Chastising your Competitor
In the early eighteen hundreds, Philadelphia newspaper editors were among the most out-spoken, and freely displayed their personalities. Enos Bronson edited the United States’ Gazette, William Duane edited the Aurora, John Binns edited the Democratic Press. Later, Robert Walsh would edit the National Gazette–all were Philadelphia papers. These editors freely scolded each other, and were, in turn scolded by editors of out-of-town papers. William Duane characterized Robert Walsh this way, in 1816: “The advocate of the adorable Ferdinand in the Baltimore Telegraph is that ‘brief abstract’ of incoherency, Robert Walsh, who formerly published, in Philadelphia, a sort of periodical journal, the very title of which is already forgotten.” Much of the abuse, and counter abuse, had to do with politics — William Duane was Irish and liberal; Walsh was more of a traditionalist. The Boston Patriot, an unusually liberal Boston paper, thought that Duane’s Aurora was “the most lucid, and best conducted paper in the United States.” It being criticized by the Boston Gazette, the Patriot thought, “is like a couple of wrens pecking at an Eagle, and that able Editor would mind it, about as much.”[i]
According to Duane, an editor ought to be freely judged: “It is highly proper that editors of newspapers should be tested and sifted, and their private as well as public character examined–the high court of the press should no more be entrusted to profligate or corrupt men–than the bench of justice, or the pulpit: no man’s character ought to be more pure, than his whose duty is to investigate the characters of all candidates for public stations–no man ought to be more independent of every influence, but that of the constitution and law, than the editor of a free press; nor should he ever shrink from the scrutiny which any kind of passion or prejudice sets up against him.” Duane, a strong Jeffersonian, published “A Hand-Book for Infantry,” and A Treatise for Riflemen,” and was named Adjutant-General by Madison, and which led to snide comments by other editors. The New York Herald sniffed, “William Duane, the libeler of Washington, who thanked God publicly when he left the presidency, the fellow who has been kicked and cuffed on public parade, and was rode upon a pole in sight of the British army in Calcutta, is appointed Adjutant-General in the army of the United States.” (Duane had edited a paper in India, which was disapproved of by the British government.) ‘[ii]
Duane was also attacked by Philadelphia editors. Duane, in these years, also advocated the claims of a would-be scientist, Charles Redheffer, who claimed to have discovered the principle of perpetual motion. This led to the following charge by the United States’ Gazette: “It is stated, we know not from what authority, that Redheffer’s Adjutant General has returned from Washington and left his epauletts behind him. If this report be true, we sincerely sympathize with the nation for the great and irreparable loss which the cabinet will sustain in being deprived of so much courage, military skill and bravery at this important crisis.” John Binns of the Democratic Press came up with this paragraph: “One of the most contemptible poltroons that ever disgraced the army of the United States, has the superlative vanity to deem his meed of praise necessary to fill the measure of Gen. Jackson’s happiness and secure his standing, and has also the overweening folly to presume that he, who fled, amidst hootings and execrations, from a camp of American Militia, can blast the fame of the heroes of Chippewa and Bridgewater. In a word, and to put the subject in its most irresistible and impressive light, William Duane is about to pour the phial of his wrath upon Gens. Brown and Scott!! . . . The man who undertakes to put up Gens. Wilkinson and Boyd, and to put down Gens. Brown and Scott must be either a fool, a knave or a madman. As well might a musqueto hope to penetrate the scaly covering of a Crocodile.” [iii]
Binns, in turn, was attacked by Bronson’s United States’ Gazette for allowing the following paragraph to be published in his Democratic Press: “‘Murder.’–It was about 7 o’clock last evening that this dreadful word assailed our ears. We ran out into the yard but all was still as death.–In a short time, however, we ascertained that a stranger, who was to have set out his morning for Harrisburg, was knocked down by some Ruffian in the alley which runs from Bank street into Goforth alley, and robbed of a God Watch and a Pocket Book in which, it was said, there was a large sum of money. The man was so deeply wounded and stunned that he was unable to cry out more than once and was found in the alley weltering in his blood. We understand that hopes of his recovery are entertained. The darkness of the evening and the want of a Lamp in the alley doubtless tempted the Ruffian to do this wicked deed.” This is the United States’ Gazette critique of the paragraph (note, Binns was named Adjutant of the state of Pennsylvania): “The editor of the Democratick Press, if he had not exhibited such proofs of terror in his account of the robbery, would have made us his debtor for a very hearty laugh.–Speaking of the unfortunate man who was robbed, he says, ‘we understand that hopes of his recovery are entertained,’ and yet the article is headed, ‘Murder.’ This must be murder in Irish, we presume. But there are other parts of the description not less ridiculous–‘We ran out into the yard–(for what?) but–all was still as death!’ For what, we ask, did the brave adjutant run out into the yard? It certainly was not running into the way of danger.” [iv]
Binns was characterized by the Massachusetts Spy as “the foreign wretch who makes the Democratick Press of Philadelphia, the leading war paper of that city.”[v] William Duane, professing not to have read the Democratic Press for years, finally, in 1815, declared “the time, however, has arrived to lay aside reserve–to discard this passive conduct.” Duane declared that Binns “now hangs, GIBBETED IN THE PILLORY OF PUBLIC OPINION,” presumably for editing “this prostitute press.” In commenting on Duane’s comments on Binns, the United States’ Gazette, describes Duane for their readers: “the editor exhibits himself with his accustomed egotism, and pomposity.” And they called Philadelphia “the city of brotherly love”!!!!5
[i] Weekly Aurora, December 16, 1816; Boston Patriot, December 5, 1812.
[ii] Weekly Aurora, July 7, 1817; New York Herald, March 31, 1813.
[iii] New York Spectator, May 14, 1814, reprinting the United States’ Gazette.
[iv] New York Spectator, September 27, September 23, 1815.
5 Massachusetts Spy, May 19, 1813; New York Spectator, reprinting the United States Gazette, October 7, 1815.
About the Author
Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.