The Infamous Scribblers of the Founding Father Generation


Mr. Burns is a Fox News anchor and the author of Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism (Perseus,).

It does not seem to make sense. It is almost incomprehensible. Yet the golden age of America's founding was the gutter age of American journalism. The era that produced such works as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers also produced newspapers that lied, slandered and incited violence.

The leading practitioner of such reporting was Samuel Adams of the Boston Gazette, who takes a back seat to everyone, including Jayson Blair, in terms of ethics. So desperate was Adams for the colonies to become independent from the Crown---either legislatively or militarily, whatever it took---that he wrote stories about British soldiers in Boston molesting women in the streets. It never happened. He wrote stories about British soldiers in Boston assaulting men on the streets. It never happened. He wrote stories that urged violence against British officials charged with collecting taxes, then summoned his henchmen to the Gazette's offices after closing hours and plotted the violence for them. Hang taxman Andrew Oliver in effigy, he told them. Trash his office. Destroy his home. Threaten him with physical harm if he did not resign. His minions did precisely as told.

Then, a few days later, Sam Adams wrote an article describing such reprehensible actions without either regret or acknowledgment that he had been their primary cause.

All Jayson Blair did was apply a few coats of gilding to stories that were basically factual.

Other colonists, jacked up on 90-proof Sam Adams prose, vandalized the residences of other British officials, and other newspapers, under Adams's influence, made up their own lies, including reports that Parliament was about to impose taxes on the colonists for their children---15 pounds for each male child born in the New World, 10 for each female, 50 for a child of either gender born out of wedlock. It was the Pennsylvania Journal that cooked up the levy on kids, and it knew the tales were untrue from the outset. It didn't matter. It was determined to incite the populace against the British.

Alexander Hamilton, as prolific a journalist as any among the Founding Fathers, did not tell lies, but after the Revolutionary War, as Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington, appropriated Treasury Department funds to start a newspaper to promote Washington's view of the Constitution; i.e., that it called for a big, centralized government which held power over the states. One thinks of the second Bush administration paying Armstrong Williams to promote No Child Left Behind.

Worse, however, were the efforts of Hamilton's competing "press baron," Thomas Jefferson, Washington's Secretary of State, who believed in a weak centralized government with power concentrated among the states. In other words, he was a foe of the Washington administration even as he held one of its most prestigious offices, which he did not do nobly. Jefferson purloined State Department money to fund a paper to compete with Hamilton's---in other words, he used government dollars to criticize the very government of which he was such an important part. Further, he would on occasion leave the door to the State Department unlocked at night so that Philip Freneau, the editor of Jefferson's paper, could sneak in and copy documents that Jefferson had left on his desk, documents that could be quoted out of context to make the Washington administration look ill-informed at best, malicious at worst. There was, to the oft-noble Thomas Jefferson, a very devious side---although not so devious as to refer to Hamilton, as one newspaper did, as Tom S**t.

Hamilton and Jefferson never came to blows over the views in their conflicting newspapers. Other editors did. It was not uncommon for printers to attack one another on the street. One paper, in fact, urged its readers not to spit on the editor of a competing journal when they happened to see him, as it would be a waste of good saliva.

These were not editorials. There were no such things as editorials at the time. These were news stories, and they were like none we have seen since.

Why was journalism so unfair in the founding era? Because it was a new business with no tradition of fairness behind it. If you told a man who had purchased a printing press that it was his duty to include points of view other than his own in his publications, he would have thought you were telling him to promote the products (read: ideas) of his competitors, which would not have been asked of other businessmen and therefore, he thought, should not be asked of him.

Why was journalism of the time so vicious? Because the two most important events in American history occurred in the period of which I write in Infamous Scribblers (the title, by the way, is a quote from George Washington, who was disgusted by the journalists who wrote about him). First event: the winning of independence from England. Second event: the struggles to interpret the Constitutition, which is to say, to decide what kind of nation we should erect with our newly-earned freedom. There was, in other words, in the view of all too many Americans, simply too much at stake late in the eighteenth century for civility in print.

We have learned so much from the Founding Fathers. We have accepted the ideals they expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the structures and guidelines they laid down the Constitutition, the code of conduct that they provided in the Bill of Rights. We have not, however, adopted their notions of journalism as bloodsport.

