6. Charles Holt's Generation: 
From Commercial Printers to Political Professionals

This version 2000 by Jeffrey L. Pasley. Please do not quote or cite without permission.

Before 1798, few printers set out with the intention of aligning themselves with a particular set of political views, much less becoming operatives of an organized political party. In addition to the trade's traditionally impartial approach to politics, printers, like most other Americans, were influenced by the classical republican ideals of the American Revolution, among other strains of thought to come out of that event. Thus they shared with most Americans a belief in independence as the primary political good, a belief that condemned anything that tended to impinge on individual political free will. Chief among the forces that tended to destroy this "freedom of elections" were political organization, political parties, and the taking of money for political activity, all infamously practiced by British ministries that Americans deemed tyrannical and corrupt. Only under great pressure--or with great enticements--would most American printers modify these beliefs. (1)

Charles Holt and the Bee: A Case Study from the Land of Steady Habits

Before the late 1790s, the state of Connecticut came closer than any other to matching the classical republican ideal: a polity in which virtuous statesmen ruled through patriotic consensus rather than self-seeking competition. (2) Leadership was remarkably stable. Though the executive officers had to be reelected yearly, in practice they usually served for life. Only seventeen different men had been governor in 150 years up to 1789. Elections were impeccably traditional and quiet. The Connecticut jurist Zephaniah Swift boasted that "no instance has ever been known where a person has appeared in public . . . and solicited the suffrages of the freemen." Where New York and most other states endured terrible political upheavals--including riots, bitter electoral strife, and radical reorganizations of government--during the Revolution, the well-named "Land of Steady Habits" was so little ruffled that no need was seen to even write a state constitution. The legislature simply reenacted the royal Charter of 1662, without submitting the document to a popular vote. As Swift wrote, Connecticut's "transition from . . . political subjection to Great-Britain . . . was almost imperceptible." (3)

This almost preternatural stability was made possible by an interlocking religious and political elite known colloquially as the "Standing Order." The foundation of this system was Connecticut's established Congregational Church, which retained its tax support until the state wrote its first constitution in 1818. The clergy were politically vocal, and they made sure that their pious flocks understood where the Lord stood on the issues of the day. In Connecticut, God was a Federalist, and Republicans never won a statewide election, or even a congressional seat, until after 1818. Connecticut's political leaders conformed to a correspondingly narrow profile: they were Congregationalists, Yale graduates, lawyers, and Federalists, almost to a man. All this made Connecticut the most deferential society and polity in early America. The English diplomat Augustus John Foster felt that Connecticut was the closest thing in America to the comfortable hierarchy of the English countryside: "There is a cleanliness and an English air about everything, even to the labourers who take off their hats in passing you, which one meets with nowhere else on the American side of the Atlantic." Foster found the state refreshingly free from "the utopian nonsense of ultra-political ranters and constitution-hunters" so prevalent in the rest of the United States. (4)

Connecticut's phlegmatic political culture did not provide an environment in which the political press thrived. The colony did not get its first newspaper until the relatively late date of 1755. Those that did appear were always commercially oriented and blandly supportive of the Standing Order and its policies, favoring independence during the Revolution and strong central government during the 1780s. Wherever possible, Connecticut newspapers purveyed the usual eighteenth-century mix of foreign news, commercial information, polite literary essays, and bad poetry. (5)

The career of Charles Holt, editor of what became the Jeffersonian organ in New London, Connecticut, provides an excellent example of a traditional, commercially oriented printer who was transformed, in terms of both activities and self-image, into a nearly full-time party operative. A New London native, Holt was twenty-five years old when he established the Bee, his first newspaper, in 1797. The first issue of a new newspaper typically included an "address" to prospective readers explaining the editor's intentions and philosophy. Holt's was a model of submission to the wishes of the buying public:

Do you wish to circulate political intelligence--do you wish to inculcate moral instruction--do you wish to communicate discoveries in the arts and sciences--do you wish to display the effusions of exuberant fancy--do you wish to see abstruse and philosophical questions discussed with candor and ingenuity--do you wish to exercise your talents for personal improvement and the production of literature--in fine, have you a single thought or wish that you desire to make public--the ever ready and subservient Newspaper stands with eager hands to accomplish all your purposes.

In another section of the front page, Holt was more specific regarding his policy on political matter: "The publisher of this paper is determined that his paper shall be, with respect to political disquisitions, impartial in every sense of the word." Under the head "Political," Holt placed the motto "Open to all parties." The young printer kept his promise, for, in his second issue, an obviously Federalist writer replied to a Republican article that had appeared in the first issue. (6)

If Holt believed that his community's leaders expected him to literally carry out the conventional promises of impartiality, he was mistaken. For opening his pages even to a few mild pieces from the area's hopelessly outnumbered Republicans, he found himself boycotted and reviled. In response, Holt dropped the nonpartisan motto in early 1798. (7) Too young to remember what had happened to impartial printers during the Revolution, Holt expressed surprise and frustration at the Federalists' intolerance of his attempt to practice traditional neutrality: "The agitation of the public mind, during this period, has been uncommonly great and the task of conducting a paper to general satisfaction rendered particularly arduous and difficult." For publishing "different sentiments" regarding Federalist policies, he had been "styled a Jacobin, a Frenchman, a disorganizer, and one who would sell his country." These charges of foreign sympathies were particularly galling to Holt, who was publishing in a town where he had lived his whole life. "The editor of this paper is an AMERICAN--his principles are AMERICAN--and his paper is supported by AMERICANS," he protested. (8)

Holt was lashing out at some dangerous enemies. New London's Federalists were strong and vindictive. Customs Collector Jedediah Huntington "ruled like a feudal lord over the customshouse and just about everything else" in town. (9) A young printer like Holt was particularly vulnerable to the kind of pressure Huntington and company could exert. Merchants were the primary newspaper advertisers available, and they were usually Federalists, perhaps especially in a port where an active Federalist controlled the custom house. Government was the other major advertiser, but there was no unit of government in Connecticut that the Republicans controlled. Huntington and his allies thus had little trouble choking off Holt's sources of nonsubscription revenue. They also tried to restrict the size of his subscription base and readership, declaring to New London's tradesmen and laborers that they would "employ no man who takes the Bee." Depending on wealthy customers for their livelihood, many of Holt's potential readers seemed to have shied away from the Bee and the Republicans. (10)

