From the first day Thomas Jefferson was president, he and his party leaders began to systematically undercut the Federalist party. He reduced the army, removed political opponents from their offices, made war on the independent judiciary, and pressured Congress to repeal laws enacted under his predecessors, including the Alien and Sedition Acts, whose victims he pardoned his first day in office.
One of those he exonerated was James Thomson Callender, the propaganda hound Jefferson had paid to maul Federalist leaders like Washington, Adams, and Hamilton during previous administrations. From jail on Sept. 13, 1800, Callender wrote his former patron of his plans to open a paper in Richmond, Va., to “give the aristocrats a cut and thrust volume per annum for some years to come [for] the federal viper will undoubtedly continue to hiss, but I make no doubt of living to trample him in the mire of universal detestation.”
The following month, the Scottish-born journalist wrote again, remarking that “2 or 300 dollars would be quite enough to buy a press &c.” and complaining of having no reply from Jefferson after sending him several proofs from the second volume of The Prospect Before Us. It was for the first volume, in which he called Washington “a traitor, a robber, and a perjurer” and Adams “a hoary-headed incendiary,” that the Republican muckraker had been jailed for seditious libel in 1800.
On Feb. 23, 1801, ten days before his release, Callender asked Jefferson to remit the $200 fine he must pay to obtain his freedom. Again, Jefferson ignored the entreaty and, on April 12, Callender wrote again, this time cataloging his service and sacrifices on behalf of the Republican Party. “For the cause, I have lost five years of labor; gained five thousand enemies; got my name inserted in five hundred libels. I mention these particulars as this is probably the close of my correspondence with you, that you may not suppose that I, at least, have anything by the victories of Republicanism.”
When these arguments fell on deaf ears, Callender warned the president he “was in possession of things which he could and would make use of” and on July 1, 1801, in partnership with an editor named Henry Pace, he began publishing The Recorder, a Richmond-based newspaper “dedicated to the excoriation of the president.”
On July 5, he made good on his threats by detailing the encouragement and financial support Jefferson had provided for his writing, particularly the publication of The Prospect Before Us. After receiving the first pages of Prospect, Callender reported, Jefferson “returned not merely a letter of thanks, but, to my great surprise, he said that he had directed Mr. George Jefferson of Richmond to pay me fifty dollars.” When the first part of the second volume of Prospect went to press, Jefferson sent Callender another $50. “These hundred dollars attest, beyond a thousand letters of compliment,” he wrote, “how seriously the president was satisfied with the contents of the book, and how anxiously he felt himself interested in its success.”
Two days after the article appeared, James Monroe, then the Governor of Virginia, enclosed a copy of The Record in a letter to Jefferson. “It was whispered sometime since that the federalists knew he was possessed of some letters from you, and were endeavouring to bring them before the publick,” Monroe wrote. “In several of his preceding papers he glanced at the subject, but at length enters more directly on it. Perhaps it will be best that nothing shod [sic] be said in reply by any one. Of this you will be the best judge. It may be of use to state to me the periods when the sums he mentions were advanc’d, & the circumstances wh. lead to it. Any light you think proper to communicate relative to the affr., will be used without compromising anyone, in the mode you deem most eligible. If any reply is proper he may be drawn to state facts correctly, but a person knowing them, without it appearing that you gave a hint.”
[Upon first read, it might appear that Monroe didn’t know the letters existed, but, subsequent exchanges suggest, he was in actuality asking Jefferson how he wanted to “spin” the story.]
On July 15, Jefferson replied to Monroe in a lengthy letter explaining that the $100 he’d given Callender was motivated by charity, not patronage. He did not, however, explain all the other payments he’d made to Callender in 1797 and 1798, presumably to purchase his pamphlets and books, including the one insinuating that Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds was a cover-up for speculative ventures with her husband.
“This was sensational stuff, the kind of thing that could hurt Jefferson politically,” wrote Thomas Fleming in Verdicts of History. “Washington was now in his grave two years and already the process of canonization was in full swing. Federalist printers rushed to their presses to discuss Jefferson’s rather lame explanation that he had sent Callender the $100 out of charity, and because he was a Sedition Act victim.”
