The True George Washington: Enemies: The Press

Updated September 23, 2019 | Infoplease Staff

The Press

Another type of enemy, more or less the result of this differing with Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Randolph, was sundry editors and writers who gathered under their patronage and received aids of money or of secret information. One who prospered for a time by abusing Washington was Philip Freneau. He was a college friend of Madison's, and was induced to undertake the task by his and Jefferson's urging, though the latter denied this later. As aid to the undertaking, Jefferson, then Secretary of State, gave Freneau an office, and thus produced the curious condition of a clerk in the government writing and printing savage attacks on the President. Washington was much irritated at the abuse, and Jefferson in his "Anas" said that he "was evidently sore & warm and I took his intention to be that I should interpose in some way with Freneau, perhaps withdraw his appointment of translating clerk to my office. But I will not do it." According to the French minister, some of the worst of these articles were written by Jefferson himself, and Freneau is reported to have said, late in life, that many of them were written by the Secretary of State.

Far more indecent was the paper conducted by Benjamin Franklin Bache, who, early in the Presidency, applied for a place in the government, which for some reason not now known was refused. According to Cobbett, who hated him, "this ... scoundrel ... spent several years in hunting offices under the Federal Government, and being constantly rejected, he at last became its most bitter foe. Hence his abuse of General Washington, whom at the time he was soliciting a place he panegyrized up to the third heaven." Certain it is that under his editorship the General Advertiser and Aurora took the lead in all criticisms of Washington, and not content with these opportunities for daily and weekly abuse, Bache (though the fact that they were forgeries was notorious) reprinted the "spurious letters which issued from a certain press in New York during the war, with a view to destroy the confidence which the army and community might have had in my political principles,—and which have lately been republished with greater avidity and perseverance than ever, by Mr. Bache to answer the same nefarious purpose with the latter," and Washington added that "immense pains has been taken by this said Mr. Bache, who is no more than the agent or tool of those who are endeavoring to destroy the confidence of the people, in the officers of Government (chosen by themselves) to disseminate these counterfeit letters." In addition Bache wrote a pamphlet, with the avowal that "the design of these remarks is to prove the want of claim in Mr. Washington either to the gratitude or confidence of his country.... Our chief object ... is to destroy undue impressions in favor of Mr. Washington." Accordingly it charged that Washington was "treacherous," "mischievous," "inefficient;" dwelt upon his "farce of disinterestedness," his "stately journeyings through the American continent in search of personal incense," his "ostentatious professions of piety," his "pusillanimous neglect," his "little passions," his "ingratitude," his "want of merit," his "insignificance," and his "spurious fame."

The successor of Bache as editor of these two journals, William Duane, came to the office with an equal hatred of Washington, having already written a savage pamphlet against him. In this the President was charged with "treacherous mazes of passion," and with having "discharged the loathings of a sick mind." Furthermore it asserted "that had you obtained promotion ... after Braddock's defeat, your sword would have been drawn against your country," that Washington "retained the barbarous usages of the feudal system and kept men in Livery," and that "posterity will in vain search for the monuments of wisdom in your administration;" the purpose of the pamphlet, by the author's own statement, being "to expose the Personal Idolatry into which we have been heedlessly running," and to show the people the "fallibility of the most favored of men."

A fourth in this quartet of editors was the notorious James Thomson Callender, whose publications were numerous, as were also his impeachments against Washington. By his own account, this writer maintained, "Mr. Washington has been twice a traitor," has "authorized the robbery and ruin of the remnants of his own army," has "broke the constitution," and Callender fumes over "the vileness of the adulation which has been paid" to him, claiming that "the extravagant popularity possessed by this citizen reflects the utmost ridicule on the discernment of America."

The bitterest attack, however, was penned by Thomas Paine. For many years there was good feeling between the two, and in 1782, when Paine was in financial distress, Washington used his influence to secure him a position "out of friendship for me," as Paine acknowledged. Furthermore, Washington tried to get the Virginia Legislature to pension Paine or give him a grant of land, an endeavor for which the latter was "exceedingly obliged." When Paine published his "Rights of Man" he dedicated it to Washington, with an inscription dwelling on his "exemplary virtue" and his "benevolence;" while in the body of the work he asserted that no monarch of Europe had a character to compare with Washington's, which was such as to "put all those men called kings to shame." Shortly after this, however, Washington refused to appoint him Postmaster-General; and still later, when Paine had involved himself with the French, the President, after consideration, decided that governmental interference was not proper. Enraged by these two acts, Paine published a pamphlet in which he charged Washington with "encouraging and swallowing the greatest adulation," with being "the patron of fraud," with a "mean and servile submission to the insults of one nation, treachery and ingratitude to another," with "falsehood," "ingratitude," and "pusillanimity;" and finally, after alleging that the General had not "served America with more disinterestedness or greater zeal, than myself, and I know not if with better effect," Paine closed his attack by the assertion, "and as to you, sir, treacherous in private friendship, and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide, whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any?"

Washington never, in any situation, took public notice of these attacks, and he wrote of a possible one, "I am gliding down the stream of life, and wish, as is natural, that my remaining days may be undisturbed and tranquil; and, conscious of my integrity, I would willingly hope, that nothing would occur tending to give me anxiety; but should anything present itself in this or any other publication, I shall never undertake the painful task of recrimination, nor do I know that I should even enter upon my justification." To a friend he said, "my temper leads me to peace and harmony with all men; and it is peculiarly my wish to avoid any feuds or dissentions with those who are embarked in the same great national interest with myself; as every difference of this kind must in its consequence be very injurious."

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