With few allies among New London's social and political elite, Holt sought a new market in Republican gentlemen around the state who wanted to see southeastern Connecticut converted to their cause. About six months after the Bee's first appearance, with the paper in "an infant, humble and unprotected state," Holt wrote to the Republican leader and perennial gubernatorial candidate Ephraim Kirby seeking subscriptions and publishable material from the state Republican leadership. Holt also worried that the Bee was "entirely destitute of (political) literary assistance," and hoped that "with the aid of men of talents, information and liberality," it would prosper. Though he developed into fine writer, Holt was like most printer-editors in needing help filling the columns of his paper. In the first place, the numerous manual and clerical tasks involved in putting out a newspaper left little time for writing. Equally important, Holt as yet lacked the cultural and social self-confidence to become a commentator on public affairs in his own right. Political writers were expected to display their classical erudition, and with a printer's education, Holt had little to display. "Talents, information and liberality" were qualities associated with republican gentility, replacements for the more ascriptive indices of status used in earlier times; they were the characteristics of a "natural," republican aristocracy. Lacking money, a distinguished family name, a college degree, or professional accomplishments, Charles Holt "naturally" did not qualify. (11)

Holt began to receive articles and subscriptions from Kirby and his friends. Yet on the first anniversary of the Bee's founding, Holt still clung to the hope that while his paper

"preserves a spirit of decent freedom and manly independence consistent with a respect for truth and moderation, it will continue to merit and receive the countenance of the liberal and dispassionate of all parties." This hope was soon dashed by the Sedition Act, introduced a few weeks later. Holt editorialized against it in disbelief:

If the constitution of the United States was not considered by a majority of the House of Representatives as a mere dead letter . . . they would never have ventured to bring in a bill so directly contravening one of the most essential articles in the code of freedom, and as clearly defined as any other clause in the bill of rights, namely, liberty of speech, printing and writing, all of which would be not merely infringed but wholly annihilated, should this nefarious bill pass into law.

The editor expressed confidence that "the people need be under no apprehensions respecting the fate of this bill" as long as the First Amendment, which he quoted at the end of his editorial, remained unchanged. With no experience of the days when government and mobs shut down newspapers at will, he mistakenly took the amendment at its word, as an absolute prohibition of any law infringing on a printer's right to political criticism. (12)

Unfortunately for him, the Federalists did remember the old days, nostalgically. As we saw in the previous chapter, they aimed the Sedition Act precisely at the Charles Holts of the political world. When the Federalist Connecticut Courant called the Bee's editor "that lying drone from New London," it combined ridicule of his social status with a classical republican attack on the legitimacy of Holt's participation in politics. As a poor young printer, depending on customers and financial backers for his subsistence, Holt lacked the material independence that was the indispensable basis of political virtue. In a classical republican frame of reference, Holt could only be a tool of others, with no political will of his own, and thus no right to participate in public life. (13)

After midsummer 1798, more and more of the Bee's political columns were devoted to attacks on the sedition law, and by November, Holt was ready to embrace partisanship explicitly for the first time. In doing so, he blamed his decision on the Federalists' violation of the printing trade's traditional nonpartisan values:

There are generally two sides to every subject. To the public opinion, in a free country, there ever will and should be. And it is the duty of an impartial printer to communicate to the public on both sides freely. But nine tenths of the newspapers in Connecticut are decidedly partial to one side, and keep the other totally out of sight. This is not fair . . . The public may therefore rest assured that so long as my brethren in this state print on one side only, so long will I print on the other.

Though he still felt the need to justify himself in traditional terms, Holt was moving rapidly toward a new vocation as a committed professional partisan. Economic factors helped push the printer in this direction, but political and ideological ones were even more important. As a conventionally funded commercial newspaper, the partisan Bee was a failure. Holt reported to Kirby that he was spending about twice as much money as he was taking in, and "suppose, myself, therefore, to be insolvent." Yet the nature of Holt's commitment to running the paper had also changed: furthering the Republican cause had become integral to it. Despite "several good offers" (most likely to work for the Republicans in another state), "My abode here, and my endeavors to gain an establishment, have confirmed me more strongly in the principles which I profess." He wanted to stay on the job of revolutionizing his beloved native state, and asked only for subsistence in return: "If the good people of Connecticut will give me 'meat, clothes, and fire,' my best exertions are at their service. . . . by my prejudices in favor of the republicans of this state, I should esteem it my highest ambition to serve them in my professional capacity." To this end, Holt and Kirby discussed putting his relationship with the Republican party on a more regular footing. Holt offered to move the Bee to the larger town of New Haven and print and edit it there for a salary of twelve dollars a week. (14)

We should not infer from Holt's interest in a salary that he was a political mercenary looking to sell his services to the highest bidder. His partisanship was not based on any expectations of profit. That would have been a foolish assumption, for no one found it profitable to be a Republican in Connecticut. To accept a salary for publishing the Bee would not be to compromise his independence, but rather to assert it by resisting Federalist pressure; it would be a way to earn a living while furthering political goals that he fervently supported.

