George Washington, celebrated today by federal holiday, was (of course) our first president. When he died, the phrase which spread the country as part of the myth-making around Washington was: "First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen."
While this may -- as a direct result of a very successful mythmaking campaign -- be almost universally true today, it was not when the flesh-and-blood man (not the myth) held office as the new nation's first "Chief Magistrate" (as it was referred to back then). Yes, even Washington had his media critics.
This was due to the emergence of what I call "proto-parties" in American politics. The first two parties went by various different names (such things were fluid, and usually not even capitalized back then). Washington became the head of the Federalists. Their opponents were originally called "Anti-Federalists" but preferred to be called "Republicans," and are now historically known as "Democratic-Republicans" (mostly to differentiate between them and today's Republican Party, which are not the same party). As one partisan newspaper helpfully defined: "it is not a question now between federalism and anti-federalism, but between republicanism and antirepublicanism." Such hair-splitting was common, because the entire concept of a political party was a fluid and changing thing, back then. True political parties quite simply did not exist -- there was no central party committee or other group, there was no corporate presence of a national party like a "head office," and there was no communications network for the party to discuss the "party line" on any issue.
What did exist, instead, were newspapers. The partisan press, in essence, were the party structure. All newspapers in America were able to mail each other copies of their papers for free (due to a special postal exemption), and "copyright" was unheard of for newspapers back then -- they all freely copied articles or quotes from each other with nary a thought of payment. Because of this, the newspapers constituted the best communication network in the country -- and they used it to define what the parties stood for.
This, of course, included what the parties stood against, as well. The leading voice among the Republicans at the time was Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of his famous namesake. He published a newspaper in Philadelphia (following in his granddad's footsteps) called the General Advertiser, later rebranded as the Aurora. Bache's paper was the biggest thorn in George Washington's side, when he was in office. Here, for example, is what the paper wrote on the occasion of John Adams' inauguration, as Washington left public office:
"Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation," was the pious ejaculation of a man who beheld a flood of happiness rushing in upon mankind. If ever there was a time which would license the reiteration of this exclamation, that time is now arrived; for the man who is the source of all the misfortunes of our country is this day reduced to a level with his fellow-citizens, and is no longer possessed of power to multiply evils upon the United States. If ever there was a period of rejoicing, this is the moment. Every heart in unison with the freedom and happiness of the people, ought to beat high with exultation that the name of Washington from this day ceased to give a currency to political iniquity and to legalized corruption. A new era is now opening upon us -- an era which promises much to the people; for public measures must now stand upon their own merits, and nefarious projects can no longer be supported by a name. When a retrospect is taken of the Washington administration for eight years, it is a subject of the greatest astonishment, that a single individual should have cankered the principles of republicanism in an enlightened people, just emerged from the gulf of despotism, and should have carried his designs against the public liberty so far as to have put in jeopardy its very existence. Such, however, are the facts; and with these staring us in the face, this day ought to be a jubilee in the United States.
Even under the rules of editorial behavior back then (which makes what you see on Fox News or MSNBC absolutely pale in comparison), this was pretty scathing stuff. Newspaper editors had to be pretty hardy souls back then, as Bache himself was beaten in the street in one incident, and in another a drunken mob of over 1,000 soldiers still in military dress (after hearing a speech by President John Adams) mobbed Bache's office, and destroyed everything they could lay their hands on. Imagine that happening to Fox or MSNBC today....
This wasn't limited to physical violence, either. There were Federalist papers which were just as scathing towards Bache. William Cobbett, editor of Porcupine's Gazette, shot back by describing Bache as: "This atrocious wretch (worthy descendant of old Ben) knows that all men of understanding set him down as an abandoned liar, as a tool, and a hireling; ... an ill-looking devil. His eyes never get above your knees. He is of a sallow complexion, hollow-cheeked, dead-eyed ... just like ... a fellow who has been about a week or ten days on a gibbet." So it wasn't like the newspaper invective was one-sided at the time, quite obviously. Both sides were equally vicious.
The outspoken (and outrageous) nature of Bache's newspaper led directly to one of the most unconstitutional periods we've ever experienced as a country, when Congress passed (and Adams signed) the Alien and Sedition Acts. The sedition bills didn't actually have Benjamin Franklin Bache's name in them, but they might just as well have, since the Federalists in Congress definitely had Bache in mind when writing them.
Bache was arrested in the spring of 1798 -- even before the Acts were passed. For daring to criticize the government, Bache was forced to pay a $4,000 bail (an enormous amount of money, back then). His case never came to trail, however, as he was dead of yellow fever by September. While Bache's death was an escape for him, other Republican editors were indeed jailed for long periods, or forced to pay exceedingly steep fines which drove them out of business. These prosecutions (persecutions, really) were never about the dictionary definition of "sedition" -- advocating war against the government -- but rather just for criticizing John Adams or any of the rest of the government.
Two years later, in what was called the "Revolution of 1800," Thomas Jefferson was elected president -- the first non-Federalist to ever hold the office. Bache's paper had been taken over by another, but was still a strong Republican voice during the campaign. The Alien and Sedition Acts had a sunset clause in them, and Jefferson did nothing to renew them. He pardoned all the editors still rotting in jail, and halted any further prosecutions. Jefferson had his own dustup with the news media of his time, when the Sally Hemings story broke, but that's a story for a different day.
Today, while remembering George Washington, Father Of Our Country, I choose instead to remember his biggest and most vocal critic, Benjamin Franklin Bache. Because the republicans of his day would later elect Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson's party would later split in the 1820's, in Andrew Jackson's time. At this point, some of them began calling themselves democrats (again, usually small-"d"), which later led to the party being called "the Democracy"... and, finally, the "Democratic Party" we all know today.
Benjamin Franklin Bache didn't singlehandedly start the opposition to the Federalists in this country. But while saying so would be inaccurate, it is without doubt that Bache was one of the (little-"f") "founding fathers" of the Democratic Party.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant