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  • “A Genuine Republican”: Benjamin Franklin Bache’s Remarks (1797), The Federalists, and Republican Civic Humanism
  • Arthur Scherr (bio)

George Washington was perhaps in a more petulant mood than usual when he wrote of Benjamin Franklin Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, in 1797: “This man has celebrity in a certain way, for his calumnies are to be exceeded only by his impudence, and both stand unrivalled.” The ordinarily reserved ex-president had similarly commented four years earlier that the “publications” in Philip Freneau’s National Gazette and Bache’s daily newspaper, the Philadelphia General Advertiser, founded in 1790, which added the noun Aurora to its title on November 8, 1794, were “outrages on common decency.” The new nation’s second First Lady, Abigail Adams, was hardly friendlier, denouncing Bache’s newspaper columns as a “specimen of Gall.” Her husband, President John Adams, likewise considered Bache’s anti-Federalist diatribes and abuse of Washington “diabolical.” Both seemed to have forgotten the bygone, cordial days in Paris during the American Revolution, when their son John Quincy, two years Bache’s senior, attended the Le Coeur boarding school [End Page 243] with “Benny” (family members also called him “Little Kingbird”). But the ordinarily dour John Quincy remembered. Offended that the Aurora had denounced his father’s choosing him U.S. minister to Prussia as nepotism, he murmured that Bache had betrayed their “ancient friendship.”1

Bache’s Aurora, which became the most influential Jeffersonian Republican journal after Philip Freneau’s National Gazette closed its doors in November 1793, angered most “friends of order.” They despised “Lightning Rod, Jr.,” as English expatriate radical-turned-conservative William Cobbett called him, alluding to Bache’s famous grandfather. Bache’s foes deplored his support of Jefferson, “friend to the Rights of the People,” for the presidency in 1796 against the “monarchist” Adams. They despised him as an intemperate, fanatical democrat, co-conspirator of Jefferson and the French revolutionists. They labeled him an opportunist who printed scurrilous diatribes against the Washington administration, especially its unpopular Jay Treaty, to garner increased circulation and party patronage. Rachel Bradford, sister-in-law of the prominent New Jersey Federalist congressman Elisha Boudinot, vividly expressed the party’s view. Demonstrating literary flair and knowledge of classical mythology, in 1795 Bradford acerbically compared Bache to the ferocious dog that guarded the gates of Hades:

The Cerberus of Democracy, Bache barks more furiously than ever, and snaps so much that its fangs will loose [sic] their power of wounding by continual gnashing—unless it makes a speedy exit by madness for I think the symptoms of that disease increase in it daily. The President is the continual mark of his abuse, to which no bound is set; it is to be hoped, that like some other party papers have done here before Bache’s will destroy itself and its insolent publisher, be sent into the contempt he deserves.2

Federalist pundits dreaded the Aurora’s invective, especially when zealots like James T. Callender and Dr. James Reynolds filled its columns. Experts on the history of the press during the 1790s agree with Donald H. Stewart, author of a massive study of Jeffersonian journalism, that after Freneau’s National Gazette collapsed, the Aurora became “the most influential newssheet in the country.” At its heyday in 1797 the Aurora was the Republican paper of greatest circulation, boasting some 1,700 subscribers, while the average daily drew only about 500. The Aurora carried the most reliable transcriptions of congressional debates, often copied by Bache’s competitors. Free copies [End Page 244] circulated extensively in taverns and via the postal frank of Republican congressmen.3

Yet Bache’s opposition to Washington and the Federalists came late. The above criticisms all date from 1795 onward, after Bache first leaked and then vigorously opposed the Jay Treaty. Indeed, among those from whom he requested advice and assistance in setting up a Philadelphia newspaper was the Federalist elder statesman Robert Morris. As superintendent of finance during the American Revolution, Morris championed a stronger central government and worked closely with Bache’s grandfather, Benjamin Franklin, to obtain vital grants and loans from France. Morris told Bache he would be glad to help him obtain...


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pp. 243-298
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