Holt demonstrated the genuineness of his commitment to Republicanism by continuing the Bee even though the move to New Haven and plans for a salary fell through. Federalist ostracism had rendered even the leading Republican gentlemen little able to afford the large cash outlays that the plan required. The Courant lampooned Holt's efforts to make the Bee a going concern, predicting he would starve trying. "Holt, it will not do. . . . The Jacobins are too poor, too few, and too dishonest to support you." (15)

In fact, Holt was discovering what most party editors discovered eventually: that a political newspaper was a poor business proposition. The problem was almost inherent in the enterprise, since decisions were made on the basis of political rather than business considerations. A case in point was Holt's decision to continue publishing the Bee despite its lack of economic viability: the journal hemorrhaged money almost from its inception, but Holt kept it going for almost five years. "At no time has the income of the Bee been adequate to its maintenance," Holt admitted in the paper's final issue. There were many factors involved in the Bee's failure as a business. Holt's troubles began with an editorial policy that alienated most of the advertisers in his market area, and that problem was compounded by others that all early American newspaper proprietors faced. There was, for instance, the problem of debt collection. By 1800, Holt had a seemingly healthy list of subscribers, but fledgling newspapers had to be sent out on credit, and it was almost impossible to get subscribers to actually pay for their papers. The editor estimated that one-third of debts to newspapers were "lost." Like many another printer, Holt periodically pleaded with his debtors to pay their bills, in any way they could: "Is not 'the laborer worth his hire'? Then why do ye not pay him? Wood, produce, anything (except pumpkins) to keep thanksgiving with, thankfully received, and cash itself will not be refused." (16)

Charles Holt's account books have not survived, but the balance sheet of another small-town New England weekly, the Northampton, Massachusetts, Republican Spy, can probably be taken as representative of the situation most such journals faced. The Spy had 1,100 subscribers, but by the time the delivery men took their cut--newspapers were more commonly delivered to local-area readers by private post riders than through the mail--printer Andrew Wright realized only $916.67 per annum from subscriptions. Being a Republican paper in New England, the paper's advertising income was small, and Wright rounded off his total yearly income at $1,000. On the other side of ledger, paper cost $500 a year, the wages and board of two journeymen (at $6 each per week) came to $624, and ink, firewood, and other necessary supplies together added another $100. In all, Wright estimated that he lost $224 a year, if all debts were paid and there was no new equipment to buy or legal judgments to pay. (17) More prominent newspapers with farther-flung constituencies were actually worse off. Long-distance (i.e., beyond post rider range) subscriptions created a larger paper income but generated the ferocious debt collection problems already discussed. Charles Holt's troubles were thus compounded as his paper earned statewide and even national readership.

An editor who persevered in publishing under these circumstances became a political professional almost automatically. Something besides his nonexistent profits had to keep him going. Alexandria printer James D. Westcott and his newspaper, the Times, were undergoing the same evolution toward partisanship as Holt and the Bee, under very similar influences. (18) A rueful Westcott made his situation clear in applying for government printing contracts in 1801. Commercial prospects had brought him to Alexandria, but principle kept him there even after his hopes of business success were thoroughly blasted:

Nothing could have justified the embarking in an undertaking of so expensive and hazardous a nature but a sanguine anticipation of the rapid increase of the town of Alexandria, and of the rising importance of the metropolis of the union:--nothing could have induced a continuance, to the evident sacrifice of the interests of my family, after a prospect of the realization of those hopes had disappeared, but a conviction of duty to persevere in defence of those principles to which my paper had been devoted, in opposition to artfully-excited popular clamor. (19)

Charles Holt or almost any of the other "potential" Republican printers of 1797 could have written such a letter themselves.

By the New London Bee's second birthday, the Sedition Act was in place and Charles Holt was under the scrutiny of the Federalist authorities. For a time during the summer of 1799, his resolve wavered. In June, he mournfully refused to publish pieces he had been sent that attacked "certain notorious individuals," though they "so justly meritted" such treatment. He wished to give "the men determined on the ruin of our paper . . . no pretext or opportunity for the accomplishment of their designs." (20) But the vindictive Connecticut Federalists would not be denied. On 17 September 1799, a grand jury charged Holt with seditious criticism for publishing a letter from Danbury that made (among others) the relatively commonplace, and accurate, charge that the planned Provisional Army, commanded by Alexander Hamilton, was intended to be the beginning of a standing army whose chief purpose was to police internal opposition. Four days later, the editor was arrested and brought to Hartford to be arraigned before the Circuit Court of Federalist Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth. Tried and convicted the following April, Holt was sentenced to three months in prison, which he served immediately; he was also forced to pay court costs of $550, an enormous sum for a struggling printer. (21)

In the months between his arrest and trial, Holt turned the Bee into a more and more self-consciously and systematically partisan Republican journal. He began to publish a regular roster of Sedition Act defendants all over the country, pointedly appending it to a list of British journalists victimized by repression in their country. This commitment continued after Holt's release and changed the course of his life. "Having been taught the value of liberty in so exemplary a manner," he wrote upon resuming publication of the Bee, the editor trusted that "the sincerity of his attachment to the cause of freedom and justice will not be doubted." During the fall, he tracked and lauded Republican electoral successes and participated in the campaign himself by printing a campaign biography of Jefferson, among other material designed to alleviate pious New Englanders' fears about Jefferson's alleged atheism and libertinism. (22)

These and other publications made the Bee the most effective Republican paper in the state and one of the most effective and influential in the nation. Holt's geographically extensive circulation reached about 1,000, a large figure for a small-town weekly of that period, but the real source of Holt's national exposure came from the frequency with which other editors quoted and reprinted his material. After big-city papers like the Aurora, the Bee was one of the most often reprinted of all the Republican journals. An exhaustive historical survey of the Jeffersonian press rated the Bee, among New England Republican papers, second only to the Boston Independent Chronicle in its influence. Many years later, even Jefferson well remembered "the principles and intrepidity of the Bee in the gloomy days of terrorism." (23)

National prominence failed to save Holt from financial disaster. As a party editor, he occupied a uniquely exposed position in the political system. Since political commentaries in the newspapers of the day were almost invariably anonymous, the political editor alone took public responsibility for the arguments and charges made in the course of his party's campaigning. In legal proceedings, generally only the editor could be held accountable and made to suffer. Simply put, the editor's job was to be the surrogate campaigner, and, if necessary, to endure punishment in place of party leaders. Holt's was by no means the starkest case of such surrogacy among the Republican editors. In 1802, a Massachusetts court indicted John S. Lillie, editor of the Boston Constitutional Telegraphe, for alleged libels in an anonymous article written by a gentleman contributor, John Vinal, "Esq." Lillie and Vinal were both tried. Lillie spent three months in prison, but Vinal was acquitted for insufficient evidence. This was the almost certain outcome of such proceedings. The printer or editor named in the masthead could easily be linked to an article in court, but typically there was no way to legally document the identity of an anonymous contributor. (24)

