Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History

By Fawn M. Brodie | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXIII

Callender

I write truth, and am not a commonplace railer.

Callender to Jefferson, October 26, 1798 1

James Thomson Callender has come down in history as the most spiteful, malignant, and poisonous of all Jefferson's enemies. For Jefferson disciples he is the Antichrist, and in character the antipode of Jefferson himself. He was primarily and obsessively a defamer of the great. Since the Vice-President went out of his way to befriend this journalist in the beginning, his betrayal is made out to be all the more reprehensible; Callender was the vicious dog that bit the hand that fed him. Certainly of all Jefferson's enemies none had so devastating an impact on his private and public reputation.

Callender moved into Jefferson's orbit in 1797 as a young Republican disciple, a journalist praising his hero with unparalleled ardor. Six years later he was dead of drowning in the James River in Richmond, accused of drunkenness and sodomy, detested by Republican and Federalist alike. In the interim he caused more mischief than any newspaperman of his age, and left the reputations of both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson badly charred. Though his attack on Jefferson was malicious and personal there was also great cunning in it.

Like many destructive men he had a talent for smelling out weakness in others, and he made himself out to be a meticulous reporter with abundant documentation to prove his charges. Readers of his exposés had the impression that his files were bulging with letters and affidavits. Some he published, others he did not, but since some of

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