Partisan violence and the newspapers in 1790s Philadelphia

Vermont Democratic Republican supporter Rep. Matthew Lyon (with tongs) fights with Rep. Roger Griswold, a Connecticut Federalist, at Philadelphia’s Congress Hall on Feb. 15, 1798. Later in the year, Lyon was sent to jail under the Sedition Acts, and was re-elected to Congress while in jail. 


As we approach the 2020 elections in the United States, the possibility of increased political unrest looms ahead. To help gain perspective on our own period, it might be worth looking at a time in the early history of this country that was particularly contentious.

In the closing decade of the 18th century, many people in this country were deeply inspired by the French Revolution and its message of increased democracy and liberation for the downtrodden. This factor, as well as domestic class frictions, helped to shape a fiercely partisan political scene in the United States. Melees broke out in the capital city, Philadelphia.

At the time, the Federalist Party—with a base in the merchant class and with big financial interests in the North—held the presidency and a majority in Congress. But the Democratic Republicans, headed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were gaining ground as an opposition. Although led by slave-holding Virginia planters, the latter party gained support among small farmers, together with artisans and laboring people in the cities.

In 1798, the John Adams administration was preparing for war with France, while seeking a closer alliance with France’s main rival, Britain. A major grievance of the U.S. government was the fact that French naval ships and privateers were seizing American trading vessels. As the ice broke on the Delaware, the newly completed USS United States was released from her moor­ings, and moved downriver to be made ready for naval action.

The Adams administration and congressional members of the Federalist Party were terrified that oppositionists at home, sympathetic to the French revolutionary government, would undermine their war preparations. As a consequence, on the ninth anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, July 14, 1798, Presi­dent Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The Alien Acts author­­ized the presi­dent to imprison or deport non-citizens who were considered dan­ger­ous to the “public peace and safety” in times of war or threat of war against the United States, and it raised the residency require­ment to gain citizenship from five to 14 years. Under the Sedition Acts, publicly speaking or writing in “malicious” opposi­tion to the president or to Congress could be deemed an act of libel or even treason, and be punished by fines or prison.

The newspapers that supported the Democratic Repub­lican Party, like the Aurora and General Advertiser, were fiercely critical of the new laws, realizing that they were aimed in large part at themselves. Aurora editor Benjamin Franklin Bache (the grandson of Benjamin Franklin) printed a humorous rejoinder to the new legislation: “Advertisement Extraordinary! Orator Mum takes this very orderly method of announcing to his fellow citizens that a THINKING CLUB will be established in a few days at the sign of the Muzzle in Gag Street.”

The day before the Sedition Acts went into effect, July 13, Aurora’s outspoken and hard-drinking commentator, James T. Callender, fearing prosecution, fled the city for Virginia. He left his wife behind in Philadel­phia—who soon died in the horrible yellow fever epidemic that was taking over the city. But flight did not save Cal­len­der from the Sedition Acts; the following year, while living in Richmond, Va., he was indicted and sentenced to nine months in jail. In the meantime, Bache hired William Duane to take Callen­der’s place as the Aurora’s leading editorial writer and political gadfly.

Bache was taking a chance on the wild-eyed, bearded Duane—who seemed to have a knack of engaging in quarrels with his employers, first in India, then in England, and then here, having recently left the pro-Federalist Philadelphia Gazette after arguments with the publisher, Andrew Brown. Now Duane seemed to have tumbled to his nadir. Since he was out of funds and unable to pay the rent, the landlady threw him and his family out of their quarters. A month later, just as Duane took on his new job at the Aurora, his wife died of cholera.

In the meantime, Benjamin Franklin Bache, who had been daring in his mockery of the Adams administration, was arrested and charged with libeling the “President & the Executive Government in a manner tending to excite sedition.” However, he died of yellow fever while in jail on Sept. 10, before he could stand trial. William Duane joined with Mrs. Bache as the new editors of the Aurora. Later, Duane married Bache’s widow.

Of course, the Federalists had their own partisan press, whose editors poured out a flood of accusations against Duane and other “radicals” and “Jacobins.” Major targets of their invective were supporters of the Irish struggle against British colonialism, who had organized a chapter of the United Irishmen in Philadelphia. At first, the Federalist editors accused the United Irishmen of attempting to stir up the African-American community against the ruling order. Although those charges failed to stick, the Federalists were soon handed a spec­ta­cular chance to denounce the Irish activists for fomenting violence in a church holy ground.