Charles Holt's sedition trial brought out the full complexities of his relationship with Connecticut's Republican gentry. On the one hand, party leaders recognized an obligation to help Holt through his tribulations on their behalf. The Republican editor in Hartford visited Holt in jail to assure him that his bail money would be raised. It seems likely that Republican leaders paid Holt's legal expenses, since his defense counsel were the prestigious Federalist attorneys David Daggett and Stephen T. Hosmer. On the other hand, there was no mistaking that party leaders' ultimate loyalties were to themselves, rather than to their servant Holt. District Attorney Pierpont Edwards was the prosecutor in Holt's trial, and the fact that Edwards was one of state's preeminent Republicans did not seem to dampen the energy with which he argued the case. (25)

The editor's subordinate status became even more apparent after Thomas Jefferson finally won the presidency in 1800. The state's "persecuted" Republican leaders, including Edwards, Ephraim Kirby, and their fellow lawyers Abraham Bishop, Alexander Wolcott, and Jesse Atwater, secured from President Jefferson a sweeping purge of the state's Federalist federal offices and were appointed to those offices themselves. Another Connecticut Republican lawyer, Gideon Granger, became Postmaster General. (26) Holt expected that the "happy events" that put Jefferson in power "would restore me to the common privileges and employments of Printers, and enable me to gain an honest livelihood." Since politics and business had become one for Holt, the editor naturally thought that political success and modest commercial success would go together. He was not looking for riches or honors. Like most ordinary Americans of the period, Holt's highest ambition was to gain only a "competency" for himself: the ability to live independent of debt or wage labor, in moderate comfort, and to pass those same circumstances on to his children. Instead of more typical occupations such as farming, fishing, or shoemaking, Holt wanted to earn his competency in newspaper politics. (27) But this was not to be the case. The Republican leadership entirely overlooked Holt; the Bee editor did not receive an appointment or even a contract for the printing of the laws as did some other Republican printers. The former option was foreclosed to Holt because of Jefferson's insistence on education and high social status as qualifications for office. In the matter of printing the laws, Holt was apparently thwarted by a regulation stipulating that printers of the laws be located in the center of their state. The lawyers who made up the party's top leadership allowed a technicality to prevent them from aiding a political subordinate in distress. (28)

Even worse for Holt, Jedediah Huntington escaped the fate of most other federal officeholders in the state and remained in command of the New London custom house. Very early in his administration, Jefferson laid down the principle that any officer who made use of his position for partisan purposes would be considered guilty of misconduct and removed. There was ample testimony to Huntington's partisanship in government personnel files, but he was apparently still friendly with Gideon Granger and other Republicans in Washington, who remembered his antifederalism during the 1780s. The personal friendships and loyalties of gentlemen thus took precedence over the needs of a loyal Republican printer and even over administration policy itself. The administration's failure to apply its own policy in Huntington's case meant not only that Holt would have little respite from his persecution within the town, but also that he would see no financial benefits from Jefferson's victory at all, not even a share in the job printing work generated by the local federal offices. (29)

 

Escape from Connecticut (to Political Professionalism on the Hudson)

The Republican leadership's utter neglect of Holt caused an already difficult situation to deteriorate. With election-year urgency fading, the Bee's meager income began to decrease virtually the moment Jefferson took office, as subscribers left or paid even less often than usual. By April 1802, yearly deficits of several hundred dollars had created a dangerously heavy load of debt, and Holt reduced the size of the paper to a half-sheet (two instead of four pages) to save money and spend more time on collections. The Bee's affairs had come to a crisis. As a North Carolina congressman to whom Holt appealed for help told Jefferson, the editor was "now about to be immured in that very Prison for debt, from whence he had so lately been liberated from persecution." (30)

The solution that presented itself to Holt was to make a final, complete transition to political professionalism by taking his newly developed political skills to a different location. A group of Republicans in Hudson, New York, asked Holt to become the party's spokesman there, and apparently offered him $500 to pay for the move. The editor promptly informed Republican leader Ephraim Kirby that he had decided "to abandon Connecticut." (31) The prospectus Holt issued for the new Hudson Bee showed how much his sense of vocation had changed. Both the principles and the specific tasks involved in Republican party politics were now integral to it. The "ever ready and subservient Newspaper" no longer, the new Bee's purposes would be "to disseminate wholesome and correct ideas of government" (meaning promote Republican ideas); "to inculcate union, friendship, and liberality among all 'brethren of the same principle' " (meaning to ensure Republican party unity); and "to detect and expose falsehood and error, and defend truth against the open and or insidious attack of its enemies" (meaning to respond to and defuse Federalist charges). (32) This statement described the job of professional campaigner.

Accordingly, Holt's career in New York, whose political culture was as freewheeling and competitive as Connecticut's was strait-laced and monolithic, would be very different. The Hudson Bee opened for business in August 1802 on the upper floor of the Hudson "Democratic club" in a building owned by a Republican judge. There the local Republican brain trust met around a wood stove to smoke and confer, once planning a organized brawl in retaliation for an attack on Holt. As this incident suggests, New York's frank acceptance of competitive politics did not mean that political life was easier there. On the contrary, as one veteran New York editor-politician put it, and as Holt quickly discovered, "the life of a politician" in New York was "a perpetual warfare with everything bordering on tranquility and repose." (33)

Almost the moment Holt arrived in town, the Federalist editor of the town's only newspaper began strenuous efforts to drive him out. Another Connecticut-born printer whose politics were more conventionally "steady," Harry Croswell had been publishing the decorously Federalist Balance in Hudson for little over a year, congratulating himself on the lack of Republican competition. Before the Bee had even begun publishing, Croswell rushed into print with a companion paper called the Wasp. Invoking the image of a larger and more vicious insect able to counteract the invasive species from New London, this was a newspaper devoted entirely to insulting Republicans, with special attention paid to Thomas Jefferson but even more to Charles Holt and other Republican editors in neighboring towns. "Jacobin printers" were being "bought or hired, and set to work in their favorite trade of detraction," Croswell wrote, and it was his job to chastise them. In the first issue, Holt read that he was "a lazy swine . . . wallowing in a puddle,"and was treated to a set of perhaps mock toasts to "Republican martyrs" being hung or placed in the stocks. The fun went on from there, in twelve occasional issues published over six months. (34)

Holt chose mostly to ignore the Wasp, concentrating his fire on more important targets such as William Coleman's Evening Post in New York City, a Federalist newspaper closely associated with Alexander Hamilton. (35) Perhaps he was even flattered by Croswell's attentions. In New London, the young printer had been hounded out of the public arena, while in Hudson he was a major figure in it. Croswell's favorite medium was the parodic song, and Holt got to be the star of such ditties as "Democratic Ding-Dong; or a Bell to Settle the Bee," "A New Yankee Doodle," and yet another version of Yankee Doodle that Croswell did not bother to title. There was relatively little about Holt to expose, so most of the abuse was fairly generic, along the lines of the following:

There's Charley Holt is come to town,

A proper lad with types, sir;

The democrats have fetch'd him here,

To give the federals stripes, sir.

