HAMILTON AND THE FOUNDING OF THE “EVENING POST”
Of all the newspapers established as party organs in the time when Federalists and Democrats were struggling for control of the government of the infant republic, but one important journal survives. It is the oldest daily in the larger American cities which has kept its name intact. The Aurora, the Centinel, the American Citizen, Porcupine’s Gazette, whose pages the generation of Washington and Adams, Jefferson and Burr, scanned so carefully, are mere historical shades; but the Evening Post, founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton and a group of intimate political lieutenants, for the expression of Hamilton’s views, remains a living link between that day of national beginnings and our own.
The spring of 1801, when plans were laid for issuing the Evening Post, was the blackest season the Federalists of New York had yet known. Jefferson was inaugurated as President on March 4, and the upper as well as the lower branch of Congress had now become Democratic. In April the State election was held, and the ticket headed by gouty old George Clinton won a sweeping victory over the Federalists, so that at Albany the Democrats took complete control; the Governorship, Legislature, and Council of Appointment were theirs. Many Federalists sincerely believed that the nation and State had been put upon the road to ruin. They were convinced that the party of Washington, Hamilton, and Adams, which had built up a vigorous republic out of a ramshackle Confederation, was the only party of construction; and that Democracy meant ruin to the public credit, aggressions by the States upon a weak central government, and national disintegration. Hamilton wrote Gouverneur
Morris after the election, in all seriousness, that the Constitution had become “a frail and worthless fabric.”
For Hamilton himself, inasmuch as many of his own party deemed him responsible for the disaster which had overtaken it, the hour was doubly black. No other leader approached him in brilliance, but his genius was not unmixed with an erratic quality. He and John Adams, men of wholly different temperaments, tastes, and habits, had always instinctively disliked each other; and during Adams’s Administration the latter had provoked an open breach with Hamilton, which meant a division of the Federalists into two factions. Hamilton, stung by Adams’s hostility and in especial by the charge that he was too Anglophile to be patriotic, had so far lost control of himself as to commit a capital political blunder. He had written just before the election of 1800 a bitter analysis of “The Public Conduct and Character of John Adams,” and though he designed this attack for confidential circulation only, it soon became public. The Democrats, their victory already assured, had made the most of it, and the resentment of Adams’s adherents was intense. The party schism was widened when it fell to the House of Representatives early in 1801 to decide the tie for the Presidency between Jefferson and Burr. Of the two, Hamilton patriotically preferred Jefferson, and used his influence to persuade the Federalist Representatives to vote for him. But the New England Federalists, Adams’s friends, opposed this view, and to Hamilton’s disgust, all the New England States save Vermont went into Burr’s column.
Hamilton gladly turned in April, 1801, from his pre-occupation with politics to his law practice. Forty-three years old, with eight children and a wife to support, with no savings, and ambitious of building himself a country home on the upper part of Manhattan, he needed the $12,000 a year which he could earn at the city bar. When he thought of public affairs, he felt not tired—he was too intense for that—but chagrined, and misused. After all, the real causes of Adams’s defeat were the
alien and sedition laws, the persecuting temper of the Administration, its hot and cold policy in dealing with French outrages, and Adams’s vanity, caprice, and irascibility. But Hamilton by his pamphlet attack on the President had seriously damaged his own reputation for generalship. His friend, Robert Troup, wrote that this misstep had been most unfortunate. “An opinion has grown out of it, which at present obtains almost universally, that his character is radically deficient in discretion. Hence, he is considered as an unfit head of the party.” Hamilton himself admitted, Troup says, “that his influence with the Federal party was wholly gone.” He might well think of the assistance a newspaper would lend in defending himself from the Adams faction, restoring Federalist prestige, and attacking the triumphant Democrats.
Hamilton had many local companions in defeat, ready to support such a journal. Troup himself, and one other close friend, the cultivated merchant, William W. Woolsey, had been beaten for the Assembly. A general removal of Federalists from office followed the overturn. Though President Jefferson proved milder than had been feared, he made a number of changes, the most notable being that by which the wealthy Joshua Sands, with a store at 118 Pearl Street, lost the Collectorship of the Port. As for the new authorities at Albany, they were merciless. The Council of Appointment was dominated by young De Witt Clinton, the Governor’s pushing nephew, and its guillotine worked night and day till every obnoxious head was off. In place of the tall and dignified Richard Varick, who had been one of Washington’s secretaries, and to whose public spirit the American Bible Society, which he founded, is still a monument, it appointed Edward Livingston to be Mayor. In place of the scholarly Cadwallader Colden, it made Richard Riker the Attorney-General. Sylvanus Miller was brought down from Ulster to be Surrogate, and Ruggles Hubbard from Rensselaer to be Sheriff. The very Justiceships of the Peace were transferred. The
Clerkship of the Circuit Court whose jurisdiction covered the city was taken from William Coleman and given to John McKesson. A majority of the people of the city were Federalists, and they watched all these transfers with pain.