We are to be saluted.

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    More Comments:

    J L Bell - 6/2/2006

    Isn't the question at hand whether Eric Burns is justified in writing that events "didn't happen"? Especially when there are many sources (not just those he apparently knows about and dismisses) that say that such events did happen?

    Mr. Williams's statement that he believes those events probably did happen is far more justifiable historically than Burns's assertion that they didn't.

    I spent this afternoon looking at Boston town watchmen's reports from this period. There were almost immediate confrontations between the local authorities and the military authorities because the men didn't agree on which authority was higher. There was also a class conflict, with genteel British officers resenting having to answer common New Englanders, and New Englanders resenting having to answer lower-class British soldiers on sentry detail.

    I'm not surprised that Burns would prefer to think that didn't happen. But other folks shouldn't be fooled.

    Jeremy A. Stern - 5/18/2006

    Hard evidence is not lacking: there is, as I said, considerable testimony in newspapers, letters, diaries, the Boston Massacre trial records, and a string of other indictments of soldiers. It's only a question of whether one discounts all such accounts – as Burns evidently does – as propaganda, a judgment which is not justified by the evidence itself.

    As to the question of private vs. official misconduct, it is perfectly true that the officers did not openly encourage violence and abuse, generally putting a stop to it when it became too serious to ignore. On the other hand, the officers often turned a blind eye. You have to realize that the soldiers were frequently loose in the town, not under the supervision of their officers. They walked about looking for extra work, going into shops, drinking in taverns, and, plainly, looking for women, willing or not. Also, there were guards posted at several points in the town, who demanded subservient responses the Bostonians were unwilling to give… and the soldiers were quite prepared to make a jab with a bayonet, even at a justice of the peace who wouldn't bow to their challenge.

    Your observation that it was not in British interests to exacerbate tensions with an already hostile population was often made by the appalled Bostonians themselves, who were baffled as exactly such a policy seemed to be pursued. It wasn't good policy, but it was the result of the occupation. The reason, of course, was that British officials agreed with your statement, that " tightening colonial discipline and showing who was boss was certainly within their right when the citizenry were openly defiant"... a perspective the Bostonians understandably did not share, since they considered their 'defiance' to be a lawful defense of basic constitutional freedoms. British officials also remained convinced that if the Americans were slapped down hard enough, their natural cowardice would cause them to back down and submit. That, too, proved to be a poor policy judgment.

    Inference can strengthen our sense of what evidence is trustworthy, but it is not, by any means, all we have to go on: there is hard evidence aplenty.

    Rob Willis - 5/18/2006

    I would suggest that misbehavior on an individual, versus officially sanctioned level was far more likely, if we need to infer. The British soldier was notorious for his lack of social grace, but the crown could hardly have found much to gain by systematically provolking an already angry population. Tightening colonial discipline and showing who was boss was certainly within their right when the citizenry were openly defiant, but allowing the average British private free reign would have been extremely dangerous for miliary discipline as well as diplomacy at any level.

    Interesting points all, but I would still be more comfortable with hard evidence.

    Jeremy A. Stern - 5/17/2006

    Mr. Williams has a valid point. Occupying armies do not tend to behave with restraint. As a matter of historical fact, the British army contained many disorderly social elements, shunted into the military to bring them under control. In addition, they had been repeatedly told by their officers that the Bostonians were dangerous, disloyal troublemakers who needed to be roughly brought to heel.

    It is therefore entirely "likely" that the soldiers would be abusive -- which, while inference, lends considerable credence to the ample evidence that they did exactly that. This evidence, as I noted above, includes the reluctant admission of just such abuse by Lt. Governor Hutchinson, in addition to considerable other evidence in newspapers, letters, diaries, and courtroom testimony.

    Rob Willis - 5/17/2006

    Mr. Williams-
    This is a history site, not a site interested in what, in your opinion, was "likely" to occur two centuries ago.

    Don Williams - 5/17/2006

    Just look, for example, at one of his comments:

    "he[Adams] wrote stories about British soldiers in Boston molesting women in the streets. It never happened. He wrote stories about British soldiers in Boston assaulting men on the streets. It never happened."

    How does Mr Burns know? Either of the two incidents is likely to occur when enlisted troops occupy a foreign city. Just look at how the British officers described the natures of their enlisted troops.