CHORUS.

He prints a paper called the Bee,

A buzzing little thing, sir

That from New-England lately chas'd,

Points here its feeble sting, sir.

Croswell may have drawn more blood when he drew attention to Holt's political professionalism, which was still beyond the pale of what even the Republicans could openly avow. "Did the contributors to the five hundred dollars purchase you, as they purchase negroes in Virginia," queried the Wasp, "or hire you, as they hire servants in New-England?" (36)

Croswell folded the Wasp in January 1803, and he and Holt settled down to five years of more routine bickering until the Balance moved to Albany in 1808. Holt himself left Hudson soon after Croswell. In 1809, he received a promotion of sorts: an offer to edit a paper in New York City as an organ for De Witt Clinton's wing of the Republican party. Holt's New York Columbian became one of the state's leading papers in the 1810s. (37) Whereas in his New London days Holt had been more strictly the party's mouthpiece, in New York he was directly involved in political management. By 1816, he was offering advice on political strategy in a tone of long experience. "I see you are endeavoring to get up Gov. Tompkins for the Presidency," he wrote, "but . . . I think you will not make out much better than we did in the last heat." (38)

In the end, Holt's political work in New York was only a little more reliable as a livelihood, and he was eventually reduced to making a formal application for relief, in the form of a political office:

After the employment of twenty years of his life as a republican editor, through all the vicissitudes of persecution, fine, imprisonment, personal contest and other events of political warfare (in behalf of his principles and his party), Your petitioner finds himself, from a series of adverse circumstances, destitute of property, with a large family (of eight young children, and, in part, two other dependents) under the necessity of applying to the honorable Council of Appointment, for the first time, for public employment in a civil office.

His moral character, he trusts, has ever been without a stain. His capacity for a humble station, the members of the Board have the means of ascertaining.

This time, Holt's wishes were granted. He was made first a ward judge, then a clerk in the New York Custom House, and he lived the rest of his working life peacefully in the bowels of the political system. He retired to the then country town of Jersey City, New Jersey, living partly on the proceeds from his Sedition Act fine, which was finally refunded (with interest, it was rumored) when Holt was in his seventies. (39)

Charles Holt should not be seen as a mere party hack, someone interested solely in the "loaves and fishes" of political patronage. He had been genuinely radicalized by his travails with the New London Bee. Holt believed that, in the American republic, every citizen (meaning every white male) possessed an equal right to take part in public life and receive public honors and offices, but his editorial experiences disabused him of the assumption that this right was fully accepted by the nation's political, social, and economic elites. Though he always took a deferential attitude in his dealings with the gentleman leaders of his party, his own civic philosophy differed sharply from that of the "natural aristocracy" of either party. In an 1801 editorial, he contrasted the invidious "New Habits" of the Connecticut Federalists with the salutary "Old Habits" of earlier times. Formerly, Holt believed, ordinary people, without gentlemen's credentials, were eligible to serve in office, and serve they did, not forming any aristocracy, natural or otherwise:

Time was, when it was conceived assuming in a republican government for an incumbent to claim a re-election merely by right of possession. . . .

Time was, when the possession of an office for a year did not make a man more wise, more just, and more meritorious than all his neighbors, and when public offices were considered as belonging to the public, and not to any particular individual, family or class of men.

Time was, when common sense, integrity, and capacity to make laws for the community were obtained outside the walls of a college, and without the assistance of a diploma, licence to practice at the bar or pulpit. (40)

Of course, Holt was completely wrong about this. What he described as "New Habits" were, in fact, the traditional approach to officeholding, as the province of the economic, social, and cultural elite. Holt and many other Republican campaigners learned firsthand that Thomas Jefferson hewed almost as closely to these habits as George Washington or John Adams. The so-called "Old Habits" Holt favored came much closer to the doctrine of "rotation in office" as Andrew Jackson would express it almost thirty years later. The beginnings of this philosophy's journey to enshrinement at the core of national policy can be found in the experience of Charles Holt and his generation of Republican editors.

 

Federalist Repression, Popular Rights-Consciousness, and the Radicalization of Young Printers

The much-abused term "generation" applies to this group in a strict sense. Charles Holt and the other young men who flocked into the ranks of partisan journalism in the late 1790s--and stayed there even in face of Federalist repression--formed a very clear generational cohort. They were divided from enemies and allies alike by the experience of coming to manhood after the Revolution and by their lack of exposure to the constrained conditions under which colonial printers had operated. The average year of birth for Republican editors who began their careers when Charles Holt did, between 1797 and 1800, was 1772. The Republican editors who were active in the same period, but started their newspaper careers before 1797, were disproportionately older men, with an average birth year of 1759. The members of the Congress that passed the Sedition Act were older still, born on average in 1753. (41)

Holt and the younger editors were at most teenagers when the Constitution was written. Unlike the leading politicians of both parties and the older generation of printers, they had grown up with such documents as the First Amendment and the Declaration of Independence and took their meaning literally. While not necessarily expecting to become political leaders or even active participants themselves, Charles Holt and the rest began their careers believing that printers and other nongentlemen enjoyed at least an equal right to participate in politics, to be treated with respect, and to criticize the government without fear of reprisal. During the 1790s and after, they discovered that the gentlemen in power--including some of the Republicans in power after 1800--did not share those beliefs. Phinehas Allen of the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Sun, born 1776, expressed shock that the principle that " 'All men are born free and equal' could go "out of fashion in America." Yet "for several years past, Liberty and Equality have been standing themes of popular ridicule and reproach." (42)

