The Sedition Act: James Callender

In part 10 of my series on the Sedition Act, I review one of the most well-known figures in this drama, the "Scandalmonger," James Callender...

James Thomson Callender

Described literally and figuratively as the most venomous of the Democratic-Republican journalists, James Thomson Callender was a Scotsman who had been expelled from England in 1792 for publishing The Political Progress of Great Britain, a work highly critical of the British government. When he arrived in the United States he turned his attention to prominent Federalists. Callender is perhaps best known for exposing an affair between Alexander Hamilton and Mrs. Maria Reynolds in 1797 and, five years later, accusing Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave Sally Hemings. (Callender, originally a supporter of Jefferson, turned against him after he was denied a position as postmaster in Jefferson’s administration.) His trial for sedition, however, has come to be regarded as the most important of all the cases brought under the Sedition Act of 1798.

As the Alien and Sedition Acts were making their way through Congress, Callender feared that he would soon become the target of attack. To avoid the Alien Act, he became a naturalized citizen. When his friend and colleague Benjamin Franklin Bache was arrested the day before President Adams signed the Sedition Act into law, a Federalist paper in Philadelphia announced that “Envoy Callender left this city on a tour to the westward – destination unknown.” He fled to Virginia, where he refrained from writing for several months for fear of his safety. But as the Sedition Act grew increasingly unpopular, Callender decided to resume his political writings.

In 1799 he joined the staff of the South’s leading Democratic-Republican newspaper, the Richmond Examiner, where he renewed his criticism of the Adams administration. While working for the Examiner, Callender compiled material for his best-known pamphlet, The Prospect before Us, an electioneering booklet advocating the elevation of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency. In it, Callender described the administration of John Adams as “one continued tempest of malignant passions. As President he has never opened his lips, or lifted his pen without threatening and scolding; the grand object of his administration has been to exasperate the rage of contending parties, to calumniate and destroy every man who differs from his opinions.” Callender accused Adams of contriving “a French war, an American navy, a large standing army, an additional load of taxes, and all the other symptoms and consequences of debt and despotism.” He concluded by offering a choice: “between Adams, war and beggary, and Jefferson, peace and competency.”

After a Federalist informant sent Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase a copy of The Prospect before Us, Callender was promptly arrested and indicted under the Sedition Act. In his defense, Callender’s lawyers argued that the Sedition Act was unconstitutional, but Justice Chase disagreed, reaffirming his decision in the prosecution of Thomas Cooper, sentencing Callender to nine months in jail and a $200 fine. Imprisonment, however, did not temper Callender’s opinions of the Federalist government. While in jail, Callender wrote the second volume of The Prospect before Us, and intensified his verbal assault on Adams. He described Adams as a “repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite, and an unprincipled oppressor.”

“He is,” Callender continued, “one of the most egregious fools upon the continent.” Callender also attacked Justice Chase, calling him “the most detestable and detested rascal in the state of Maryland.” When Chase wrote Callender in reply that he planned to beat him after his release from prison, Callender vowed, “[I]n case of attack, I’ll shoot him.” Though their duel was never consummated, Callender ultimately had the last laugh when his sentence ended on March 3, 1801, the day the Sedition Act expired.

TO BE CONTINUED...

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