    I suspect Mr Burns' real quarrel with Samuel Adams is Adams' hostility to a corrupt plutocracies -- and to the whores of such plutocracies.

    I'm sure that 225 years ago, Mr Burns would have been striving to lick the boots of British Generals and explaining how great wealth is a sign of moral superiority.

    And I'm sure that Samual Adams would have addressed Mr Burns with the same contempt he showed always showed such sycophants:

    "If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms.
    Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you.
    May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen."
    - Samuel Adams, speech at the Philadelphia State House, August 1, 1776.

    Jeremy A. Stern - 5/15/2006

    Whatever the general merits of this book may be, here we yet again encounter the too-common and wrong-headed portrait of Samuel Adams as stop-at-nothing demagogue, a familiar retread of pro-Tory historiography dating back to the 19th century. The idea that Adams was "desperate" for independence stems from the reports of British officials in Revolutionary America, who entirely misunderstood his agenda; the claim has no basis in Adams's writings or documented actions. Not until the eve of the War, in 1775, did Adams reluctantly conclude that independence was the only viable course. (Pauline Maier's excellent essay, "Coming to Terms with Samuel Adams," which ably dismantles the anti-Adams mythology, has been readily available for the past 30 years.)

    Burns's claims about stories of military misconduct that "never happened" plainly refer to the "Journal of the Times" or "Journal of Occurences," a daily log of the military occupation of Boston written in Boston, printed in New York papers, and reprinted in the Boston Evening Post in 1768 and 1769. (Despite Burns's description, this Journal had nothing to do with the Boston Gazette. The Gazette did of course carry its own stories of military oppression, in which Adams apparently did sometimes have a hand – the diary of John Adams mentions such an occasion – but they were quite separate from the essays he contributed to the paper.)

    Firstly, there is actually no evidence that Adams wrote the Journal – Massachusetts Governor Francis Bernard and his Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson thought he did, but Harbottle Dorr, a well-informed Boston merchant who heavily annotated the newspapers, attributed it to William Cooper, the Boston town clerk. Dorr was inside radical circles; Bernard and Hutchinson were not. It's also clear that the Journal had a contributor inside the governor's Council, very likely merchant/politician James Bowdoin.

    Secondly, we again only have the word of those such as Bernard, Hutchinson and pro-government newspaper editor Richard Draper that the Journal's accounts of military atrocities are false – it's very clear from other newspaper coverage that many people on the street in Boston believed the Journal to be quite accurate, and they were in a far better position to know. Draper, indeed, was repeatedly challenged to provide examples of false reports: he was only able to point to claims that his own paper had printed forged anti-American letters said to be from England, which he denied. When the Journal concluded in 1769, Harbottle Dorr declared that "in the opinion of all unprejudiced Persons, it is a True candid narration of Facts," pointing to a single minor mistake as the only error he could find. And of course, the well-documented military incidents of February and March 1770, after the Journal had ended, were all of a piece with the long-standing accounts in the Journal... as were accounts when the soldiers returned in 1774, including a very alarmed letter from Benjamin Franklin's sister, Jane Franklin Mecom. Certainly, the Journal exaggerated and 'spun' events in an anti-military light, but there is not the slightest evidence to conclude that it made up incidents out of whole cloth. Even Hutchinson admitted just after the Boston Massacre that the soldiers had "in many instances been very abusive."

    The account of Adams's "minions" carrying out the violence of August 1765 is similarly distorted, and, again, depends upon the heavily biased accounts of Crown officials. Adams was certainly involved in the carefully-orchestrated political theater of August 14, 1765. But there is no reliable evidence that he promoted the violence that peaked on August 26 – and after the fact, he consistently denounced that violence, saying that such actions undermined America's cause.

    Burns continues with the idea, central to the conspiracy-minded outlook of Hutchinson et al., that agitation in the other colonies was sparked entirely by Adams's incendiary inflammation... or at least, so thought Hutchinson after insanity had removed James Otis, the previous focus of Hutchinson's obsession, from consideration.

    As Adams himself was fond of saying, Magna est Veritas, et Praevalebit.

    Jeremy A. Stern
    Doctoral Candidate, Dept. of History
    Princeton University