These kinds of realizations led many young printers (along with numerous other Americans) to recognize what their political values really were. Gravitating to the Republican opposition, they began to emphasize the egalitarian ideals of the early part of Revolution and to see and present those ideals as yet unconsummated. Beginning in the late 1790s, quotations and citations from the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence became a staple of the Republican press, especially around the Fourth of July. Republican newspapers often published the entire text of the document in the issue closest to the day, sometimes to let the editor participate in--or sleep off--the festivities. Republicans began holding their own holiday celebrations, usually publishing the proceedings in the newspapers, and such celebrations always featured a reading of the Declaration by some local Republican activist. (43)

The Federalists were on solid legal ground in claiming that the Sedition Act did not abridge the First Amendment, since the leading jurists of the time defined freedom of the press as freedom from prior restraint. Animated by what might be termed an alternative, popular constitutionalism, young printers clung to their own vision of the First Amendment as absolutely protective of political publishing. So armed, they fought the Sedition Act, and other Federalist efforts to quash their participation in politics, with increasing outrage and skill. (44)

Charles Holt was only one among many Republican-sympathizing but commercially-minded printers driven into active campaigning by Federalist repression and ridicule. Previously, we saw how John Snowden (born 1776) and William McCorkle (born around 1776), former publishers of James T. Callender's pamphlets, had moved from Philadelphia to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in April 1798 hoping to get away from politics and publish a quiet, commercial paper devoted to farming and news. Like Charles Holt, they tried to be genuinely impartial, accepting essays and copying news that reflected both the Republican and Federalist points of view. Yet the mere appearance of a competing newspaper, along with the printers' reputations and their willingness to admit some Republicanism into their columns, sent the local Federalists into a frenzy.

The overreaction began with Robert Harper, printer of the town's existing newspaper, the Franklin Repository. Never very political, Harper was suddenly galvanized into action by the threat to his longtime monopoly in the county. Soon various members of the county's old, elite families, led by John Shippen (the county's other major town was called Shippensburg), got into the act. Shippen organized a subscription boycott intended to suborn Snowden and McCorkle to Federalism: a petition was sent suggesting that the boycotters might renew their subscriptions if the printers would become "friends to Government and the happiness of the Citizens." Snowden and McCorkle took offense at the petition's assumption that they could brought to heel so easily and its disrespect for the traditional, impartial trade mores that they had conscientiously tried to follow. "Looking back over the pages of the Register, we find that we have never indulged ourselves even in a conjecture upon any subject," the editors wrote, "but have uniformly adhered to a simple publication of facts." So they struck back, filling the front page of the 13 June issue with attacks on John Shippen, followed by more in subsequent weeks. Decisively changing their earlier deferential posture, Snowden and McCorkle thumbed their rhetorical noses at the Federalist elite, labeling Shippen a "little" but "pompous" man who "never possessed sufficient abilities to influence any man," despite his pretensions to being a sort of local baron. Things hit bottom in February 1799, when two Federalists came into the Farmer's Register office asking for a Latin text by Seneca and then jumped McCorkle with a cowhide whip when he turned to get the book. (45)

Federalist harassment thus inspired Snowden and McCorkle to return to their Philadelphia ways. They never utterly abandoned their commitment to news and impartiality, but they did turn the Farmer's Register into more the partisan Republican sheet that the Federalists had feared in the first place. They justified themselves in the universalist terms of the public sphere, addressing their paper to a disembodied, disinterested readership that cared only for ideas and information, without reference to whose authority sanctioned them. "We acknowledge . . . that there are particular men whom the Register is not calculated to please--men, whom nothing could please but a repetition of their own sentiments . . . But the Register is not designed for particular men; it looks up to a liberal public for support," and this public would not be served or satisfied by the government-parroting press the Federalists demanded. Their self-respect as impartial printers and independent citizens demanded a certain amount of partisanship.

So, beginning at the time of the boycott, which coincided with the congressional debates on the Sedition Act, Snowden and McCorkle gradually began filling their columns with very different material than they had in the past: attacks on Harper and the Franklin Repository; complaints against the Sedition Act; defenses and promotion of David and Robert Bard, local Republican leaders; proceedings and accounts of Republican meetings; Irish news that cast Great Britain (and thus the Federalists) in a bad light; accounts of Matthew Lyon's trial; documents and reports on Elbridge Gerry and George Logan's efforts to conciliate France in defiance of Federalist wishes; and reprints from the Aurora and other Republican papers, though not the most violent material those journals had to offer. (46)

In the end, however, John Shippen and his minions must have gotten the best of Snowden and McCorkle. Complaining that many of their subscribers "have never . . . contributed one cent" of what they owed--probably many of these had signed up for the paper when it was proposed and then been scared off by the boycott--the editors decamped in April 1799 for the more Republican clime of Greensburg in the far western part of the state. If they came to Chambersburg as tradesmen, they left as politicians. This was especially true of John Snowden, evidently the brains of the team. After nearly a decade in Greensburg, he moved up the political ladder to Pittsburgh, where he founded a much more elaborate Democratic organ called the Mercury that also doubled as very informative commercial newspaper. Over his twenty-three years of running the Mercury, Snowden became one of the city's leading local politicians, serving as mayor, recorder of deeds (a lucrative political plum), and finally, after his retirement from printing, as an Allegheny County judge. Snowden obtained these offices in a later and very different era, of course, but they show the new course his life took in 1798. (47)

Other printers reacted to Federalist persecution on an even more visceral level than Holt and Snowden and McCorkle. Augustus C. Jordan began to fill his Norfolk Epitome of the Times with strongly Republican political material only after a Federalist insult. A writer in the rival Virginia Herald advised a local artisan who had criticized the Federalist administration to "stick by your last"--a stock phrase meaning that artisans should mind their own business and not meddle in public affairs. In their responses, Jordan and his writers displayed Holt's sense that such remarks were part of a shocking effort by Federalists to roll back the gains artisans and other ordinary men had made during the Revolution. "Sheers" in the Epitome demanded to know what the Herald had meant by the remark: "do you wish to insinuate that private characters and tradesmen have no business to meddle with government? If so, it is a bold, false and dishonest insinuation. . . . It is a cant now almost forgotten in the world."

