Friday, October 26, 2007

The James Callender Award

Thanks to the Daily Kos for writing up Anything for a Vote yesterday in a very amusing way--they imagined a world in which Rudy Giuliani (or any of the other 2008 candidates, for that matter) was subjected to some of the outrageous invective 19th century candidates (or their minions) hurled at each other.
The Kos mentions the election of 1800, only the fourth in our history and one of the absolute nastiest, featuring the Federalist John Adams running against his own vice-president, the Republican Thomas Jefferson. As I describe in the book, Jefferson secretly hired a most fascinating sub-figure in American history, the writer James Callender, to pen broadsides against Adams. Callender set at it with a will, describing Adams as a "repulsive pedant" and--and I really love this one--"a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." (Note that well-placed "which.")
This got Callender thrown in the slammer for nine months under the Alien and Sedition Act, a controversial law, passed during tensions over a possible war with Great Britain, which jailed anyone criticizing the government or president (the same fate occurred to a New Jersey tavern patron who opined one night that Adams had a fat ass). Callender made a convenient martyr for the Republicans, who went on to win the first election every thrown into the House of Representatives.
But my interest today is Callender himself. He was born in Scotland in 1758 and began his working life as a government clerk. But passionate invective from behind the scenes was his true calling. Pamphlets he wrote attacking political corruption were actually financed by brewers who resented high excise taxes. Callender was exposed and forced to flee Scotland for America, where he settled down as a congressional reporter with a nose for scandal. While Callender languished in jail during the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson became president and then--ain't it always the way?-- turned his back on the writer, who had visions of being rewarded with a political sinecure. Enraged, Callender, increasingly alcoholic, published pamphlets accusing the President, rightly as it turned out, of sleeping with slaves at Monticello. ("For many years[Jefferson] has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is Sally.")
About ten months after he penned this, Callender's body was found floating in the James River. Accident? Suicide? Murder? No one will ever know.
Some feel that James Callender was an early political poltergeist, a provocative writer bucking the repressive atmosphere of the times, a man jousting after the truth. In my opinion he was basically a scandalmonger. Not that there's anything wrong with it. He was an American first, however, the first in a long line of writers hired by politicos to do their dirty work for them, a line that reaches all the way to our present times, to those who set up websites devoted to slandering politicians and plant stories in newspapers. As I come across these smear artists in the next 12 months, I will bestow upon them the James Callender Award--okay, let's call it "The Jimmy"--for Undistinguished and Dishonorable Political Hackery. If anyone has any nominees, send them right over.

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