On Feb. 9, 1799, four men—Duane, Dr. James Reynolds (a well-known Irish patriot), Samuel Cummings (a journeyman printer at the Aurora), and Robert Moore, Esq. (who had arrived from Londonderry six weeks earlier)—were arrested on charges of assault and riot. Reynolds was charged with the additional count of assault with intent to kill a person on the scene—one James Gallagher Jr., a rather fanatical Federalist supporter.

St. Mary’s churchyard.

The alleged riot on that rather chilly Sunday took place when the accused men came to St. Mary’s Cath­olic Church on Fourth St. to ask Irish im­mi­grants among the parishioners to sign a petition asking Congress to repeal the Alien Acts. Dr. Reynolds, who stood in the churchyard gathering signatures, was soon confronted by a group of angry members of the congregation whom Gallagher had rounded up. Some shoving took place; Reynolds drew a pistol and waved it at Gallagher, but Gallagher quickly knocked it from his hands. In Reynolds’ trial, it came out that he carried a pistol because members of the U.S. Congress had warned him that he was the subject of an assassination plot.

Reynolds, Duane, and the other defendants were found not guilty by the court, which enraged the Federalist press. A month later, when some people of Irish heritage organized a social gathering to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, Andrew Brown of the Philade­l­phia Gazette saw the opportunity to caricature the lot of them: “On Monday, the 18th [of March 1799], a number of United Irishmen assembled to get drunk together at a private house, having neither the cash nor credit to procure an en­ter­tainment at a public one—Dr. Reynolds was unanimously called to the chair—what a villainous gang must it have been when he was the chief!”

A few days later, a man who had attended the St. Patrick’s Day banquet went to the offices of the Philadelphia Gazette, asking “satisfaction” from Brown for the editorial “attack” upon him. A struggle ensued, which was relayed in subsequent editions of the Gazette as an unprovoked assault upon the editor by “two ruffians” and “members of the United Irishmen,” whom he drove away after striking one of them with an umbrella. One of the men, the Phila­delphia Gazette reported, “said his name is O’Flanaghan, and [he] might be heard of at the Office of the Aurora.”

John Fenno, editor of the influential Gazette of the United States, stood in solidarity with Brown and called upon Philadelphians to rise against the Irish “renegades.” Fenno cited with approval the suggestion by a certain “Citizen” that a vigilante corps be organized to patrol the city: “In the event of the volunteer troops being ordered to quell the insurrection at Northampton [a protest by small farmers in Bucks County, which became known as “Fries’s Rebellion”], an armed association should be immediately formed to protect the city against the Unit­ed Irishmen and other freebooters, who are still tolerated among us.”

And indeed, a group of vigilantes, about 30 pro-Federalist cavalrymen, soon stormed the offices of the Aurora in Franklin Court, a couple of streets from the courtroom where the trial of alleged insurrectionist John Fries was in progress. According to the Aurora, the main leader of the mob was the sugar refiner Peter Mierken, a lieutenant in the cavalry who had lately studied boxing in London with the famous Jewish prize­fighter Daniel Mendoza.

Aurora offices in Franklin Court.

Some of Mierken’s accomplices held the Aurora’s press­men at bay with pistols; they then seized editor William Duane and dragged him into the street. The assailants demanded to know what troops the Aurora had alluded to in an article in the previous day’s edition that was critical of the recent conduct of federal forces sent to put down Fries’s Rebellion. When Duane refused to answer, Mierken, in an exhibition of the prowess he had gained in Mendoza’s boxing ring, sent a ringing blow to the editor’s jaw. Duane managed to escape through the arches of his building and into the interior of Franklin Court—but he was pursued and beaten again with fists and a whip.

The next day, after rumors had spread that the Aurora offices were targeted by arsonists, a group of Duane’s Democratic Re­pub­lican as­so­ci­ates organized a defense guard outside the build­ing. But the thugs did not return. According to the Aurora, Mier­ken later declared that he had considered killing Duane, but he was unable to aim his deathblow since one of the cavalry­men had already pummeled Duane to the ground.

By that time, the winds of war with France had receded. In 1800, the national capital moved to the new city of Washington, Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans defeated Adams for the presidency, and the violent battles in which newspaper editors were in the front lines cooled down. The Jefferson administration allowed most of the Alien and Sedition Acts to expire, but a remaining portion of the Alien Enemies Act was used during World War II to detain Japanese Americans in concentration camps. The law is still on the books today.

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