A week later, a long and bitter piece by "A MECHANIC" (probably Jordan himself) denounced Federalist presumptions and forcefully argued for the right of artisans to participate in political debate, articulating a kind of labor theory of political participation. Those who contributed to the common good deserved to participate in making the community's decisions:

Those contemptible wretches who boast that they are gentlemen because they do nothing for their living are perpetually insulting those ingenious and industrious citizens whose skilled labor contributes so essentially to the support and comfort of human life. To those well born (tho' far from well bred) gentry, the very name of handcraft man is an abomination, and if one of those aproned fellows should presume to open his mouth on what concerns his dearest rights and interests, with what contempt they affect to treat him and all that he says.

The writer regarded these gentry attitudes as the kind of outmoded nonsense that the Revolution had been fought to stamp out. The Herald remarks brought to mind "the wickedest and most stupid sentiments that ever disgraced a British tory." They were an insult not only to "every artificer and tradesman, but even to the spirit of the Constitution itself." (48) (This was another youthful misapprehension, since the Constitution was notably less democratic than many of the early state constitutions and had been written with the intention of restraining state-level populist demagogues.) (49) The Epitome then lampooned the Federalist attitude:

"Depart ye wretches! Ye Swinish multitude! . . . You are convicted of being TRADESMEN! What rights can you pretend to who have not a dollar in your pockets . . . Get away to your workshops: put on your aprons: go work, and be contented; and leave your rights to me, who know how to govern you."

If [the Herald writer] were obliged to go barefoot until his genius was so highly improved that he could make a pair of shoes, or were he able to learn some useful business whereby he might honestly earn the price of them, he would perhaps by that time learn to also respect

A MECHANIC (50)

Jordan's reaction, along with those of other printers to Federalist snubs and persecutions, was rooted not so much in a class consciousness as in what Joyce Appleby has called the "vision of classlessness" held by many rank-and-file Republicans. They were proud of their crafts and aware of the hierarchies still abroad in their society, but they found them old-fashioned, baseless, and offensive, especially when applied to politics. It was Federalist attempts to express and enforce these hierarchies that bothered young printers of Charles Holt's generation. (51)

Often in the late 1790s these conflicts over printers' participation in politics could become more than verbal. One of the more disturbing cases involved Jacob Schneider, the printer-editor of the Readinger Adler, a German-language Republican paper published in Reading, Pennsylvania. Schneider made the mistake of criticizing the Federalist volunteer soldiers involved in the expedition against Fries's Rebellion. By all accounts, these troops had terrorized the countryside, summarily arresting or abusing suspected rebels on little or no evidence and treating the German population of the area with open disdain. A cavalry unit from Lancaster took particular umbrage at Schneider's comments, and they made a point of passing through Reading on the trip home. Schneider was seized in his office by a detachment of the Lancaster unit and hauled before its commander, a Captain Montgomery. "This self-appointed Dictator," as the Philadelphia Aurora described Montgomery, questioned the editor briefly and summarily sentenced him to twenty-five lashes, to be administered in public at the town's market house. Schneider was stripped and had been whipped five times before another passing militia unit, a group of Philadelphia Republicans led by Aurora benefactor Thomas Leiper, stopped the proceeding. The Reading authorities refused to issue warrants for the assailants' arrest until after they had left the town. (52)

These kinds of challenges to the political participation of printers made campaigning for the Republicans into a noble and classically virtuous calling. For an artisan to be a prominent participant in the Republican opposition was to strike a blow for liberty and prove his own independence. In the face of Federalist repression and reprisals, partisanship became a matter of self-respect and political professionalism a matter of necessity. Intending to cow printers who even sympathized with the Republicans, the Federalists produced a small army of inveterate Republican party politicians.

Notes

1. Hofstadter, Idea of a Party System; Ketcham, Presidents Above Party; Bailyn, Ideological Origins; Banning, Jeffersonian Persuasion. In my opinion, classical republican political culture was much stronger among the political and social elite than in other strata of American society, not least because its idealization of social and political consensus and leadership by "disinterested" statesmen made little provision for the aspirations or interests of the middling and lower orders. See Appleby, Capitalism and New Social Order. The aspect of republicanism that stressed personal independence of citizens as the basis of a strong polity clearly had a broader resonance, and classical republican concepts and language show up too often at all levels of political discourse to simply be dismissed. For a convincing application of republicanism to artisans, see Wilentz, Chants Democratic, 61-103. The material basis for the independence that allowed a virtuous citizenry, resistant to the corruption and economic pressure that might be used to erect a tyranny, was ownership of some means of production or family subsistence. Usually, land ownership was said to be the necessary basis for independence, but artisans transferred this role to the unique skills and knowledge involved in their trade. This attitude was reflected in Benjamin Franklin's reason for making his grandson a printer, that the boy would have "a Trade . . . something to depend on, and not be obliged to ask Favours or Offices of anybody." (See chap. 4.) Thus artisans actually considered manual occupations to be more virtuous, in classical republican terms, then higher stations, because a skilled artisan supposedly earned his money without having to flatter those who held the purse strings from which salaries and stipends flowed.

2. Except where noted the descriptions of Connecticut's political culture in the following paragraphs are based on: Collier, Roger Sherman's Connecticut; Gilsdorf and Gilsdorf, "Elites and Electorates"; Purcell, Connecticut in Transition; Daniels, Connecticut Town; Thomas, "Politics in the Land of Steady Habits"; Grasso, Speaking Aristocracy.