The Federalist press had a field day with the story. Few, however, equaled The Wasp of Hudson, New York, in vitriol: “He [Jefferson] read the book and from that book inferred that Callender was an object of charity,” wrote its editor, Harry Croswell, in response to Jefferson’s feeble excuse for funding Callender’s malicious endeavors. “Why! One who presented a face bloated with vices, a heart black as hell—one who could be guilty of such foul falsehoods, such vile aspirations of the best and greatest man the world has yet known—he an object of charity! No! He [Callender] is the very man, that an aspiring mean and hallow hypocrite [Jefferson] would press into the service of crime. He is precisely qualified to become a tool–to spit the venom and scatter the malicious, poisonous slanders of his employer. He, in short, is the very man that a dissembling patriot, pretended ‘man of the people’ would employ to plunge for him the dagger or administer the arsenic.”
To battle the negative publicity, Jefferson sicced his yet-loyal hounds on their former pack-mate. From Philadelphia, the Aurora led the counteroffensive by publishing an article on Callender’s dead wife, painting a portrait of her being “overwhelmed by a created [i.e. sexually transmitted] disease, on a loathsome bed, with a number of children, all in a state next to famishing…while Callender was having his usual pint of brandy at breakfast.”
Three days later, Callender retaliated by breaking the story of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, the quadroon half-sister of the Virginian’s late wife with whom he’d fathered several children. “It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the public to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves,” he reported in The Recorder on Aug. 28. “Her name is SALLY. The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to the president himself…by this wench, Sally, our president had several children…THE AFRICAN VENUS is said to officiate, as housekeeper, at Monticello.”
In signing off, Callender made it clear his exposé was the rotten fruit of the president’s betrayal. “When Mr. Jefferson has read this article, he will find leisure to estimate how much has been lost or gained by so many unprovoked attacks upon J. T. Callender.”
On Jan. 11, 1803, Harry Croswell was indicted for seditious libel for repeating some of the slurs Jefferson paid Callender to publish in The Prospects Before Us. Whether or not this action was instigated by the president personally can’t be proved, but conclusive evidence does exist that Jefferson encouraged the prosecution of journalists on similar charges in Pennsylvania.
The dual indictments, issued by a stacked jury of Columbia County Republicans, accused Croswell of “being a malicious and seditious man, of a depraved mind and wicked and diabolical disposition,” who had tried to malign and slander President Jefferson with intent to alienate the allegiance and obedience of the good people of the country from him.”
“Several historians have wondered why this obscure editor was singled out rather than the prestigious William Coleman of the Evening Post, who had also reprinted Callender’s anti-Jefferson blasts,” Si Sheppard wrote in The Partisan Press. “But Croswell had taken on New York politicians to an extreme and was Attorney General Ambrose Spencer’s first choice.”
Spencer had been a frequent target of The Wasp’s stings himself. In the same issue for which Croswell was indicted, the following doggerel appeared:
Th’ Attorney-General chanc’d one day to meet
A dirty, ragged fellow in the street
A noisy swagg’ring beast
With rum, half drunk, at least
Th’ Attorney, too, was drunk—but not with grog--
Power and pride had set his head agog.
Croswell wanted his party’s de-facto leader to handle his case, but finding Alexander Hamilton too busy, he hired Hudson attorney William W. Van Ness (not to be confused with William P. Van Ness, who later acted as Burr’s second in the duel with Hamilton) to head his legal team. Like a man with a vendetta, Spencer prosecuted the case himself, rather than assigning it to an underling.
At Croswell’s arrest hearing, the defense requested a postponement in order to bring Callender from Richmond to attest to the truth of the libels repeated by their client. The prosecutor objected. The truth or falsehood of the libel was irrelevant, he told the court. All the law required him to prove was that Croswell published the statements cited in the indictment.
[Spencer’s claims were accurate, btw. American law was based on English common law, which excluded truth as a defense in libel cases at that time.]
The next evening, Croswell’s attorneys returned to court to enter a formal affidavit stating they intended to prove the truth of the facts as stated in The Wasp in regard to Callender and President Jefferson.
