POPULIST PRESS

How the Fox News of 1792 Took On John Adams

The National Gazette loved slinging mud at elites who sneered at the people’s power—chief among them, then-VP John Adams.

John Trumbull

“On Wednesday, the Honorable John Adams, Vice-President of the United States, arrived in this city,” reported the National Gazette—the intellectual biweekly of the nation’s then-capital, Philadelphia—on Saturday Dec. 8, 1792, “and on Thursday took his seat as President of the Senate.”

A reader is hard-pressed to find another paragraph in the whole two years of the National Gazette’s life that spoke of John Adams in a similarly polite fashion.

Instead, month after month, the National Gazette blasted Adams with insults, mockery, invective, distortion, and deeply educated character assassination—all vastly superior in mean-spirited firepower to anything we witness or invoke in modern political discourse.

“To Mr. Adams it has been objected,” wrote an anonymous “Lucius,” on Nov. 17, 1792, “that he is attached to a government of king, lords, and commons; and that the allegation is true, it is to be presumed, and it will not be controverted.”

This blast of calumny was occasioned by the critical announcement that there was suddenly a contest for the vice presidency underway, between the incumbent Vice President Adams of Massachusetts and the potent New York Governor George Clinton.

By that autumn, President George Washington had agreed with labored, despairing reluctance that he would stand for a second term.

Since Washington was assumed a unanimous choice of the electors whose votes were due Dec. 8, the battle over the future philosophy of the infant government was entirely about the difference between so-called federalist Adams, who had embraced the U.S. Constitution of 1787, and the so-called anti-federalist Clinton, who had hesitated.

Importantly, there were no formal national parties yet—what James Madison called “factions.” Moreover, the term “federalist” was already regarded stale, “exploded,” inarticulate.

What is thrilling to discover in the exuberantly aggressive National Gazette is that, even without a national party organization, party officials, fundraising, oppo research, push-polling, or the FBI, it was still possible to conduct a campaign by damaging a political personality as glass-jawed as the bookish John Adams.

With Adams, there was no need to look deep for weakness. Adams disregarded the homicidal Jacobins of the ongoing French Revolution, and his foes celebrated the spectacular pen of Jean-Paul Marat. In brief, Adams was shamed as a “monocrat,” and those opposing him were admired, and admired themselves, as “republicans.”

“For sometime I have been much struck with the different manner of which the monocrats and republicans in our city speak of the late commotion in Paris, and of the probable issue of the French revolution,” observed the anonymous “Sidney,” on Nov. 28, 1792. “The monocrats make no allowance for the resentments of a great people, suddenly emerging from the accumulated oppressions of three or four hundred years.”

The National Gazette failed to unhorse Adams, who was returned by the electors: 77 for Adams, 50 for Clinton, 4 for Thomas Jefferson, and 1 for Aaron Burr.

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There was a twist in the events that was only partially uncloaked at the time. The National Gazette was edited by the gifted Philip Freneau, an editorialist whom the celebrated historian Julian P. Boyd has measured as “instinctual, emotional,” as well as skilled in “satire, ridicule, scurrility, vituperation, and even on occasion scatological abuse.”

In summer 1792, Treasury Secretary “federalist” and “monocrat” Alexander Hamilton had exposed that Freneau was employed at Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson’s State Department. The loud suspicion was that Freneau was a secret conduit of Jefferson’s stormy Jacobin, “republican” intellect. We know now that Jefferson conceived and helped finance the National Gazette and also chose Freneau as a companionable editor to anonymous contributions by James Madison and Jefferson’s foreign consuls.

We also know now that Freneau’s dark genius was much independent of Jefferson. Yet still, the wounds that Freneau managed on Adams would pay off in the election of 1800, when Jefferson’s “Democrat-Republicans” whipped the sitting “federalist,” “anti-republican,” and “monocrat” President Adams. Jefferson would reward his 1792 discreet surrogate Clinton with the vice presidency in 1805, after Burr and Hamilton destroyed themselves.

We know, too, that the tussle in 1792 is astonishingly modern in penciling in the lines between those who present themselves as learned Federal authorities and those who present themselves as “a great people’s” revolutionaries.

The famous party names have switched sides severally over 225 years—“populism” has many masters—but listen to the angry sentiment edited (penned) by Freneau at year’s end, 1792, and hear it still sounding brassily in the Congress, 2017.

“Who Are The Best Keepers Of The People’s Liberties?

“Republican.—The people themselves. The sacred trust can no where be so safe as in the hands most interested in preserving it.

“Anti-republican.—The people are stupid, suspicious, licentious. They cannot safely trust themselves. When they have established government they should think of nothing but obedience, leaving the care of their liberties to their wiser rulers.”