The local leaders, and especially Hamilton, had for some time been aware that they lacked an adequate newspaper organ. Three city journals, the Daily Advertiser, and the Daily Gazette, both morning publications, and the Commercial Advertiser, an evening paper, were Federalist in sympathy. But Snowden’s Daily Advertiser, and Lang’s Gazette were almost exclusively given up to commercial news; and while E. Belden’s Commercial Advertiser, which still lives as the Globe, devoted some attention to politics, it lacked an able editor to write controversial articles. As the chief Democratic sheet remarked, “it is too drowsy to be of service in any cause; it is a powerful opiate.” This Democratic sheet was the American Citizen, edited by the then noted English refugee and radical, James Cheetham. He was a slashing and fearless advocate of Jeffersonian principles, who daily filled from one to two columns with matter that set all the grocery and hotel knots talking. Some one as vigorous, but of better education and taste—Cheetham had once been a hatter—was needed to expound Hamiltonian doctrines.
It was hoped that this new editor and journal could give leadership and tone to the whole Federalist press, for a sad lack of vigor was evident from Maine to Charleston. The leading Federalist newspapers of the time, Benjamin Russell’s Columbian Centinel in Boston, the Courant in Hartford, the Gazette of the United States in Philadelphia, and the Baltimore Federal Gazette, did not fully meet the wishes of energetic Federalists. Their conductors did not compare with the chief Democratic editors: James T. Callender, whom Adams had thrown into jail; Thomas Paine; B. F. Bache, Franklin’s grandson; Philip Freneau, and William Duane. Some agency was needed to rouse them. They should
be helped with purse and pen, wrote John Nicholas, a leading Virginia Federalist, to Hamilton. “They seldom republish from each other, while on the other hand their antagonists never get hold of anything, however trivial in reality, but they make it ring through all their papers from one end of the continent to the other.” In the summer of 1800 Hamilton called Oliver Wolcott’s attention to libels printed by the Philadelphia Aurora upon prominent Federalists, and asked if these outrageous assaults could not be counteracted. “We may regret but we can not now prevent the mischief which these falsehoods produce,” replied Wolcott.
The establishment of journals for party purposes had become, in the dozen years since the Constitution was ratified, a frequent occurrence, and no political leader knew more of the process than Hamilton. He had won his college education in New York by a striking article in a St. Kitts newspaper. No one needs to be reminded how in the Revolutionary crisis, when a stripling in Kings College, he had attracted notice by anonymous contributions to Holt’s Journal, nor how in the equally important crisis of 1787–88 he published his immortal “Federalist” essays in the Independent Journal. Samuel Loudon, head of the Independent Journal, used to wait in Hamilton’s study for the sheets as they came from his pen. To support Washington’s Administration, Hamilton in 1789 encouraged John Fenno, a Boston schoolmaster of literary inclinations, to establish the Gazette of the United States at the seat of government; and in 1793, when Fenno appealed to Hamilton for $2,000 to save the journal from ruin, the latter took steps to raise the sum, making himself responsible for half of it. Hamilton also financially assisted William Cobbett, the best journalist of his time in England or America, to initiate his newspaper campaign against the Democratic haters of England. He, Rufus King, and others in New York helped provide the capital with which Noah Webster founded the Minerva in that city in 1793, and he and King together wrote for it a series of papers, signed
“Camillus,” upon Jay’s Treaty. If Hamilton’s unsigned contributions to the Federalist press from 1790 to 1800 could be identified, they would form an important addition to his works.
It is evident from the published and unpublished papers of Hamilton that at an early date in 1801, when he was devoting all his spare time to the hopeless State campaign, he was giving thought to the problem of improving the party press. He wrote Senator Bayard of Delaware a letter upon party policy, to be presented at the Federalist caucus in Washington on April 20. In it he gave a prominent place to the necessity for “the diffusion of information,” both by newspapers and by pamphlets. He added that “to do this a fund must be raised,” and proposed forming an extensive association, each member who could afford it pledging himself to contribute $5 annually for eight years for publicity. Hamilton’s fingers whenever he was in a tight place always itched for the pen. Noah Webster had withdrawn from the Minerva three years previous, while Fenno had died about the same time, leaving the Gazette of the United States to a son; so that Hamilton could no longer feel at home in these journals.