Spencer responded by asking the judge to bind Croswell with $5,000 bail on each indictment “to keep the peace and be of good behavior.” The defense vehemently objected. Not only did the demand violate their client’s liberty, they insisted, it was an attack upon Freedom of the Press as well.
Both sides debated the bail request most of the next day. In the end, Spencer’s request was denied. “Six months of legal jousting followed,” Fleming wrote. “The Croswell attorneys fought to get the case transferred to the circuit court…and Spencer argued to retain it in the lower court, where he would have a local Jeffersonian bench and jury.”
Then, suddenly, he agreed to let both indictments be tried by the circuit court. His motives soon became clear. The Chief Justice making the next circuit through Columbia County was none-other-than Morgan Lewis, the son-in-law of Robert R. Livingston, a leading member of the Jefferson junto.
On July 11, 1803, the defense again requested an adjournment so they could summon Callender as a witness. Justice Lewis denied the request on the same grounds cited six months earlier by Spencer: the truth was inadmissible as a defense in libel cases. Croswell’s lawyers contended that in the case of a libel against an official of the government, truth could be proved as a defense, but Lewis rejected their arguments and ordered the defendant to stand trial the next day.
On July 12, a jury was assembled and the trial began. The lawyers argued their cases and, at sundown, the jury was dismissed to deliberate—but only on the question of fact, Justice Lewis instructed them. It was not their place to judge whether what Croswell had printed was factual, if his intentions were malicious, or if the law was unfair.
Having no other choice, the jury returned a guilty verdict at eight o’clock the next morning. Immediately, the defense filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that Lewis misdirected the jury when he told them to disregard truth and intent when considering the verdict. Thus, the threat of Callender testifying against the president (and of Jefferson himself being called to testify under oath) still loomed--until Callender was found face down in the James River four days later (about the time it took for a letter to travel from Washington, D.C. to Richmond).
Despite the suspicious nature and timing of the journalist’s demise, the coroner in Richmond ruled his death accidental. Callender, he reported, had drowned while intoxicated. But how did he know Callender was drunk when he drowned? Forensic testing of alcohol levels in blood, breath, and urine weren’t introduced until the 1930s.
So, the conclusion that Callender had drowned due to drunkenness had to have been based entirely on the eyewitness reports of the journalist staggering around Richmond the day before his body was found. Were the witnesses telling the truth, if indeed such reports existed? Was the coroner also trustworthy? Was there even an inquisition, as was claimed at the time? If so, there is no record of such a proceeding in the archives of the Library of Virginia, where the county coroners’ files from that period are housed.
Furthermore, if the death really was accidental, why did those in possession of the corpse rush the burial? Callender was found around three o’clock on the morning of July 18 and was interred later the same day. Did the body perhaps display evidence of foul play? It would be interesting to see what modern forensics might discover if Callender’s remains were exhumed.
Consider also that Richmond was the center of the president’s power base in 1803. John Page, the governor, was Jefferson’s closest friend from his William and Mary days. The coroner and law-enforcement officials had all been appointed the previous year by Page’s predecessor, James Monroe--undoubtedly with Jefferson’s influence. It would have been very easy for all of them to conspire to cover up the murder of someone with no protectors or next of kin who’d been characterized as a drunk by the rival paper in town.
So, if Callender was murdered to shut him up, who did the president “employ to plunge for him the dagger or administer the arsenic”? All signs point to George Hay, the Richmond attorney Jefferson hired to defend Callender against charges of seditious libel in 1800. Hay, a devout Jeffersonian who was known for having an explosive temper with a short fuse, had beaten Callender about the head with his walking stick on Dec. 20, 1802.
Shortly after Callender was laid to rest, Jefferson, true to form, rewarded Hay for his efforts on behalf of the Republican cause by appointing him the U.S. Attorney for the District of Virginia. In that capacity, he prosecuted Aaron Burr for treason in 1807 according to Jefferson’s detailed legal instructions. The following year, Hay married James Monroe’s daughter, Eliza. He later became a U.S. district court judge for eastern Virginia and served as a chief adviser when his father-in-law became president.
