as a State Department translator, though Freneau knew no foreign language except French, which Jefferson himself spoke fluently. This was a bold move even in an age when government ethics, like government itself, was a new concept, and Jefferson's effort hardly escaped criticism. One letter in Fenno's rival paper, signed only "T. L." but clearly authored by Hamilton, pondered sarcastically whether Freneau was being paid "for translations or for publications, the design of which is to vilify those to whom the voice of the people has committed the administration of our public affairs."
Jefferson saw no conflict at all in the arrangement. To be fair, no expectation then existed that cabinet members must be loyal to the political party of the president they served. Describing Freneau as "a man of genius," Jefferson supplied his new clerk with foreign newspapers and, some whispered, State Department documents to enhance reporting that targeted Hamilton and the supposed cabal around Washington. Later, Jefferson vowed "in the presence of heaven"-at least to his diary-that he never uttered "a syllable" of political instruction to his handpicked press advocate, admitting only to procuring him a few subscriptions. He also encouraged Madison and other followers to contribute articles to the paper, prompting one Federalist writer to insist that Freneau's journal was "published under the eye of" Jefferson himself. In justification, Jefferson argued, "No government ought to be free of censors: & where the press is free, no one ever will." At its launch, the new National Gazette declared its goal was "to energize the spirit of democracy," a coded warning to Federalists ever fearful of the rabble. It came as little surprise that Freneau hailed Jefferson in his October 31, 1791, maiden issue as a "colossus of liberty."
Under Fenno and Freneau, Philadelphia now boasted rival newspapers bearing similar titles, run by editors with like-sounding names of their own, pledged to rival political parties, and openly backed by a member of Washington's cabinet. It was a recipe for bedlam. From 1792 onward, the two papers attacked each other as often, and as viciously, as they assailed political foes. Their political differences could be discerned not only from what they wrote but also from what they ignored. When a financial panic struck the country in April 1792, Jefferson observed that Federalist newspapers refused to cover it, much less place blame at Washington's doorstep. "Notwithstanding the magnitude of this calamity," he complained, "every newspaper almost is silent on it, Freneau's excepted."
As Fenno drew fire from the Jeffersonians for shielding the president, Freneau aroused Federalist ire, particularly when he shifted course and began attacking the president himself for the first time. Washington rebuked such "indecently" communicated missives, worried that "the complexion of some of our News-Papers" might persuade "Foreigners . . . that inveterate political dissensions existed among us, and that we are on the very verge of disunion." Still, Washington clung to the belief that Freneau's hostility was "an evil w[hi]ch must be placed in opposition to the infinite benefits resulting from a free Press."
Vice President John Adams was less sanguine. "The hell-hounds," he warned in early 1793, "are now in full cry in the newspapers against the President." Adams feared Washington would not bear up well to further criticism, "as his skin is thinner than mine." Jefferson, who bore considerable blame for the harshening journalistic tone, at least acknowledged that the president seemed "extremely afflicted by the attacks made & kept up on him in the public papers." Jefferson added, as if to blame the victim and excuse himself: "I think he feels these things more than any person I ever yet met with."
At that dramatic August 1793 cabinet meeting, at which Washington lost his temper over the "guillotine" caricature, the "much-inflamed" president railed that "he had rather be on his farm than to be made emperor of the world"; yet here was the National Gazette "charging him with wanting to be a king." That the "rascal Freneau sent him 3 of his papers every day, as if he thought he would become the distributor of his papers," the president bellowed, amounted to "an impudent design to insult him."
"He was evidently sore & warm" is how Jefferson described the outburst with understated, if disingenuous, acuity. But when Washington urged him to "interpose in some way with Freneau, perhaps withdraw his appointment of translating clerk to my office," the secretary of state demurred. "His paper," Jefferson truly believed, "has saved our constitution which was galloping into monarchy." The president insisted otherwise. "These articles tend to produce a separation of the Union, the most dreadful of calamities," he warned, "and whatever tends to produce anarchy, tends, of course, to produce a resort to anarchical government." With both party newspapers stoking the fire, the rift could hardly continue unrepaired. In December 1793, Jefferson quit the cabinet, marking the final split between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, who until then, policy differences and personal rivalries notwithstanding, had somehow managed to govern together under Washington.
Its own resources and readership dwindling, Freneau's anti-Washington National Gazette vanished around the same time, in one sense a casualty of a yellow fever epidemic that killed more than 10 percent of Philadelphia's population in late 1793 and sent thousands more fleeing into the countryside. By then, however, primary responsibility for Republican press opposition had already shifted to another newspaper.
The most relentless anti-Washington hostility came from a newer journal: Philadelphia's Aurora, founded by the young Francophile Benjamin Franklin Bache. Adding insult to injury for George Washington was the embarrassment that Bache was the grandson and namesake of his late partner in the American founding, Benjamin Franklin. As Washington well knew, newspaper publishing coursed incurably through the Franklin family's DNA: old Ben had founded the Pennsylvania Gazette fifty years before the Revolution, and Bache had all but learned the printing trade at his grandfather's knee.