attacking george washington -- 1/4/21

Today's selection -- from The Golden Voyage: The Life and Times of William Bingham, 1752-1804 by Robert C. Alberts. In 1798, French wars were taking a toll on American commerce, and American merchant ships worth an estimated $55 million were taken in an 18-month period because they carried goods declared to be contraband by France, or lacked special papers required under a new interpretation of French law. Wealthy merchant William Bingham lamented that he was placed in "considerable difficulties" because of the detention in French ports of ships he owned or had an interest in:

"Bingham doubted (in a letter to Rufus King) that the American envoys would be received, or, if received, that their negotiations would be successful. 'If war should ensue,' he said, 'I dread the disorganization and extreme disorder which will arise out of it, especially in the southern parts of the union.'

"Weeks passed and no word came from [Charles] Pinckney, [John] Marshall, and [Elbridge] Gerry. Party feeling ran high, and debate in the House grew heated. Near the end of January, just before roll call, Roger Griswold, Con­necticut Federalist, taunted Matthew Lyon, Vermont Republican, on his military record. Lyon spat in his face; Griswold struck him with a large yellow hickory cane; Lyon retaliated with iron tongs taken from the House fireplace; and the two men grappled on the floor until pulled apart.

"The press -- newspapers and pamphlets -- grew abusive beyond any previous (or later) experience in the republic. There were twelve newspapers in Philadelphia in 1798, and of these, Benjamin Franklin Bache's anti-Federalist Aurora and General Advertiser was the most vituperative. Bache had embittered Washington's last two years in office with a drumfire of scurrilous charges: he had been an utterly incompetent general who had robbed his starving troops for his own pecuniary gain; he was, with Hamilton's conniv­ance, collecting money illegally as President; he had debauched his country's liberties. Now, joined by other Republican editors, Bache assaulted President Adams and his cabinet. Adams, 'the blind, bald, crippled, toothless, querulous Adams,' the 'Duke of Braintree,' was a mad despot, an enemy of the people and of the rights of man, a champion of aristocracy who was determined to subvert American freedom.

"The Federalist press retaliated in kind -- most effectively through the pages of Porcupine's Gazette, started in March, 1797, by Wil­liam Cobbett ('Peter Porcupine'), expatriate English journalist. Bache, he said, was 'the son of one of Dr. Franklin's bastards' and looked like 'a fellow who has been about a week or ten days on a gibbet.' Franklin himself was 'his crafty and lecherous old hypocrite of a grandfather, whose very statue seems to gloat on the wenches as they walk the State House yard.' Dr. Priestley was 'a malignant old Tartuffe.' David Rittenhouse had taken French gold to betray his country. Jacobins were 'a sort of flesh-flies that naturally settle on the excremental and corrupted parts of the body politic.' Abigail Adams observed, not without admiration, that Peter Porcupine 'can write very handsomely, and he can descend and be as low and vulgar as a fish wife.'  Back in England some years later, Cobbett told the younger William Pitt: 'Of the violence, the rage of the time, no man not upon the spot can form an adequate idea.'"



Robert C. Alberts


The Golden Voyage: The Life and Times of William Bingham, 1752-1804


Houghton Mifflin Company


Copyright 1969 by Robert C. Alberts


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