Did Jefferson order the murder of James T. Callender? There are far too many coincidences and suspicious circumstances surrounding the journalist's death for a rational person to conclude otherwise.
Have you ever wondered which of the many portraits of Alexander Hamilton looks the most like its subject did in real life? Well, I have. So I found the following note at the back of The Conqueror, Gertrude Atherton's novelized biography of Hamilton published in 1902, most illuminating (as well as amusing). Clearly, the lady had spunk:
It is impossible that Hamilton could have sat for all the alleged portraits of himself, scattered over the United States, or he would have had no time to do any work. Moreover, few realize his personality or the contemporaneous description of him. That in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is the best. That in the City Hall, New York, is one of the best, and the copy of it in the Treasury Department, Washington, is better. Several others are charming, notably, the one at Morristown Headquarters, New Jersey, and the one painted for his army friends, now in the possession of Philip Schuyler. The one in the Chamber of Commerce is a Trumbull, but looks like a fat boy with thin legs. It is to be hoped there will be no further photographing of that libel. Had Hamilton looked like it he would have accomplished nothing.
I agree with her about the fat-boy Trumbull. It's truly hideous. Thus, when I see it on a book cover, I can only conclude that the author must be a closeted Jeffersonian. The one in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is also a Trumbull (it's the painting in my banner). Years ago, I bought a miniature copy of the portrait on E-bay. I came upon the item while doing my usual sweep of Alexander Hamilton items. There were no other bids, so I purchased it for the starting price of $25. I assumed it was a print, but recently discovered it is an actual painting. It has always been one of my prized possessions.
The portrait Atherton mentions in New York City Hall is probably the full-length Trumble pictured above, but another portrait of Hamilton hung in the Governor's Room until about 1902 (the same year The Conqueror was first published). It was attributed to John Weimar, a forgotten artist from the mid-19th century. What became of that portrait remains a mystery. The New York Times did a story about it earlier this year, if anybody's interested. To read the article online, click here.
Like all men, Alexander Hamilton was not without his human frailties and psychic wounds. He was exceptionally brilliant and persuasive, but also thin-skinned, emotionally volatile, and quick to go on the defensive. He was a man of strong opinions who too-often allowed his passions to govern his reason—sometimes to his own peril. Others described him as brutally honest, arrogant to the point of cockiness, and obsessed with attaining “fame” and “glory.” His honor was everything to him, and he made it known on numerous occasions he would fight to the death to defend it (which he did on July 11, 1804).
Many of these traits indicate Hamilton might have been afflicted with the personality disorder known as “overt narcissism.”
“Though on the surface their self-regard would appear to suggest confidence (if not cockiness), all this bravado masks what in themselves they secretly fear is defective or unworthy,” wrote Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., a therapist and frequent blogger on narcissism for Psychology Today. “Many of them, in their desperate attempts to convince others of their superiority, are highly motivated to achieve much more than most people; this will give them something to really brag about. Narcissists can be among the most boastful of people. (Donald Trump, anyone?)”
In other ways, however, Hamilton deviated from the profile of an extroverted narcissist. One of the defining characteristics of narcissists is that they act in their own self-interest. Hamilton had control of the Treasury Department. He could have made a fortune on what he knew, as some of his subordinates did. But rather than use his office to line his pockets with gold, he resigned from public service in 1796 because his income was insufficient to support his growing family.
“All his endeavors were directed toward establishing the United States as a formidable nation, efforts that have ultimately come to fruition,” wrote Stephen F. Knott in Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (University Press of Kansas, 2002). “The Hamiltonian blueprint for America, which lay in considerable tension with Jefferson’s hopes for the new nation, consisted in the creation of an integrated economy eventually capable of surpassing that of the European powers in manufactures; a federal judiciary with adequate powers to protect property and liberties from democratic excess; the establishment of a professional army and navy; and an energetic chief executive with commander-in-chief powers that would enable him to repel foreign attacks and suppress domestic insurrections.”
