James Callender

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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James Thomson Callender (1758-1803, well known in his time as a political writer and newspaper editor, is remembered today chiefly for his series of newspaper articles alleging that Thomas Jefferson had children with Sally Hemings. Born in Scotland, Callender wrote 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.

Callender criticized elements of the Constitution which he believed were undemocratic, such as the election of the president through the Electoral College. He said that the Senate was flagrantly unrepresentative because it was not directly elected by the people, and blasted George Washington, who had "debauched" and "deceived" the nation by promoting himself as a popular idol. An advocate of an unfettered press, Callender declared, "The more that a nation knows about the mode of conducting its business, the better chance has that business of being properly conducted." Throughout Callender's career his writings were rabidly partisan.

When Callender lost his job as the congressional reporter for the Philadelphia Gazette he turned to writing pamphlets supporting the Republican party cause, but he was continually in debt. Jefferson helped his journalist ally by securing him a position on the Republican paper,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. The 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 Recorder. 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 in jail and a $200 fine.

When he got out of jail in the spring of 1801 Callender expected President Jefferson to reward him for his work and his loyalty. He wanted the Richmond postmaster job but he did not get it. In the president's view, Callender was now too radical, and in an attempt to foster reconciliation 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, Callender 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, George Hay, Callender's past defense lawyer, beat Callender up 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 affiliation.
  3. Richmond Recorder, September 1 1802.

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