James Callender

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James Thomson Callender (1758-1803) was a political writer and newspaper editor. Thomas Jefferson and Callender had a sordid history together. Born in Scotland, Callender wrote the The Political Press Progress of Britain, that attacked British Institutions. The document was outlawed in January 1793 and thus, he fled to America arriving in the States in May 1793.

For Callender, he believed in more radical ideas about government than say Jefferson. Callender felt the U.S. should be a pure democracy in that the people should have direct representation than the Constitution provided for with Electoral College, and mixed government of a House and Senate. In his mind, all that was needed was a judiciary and a House of Representatives. Meanwhile, the Senate was not directly elected, so it was a path to tyranny. To him, a citizen had the right to hear the truth, even if it was in a strained or exaggerated manner as he saw it.

Once he arrived in America, he got a job as a reporter for the Philadelphia Gazette but was fired for also writing for the Republican paper, The Aurora. To make a living, he wrote pamphlets supporting the Republican party cause, but he was continually in debt. Jefferson helped out by securing him a position on The Aurora and provided him with money off and on for several years.[1] Jefferson understood the power of the printed word to reach people and he did not stop Callender in his attacks against Federalist leaders.

In order to curb Alexander Hamilton's influence, Callender published in his work, History of the United States for 1796 (1797), the affair between Alexander Hamilton and Maria Reynolds, a married woman. One day before the Alien and Sedition Acts became law on July 13, 1798, Callender fled to Virginia to the home of Senator Stevens Thomson Mason of Loudoun County. Then, in 1799, he moved to Richmond where he wrote for the Richmond Examiner. His anti-Federalist pamphlet, The Prospect Before Us, led to his prosecution under the Sedition Acts. He was sentenced on May 24, 1800 to nine months and jail and a $200 fine.

Callender expected President Jefferson to offer some reward for his work and time served when he got out in the spring of 1801. He wanted the Richmond postmaster job but he did not get it. To Jefferson's eyes, Callender was too radical, and in an attempt to build reconcilliation after the difficult election, Jefferson did not include the more militant or radical Republicans. As Jefferson writes, "I am really mortified at the base ingratitude of Callender. It presents human nature in a hideous form."[2] In February 1802, Callendar joined with Federalist newspaper editor Henry Pace and began to attack both parties, but even more so against the Republicans and Jefferson in particular. In a story dated September 1, 1802, Callender writes that Jefferson had a slave concubine, Sally Hemings and had a son with her.[3]

Callender's life quickly began to disintegrate, in large part due to his bitterness and alcoholism. On December 20, 1802, he was physically beaten by his past defense lawyer, George Hay, for threatening to publish stories about him. Callender continued to drink heavily and ended up breaking up his partnership with Pace. Callender was seen in a drunken stupor on July 17, 1803 and later that day, he drowned in the James River. He wrote a letter before his death that was published afterwards that tried to make amends for his past. In particular, the letter was about editorial exchanges dealing with the Skelton Jones' and Armistead Selden duel that set off a series of bitter newspaper attacks. However, it did not address most of the past, including the attacks on Jefferson.


  1. Jefferson helped Callender financially in three ways. He helped him find work, he bought his pamphlets, and he gave money outright to him. The first payment to Callender made by Jefferson was for $15.14 for multiple copies of Callender's series of pamphlets History of the United States for 1796. See MB, 2: 963, 975, 980, 1002, 1005, 1018, 1028, and 1042 which covers the years 1797 to 1801.
  2. Jefferson to James Monroe, July 15, 1802. Bergh, 10:330. It is in this letter among others, he says Callender was a charity case of his regardless of political affialition.
  3. Richmond Recorder, September 1 1802.

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