3. Swift, System of the Laws of Connecticut, 67-68, 58.

4. Foster, Jeffersonian America, 306.

5. Morse, Connecticut Newspapers.

6. Printers File, AAS; Hamilton, Country Printer, 278; HBAN, 52-53, 1432; New London Bee, 14, 21 June 1797.

7. New London Bee, 14 June 1797-24 Jan. 1798.

8. Ibid., 6 June 1798.

9. Prince, Federalists and Civil Service, 66-72.

10. New London Bee, 23 June 1802.

11.  Charles Holt to Ephraim Kirby, 21 Dec. 1797, Kirby Papers, DU; Wood, Radicalism, 194-196.

12. Charles Holt to Ephraim Kirby, 25 Nov. 1798, 9 May 1799, Kirby Papers, DU; Briceland, "Ephraim Kirby," 199-202; New London Bee, 6, 20 June 1798.

13. Hartford Connecticut Courant, 30 Sept. 1799.

14. New London Bee, 14 Nov. 1798; Charles Holt to Ephraim Kirby, 25 Nov. 1798, Kirby Papers, DU.

15. Hartford Connecticut Courant, 30 Sept. 1799.

16.  New London Bee, 23 June 1802, 14, 28 Nov. 1798; Charles Holt to Albert Gallatin, 29 Nov. 1801, Gallatin Papers, N-YHS.

17. Wright, Anti-Shepherd-Crat, 13.

18. Alexandria Times, June 1798-Mar. 1801.

19.  James D. Westcott to Thomas Jefferson, 18 Mar. 1801; Westcott to Levi Lincoln, 18 Mar. 1801, Westcott file, Letters of Application 1801-1809, RG59-NA.

20.  New London Bee, 12 June 1799.

21.  Smith, Freedom's Fetters, 375-84; Grasso, Speaking Aristocracy, 454-55. On the accuracy of the charge, see Kohn, Eagle and Sword, 219-38.

22.  Ibid., 21 May, 27 Aug., 24 Sept. 1800.

23.  Morse, Connecticut Newspapers, 25-27; Stewart, Opposition Press, 617; Thomas Jefferson to Charles Holt, 23 Nov. 1810, Jefferson Papers, LC (quoted).

24.  Buckingham, Specimens, 2:310-314; Duniway, Development of Freedom of the Press, 146.

25.  Smith, Freedom's Fetters, 379-380.

26.  Cunningham, Republicans in Power, 12-29; Briceland, "Ephraim Kirby," 300-342.

27. Holt to Gallatin, 29 Nov. 1801, Gallatin Papers, N-YHS; Vickers, "Competency and Competition."

28. Aronson, Status and Kinship in the Higher Civil Service, 10-14; Smith, Press, Politics and Patronage, 46-47; White, Jeffersonians, 347-54.

29.  Prince, Federalists and Civil Service, 72.

30.  New London Bee, 23 June, 28 Apr. 1802; Charles Johnson to Thomas Jefferson, 26 Apr. 1802, James Shannonhouse file, Letters of Application 1801-1809, RG59-NA.

31. Charles Holt to Ephraim Kirby, 21 June 1802, Kirby Papers, DU; Hudson Wasp, 12 Aug. 1802.

32. New London Bee, 23 June 1802.

33. HBAN, 1:583-85, 588- 89; Miller, Historical Sketches of Hudson, 64-67; Matthew Livingston Davis to William P. Van Ness, 4 Feb. 1807, Davis Papers, N-YHS.

34. Hamilton, Country Printer, 175-176, 187-188; HBAN, 588; Hudson Wasp, 12 Aug. 1802.

35. Hudson Bee, 17, 24, 31 Aug., 7, 14, 21, 28 Sept. 1802.

36. Hudson Wasp, 7, 17 July, 12, 30 Aug. 1802.

37. HBAN, 528, 583, 614; Hudson Balance, 18 Jan. 1803 ff.; Hudson, Journalism in the United States, 225; Mushkat, Tammany, 39-40.

38. Charles Holt to B. F. Thompson, 23 Feb. 1816, Book Trades Collection, AAS.

39. Charles Holt to Jabez D. Hammond, 7 Apr. 1818, Misc. Uncatalogued Manuscripts, NYPL; Hamilton, Country Printer, 124, 278; Munsell, Typographical Miscellany,148-49.

40. New London Bee, 23 Sept. 1801.

41. Based on a biographical database created primarily from information in the Printers File, AAS. See this book's companion web site <http://pasleybrothers.com/newspols> for details and access to the database.

42. Pittsfield Sun, 16 Sept. 1800.

43. Detweiler, "Changing Reputation of the Declaration"; Travers, Celebrating the Fourth, 69-106, 161-63, 169-80; Maier, American Scripture, 170-72. Maier's focus on debunking the Declaration's importance as a legal document causes her to underestimate its powerful, posthumous role in tying the memory of the Revolution to popular aspirations for political democracy and equal rights. Ordinary Americans perceived, remembered, and interpreted the Revolution very differently than the statesmen who penned most of the Founding documents. The most eloquent statement on this theme remains Young, "George Robert Twelves Hewes."

44. Levy, Emergence of Free Press, 297-298; Smith, Printers and Press Freedom, 156-67. I would distinguish this popular constitutionalism from both the theoretical "new libertarianism" discerned by Levy and the libertarian "trade ideology" of the colonial printers depicted by Jeffery Smith.

45. Chambersburg Farmer's Register, 18 Apr., 2, 9, 16, 23 May, 6, 13 (quoted), 20 June, 4 (quoted) July 1798, 20 Feb. 1799; HBAN, 836-38, 1426; Stewart, Opposition Press, 884.

46. Chambersburg Farmer's Register, 13, 20, 27 June, 4, 18 July, 22 Aug., 19 Sept., 17 (quoted) , 24, 31 Oct. 1798, 27 Feb., 6, 20 Mar., 3 Apr. 1799.

47. HBAN, 1448, 1485; Pittsburgh Mercury, 1812-1817; Printers File, AAS.

48. Norfolk Epitome of the Times, 17, 21 May 1798.

49. Wood, Creation, 393-564.

50. Norfolk Epitome of the Times, 21 May 1798.

51. Appleby, Capitalism and New Social Order, 51-78.

52. Aurora, 24, 25, 27, 30 Apr. 1799. A good account of Fries' Rebellion and the troops' behavior can be found in Elkins and McKitrick, Age of Federalism, 696-700.