Such goals demonstrate a genuine desire to serve one’s country and the greater good—motives that would never drive a narcissist. Narcissists also distort the truth or out-and-out lie to manipulate others and exaggerate their own worth (i.e. claiming authorship of the Declaration of Independence when in reality they only wrote the first draft as part of a larger committee).
Far from a liar, Hamilton operated from a deep-seated belief that “truth reigns supreme.” As a twelve-year-old on St. Croix, he vowed in a letter to his friend Edward Stevens, “I…would willingly risk my life, though not my Character, to exalt my Station.” In 1774, on the cover page of A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress, Hamilton used the slogan, “Truth is powerful and will prevail.” In the actual essay, he stated, “’Tis my maxim to let the plain naked truth speak for itself.” In 1778, he told long-time New York Governor George Clinton, “I look upon the old proverb that honesty is the best policy to be so generally true that I can never expect any good from a systematical deviation from it.” In 1804—just months before his murder—he eloquently argued before the New York Supreme Court (in People v. Croswell) that truth must be a factor in cases of libel. The court (thanks to Jefferson’s meddling) upheld his client’s conviction, but Hamilton’s impassioned arguments inspired the state legislature to change the laws. Thereafter, truth was a legitimate defense in libel cases.
Hamilton’s unwavering policy of truth at all costs is further evidenced in his confessional pamphlet on his adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds, as well as in his blunt denunciations of those he deemed unworthy of the public’s trust (i.e. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr).
“Throughout his career Hamilton was unabashedly honest,” Michael Newton wrote in Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years (Eleftheria Publishing, 2015), “even when he knew that it would be to his own detriment.”
Jefferson, in contrast, espoused one set of principles and lived by another. He championed democracy while weakening press freedoms, the fairness of jury trials, and judicial independence—three essential protections of liberty and justice. He denounced slavery as immoral, yet owned more than one hundred human beings. He decried his opponents as “monarchists” while pursuing tyrannical policies to make himself all-powerful.
According to Zeltzer, this sort of “moral relativism” is typical of narcissistic politicians. “Whether we characterize the personal ‘allowances’ they make as constituting a double standard or outright hypocrisy, these privileged concessions to self clearly broadcast their overblown sense of entitlement,” he wrote in a post titled “Narcissism: Why It’s So Rampant in Politics” on Dec. 11, 2011. “Which is precisely what enables them to regard themselves as sufficiently exceptional to exclude themselves from the rules and standards they impose on others.”
When journalist James Thomson Callender revealed Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings to the world on Sept. 28, 1802, he also exposed the president for the Janus he really was. Not only did America’s high-and-mighty chief executive own slaves, he also impregnated them to increase their numbers. Jefferson struck back by ordering his agents in Richmond to attack Callender on a deeply personal level. James Monroe’s son-in-law beat Callender about the head with a club and had him jailed for seditious libel, while the editors of the Jeffersonian Examiner called him a drunk and besmirched the memory of his dead wife.
Later, when Hamilton made noise about subpoenaing the scandalmonger to testify against Jefferson in the Croswell trial, Callender met his end under highly suspicious circumstances. Did Jefferson order the hit on his former propagandist? The fishy circumstances of the journalist’s death certainly give that impression.
Yes, the possibility that Jefferson conspired to commit murder shatters our image of the sainted author of the Declaration of Independence, but sometimes idols must be smashed in the quest for truth. Personally, I believe Jefferson was behind at least two other unprosecuted murders as well, which I hope to prove in my work-in-progress examining the Jeffersonian conspiracy against Hamilton.
Far from the hero history has painted him to be, Jefferson had a calculating mind, thrived on intrigue, and would stop at nothing to silence his critics, be they journalists, political foes, or Supreme Court justices. He was smug, self-absorbed, overly sensitive to criticism, considered himself superior to other people, and avoided intimacy by only pursuing married women and sleeping with his slaves. He was, in short, the consummate narcissist—but of a different (and far more dangerous) sort than we generally associate with the word. Jefferson’s constellation of traits makes him a textbook example of what the mental health profession calls a “covert,” “closeted,” or “introverted” narcissist.
“Not all narcissists are openly grandiose and outwardly intrusive,” life coach and author Preston Ni wrote for Psychology Today on Jan. 10, 2016. “This subtype of narcissism is more hidden, and yet can carry the same self-conceit and negative contagion as their extroverted counterpart.”
The way Jefferson collected, recorded, and circulated slanders about his enemies and used proxies to do his dirty work are typical of a covert narcissist. So were his selfish sexual relationships with his wife and Sally Hemings. Though he professed a great love for his wife, he continued to impregnate her despite her doctor’s warnings that another childbirth would kill her. In my books, that’s narcissistic entitlement, not love.
But nowhere is Jefferson’s covert narcissism better illustrated than in his dealings with British envoy Anthony Merry. When Merry arrived at the White House (then called “the presidential palace”), Jefferson greeted him in casual clothes and bedroom slippers—a passive-aggressive demonstration of his contempt for the British. The president’s disrespectful wardrobe choice also signaled his smug superiority. By wearing bedroom slippers to greet the minister, he was covertly communicating that Merry (and Great Britain) were too far beneath his notice to bother dressing up. He reiterated this message by inviting Merry and his wife to a White House dinner party that included the French chargé d’affaires. Since Britain and France were at war, seating the enemies at the same table violated the diplomatic protocols in place at the time. When Merry complained, James Madison increased the offense by referring to it as “a matter of very little moment.” Jefferson’s hostility extended to Mrs. Merry, whom he called a “virago”—a shrew, in other words.
Merry later took his revenge against Jefferson (and America) in two ways: First, he convinced the king to snub James Monroe when he went to London to negotiate with the English over their habit of seizing American ships and personnel for forced service in their Royal Navy. Then, he advocated for British support of Aaron Burr’s scheme to detach the Louisiana territory and Ohio and Mississippi valleys from the United States.
From this, we can conclude that, while Hamilton exhibited some of the characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, his honesty and lack of self-interest while in the Treasury Department make the clinical diagnosis a stretch. Jefferson, on the other hand, was a classic example of how dangerous power can be in the hands of an introverted narcissist (or an extroverted one, for that matter--Donald Trump, anyone?).
The following article by Abigail Tucker originally appeared on Smithsonian.com on Oct. 8, 2009:
Captain Meriwether Lewis—William Clark’s expedition partner on the Corps of Discovery’s historic trek to the Pacific, Thomas Jefferson’s confidante, governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory and all-around American hero—was only 35 when he died of gunshot wounds sustained along a perilous Tennessee trail called Natchez Trace. A broken column, symbol of a life cut short, marks his grave.
But exactly what transpired at a remote inn 200 years ago this Saturday? Most historians agree that he committed suicide; others are convinced he was murdered. Now Lewis’s descendants and some scholars are campaigning to exhume his body, which is buried on national parkland not far from Hohenwald, Tenn.
“This controversy has existed since his death,” says Tom McSwain, Lewis’s great-great-great-great nephew who helped start a Web site, “Solve the Mystery,” that lays out family members’ point of view. “When there’s so much uncertainty and doubt, we must have more evidence. History is about finding the truth,” he adds. The National Park Service is currently reviewing the exhumation request.
The intrigue surrounding the famous explorer’s untimely death has spawned a cottage industry of books and articles, with experts from a variety of fields, including forensics and mental health, weighing in. Scholars have reconstructed lunar cycles to prove that the innkeeper’s wife couldn’t have seen what she said she saw that moonless night. Black powder pistols have been test-fired, forgeries claimed and mitochondrial DNA extracted from living relatives. Yet even now, precious little is known about the events of October 10, 1809, after Lewis – armed with several pistols, a rifle and a tomahawk – stopped at a log cabin lodging house known as Grinder’s Stand.
Read more at Smithsonian.com...
Hi, I'm Nina Mason, an author, investigative journalist, history buff, and self-professed Hamilton fan (not the musical, the historical figure). Herein, I will share interesting tidbits related to my investigation into my belief that the Reynolds Affair and duel with Aaron Burr were part of a larger conspiracy against Hamilton directed by Thomas Jefferson.