Benjamin Franklin Bache

2011-11-14 09:52:17

Born the grandson of Benjamin Franklin and educated in Geneva, Benjamin Franklin Bache epitomized early America’s ambivalent relationship with the press. Raised largely in France, Bache was later trained as a type founder, and his famous grandfather’s contacts in Philadelphia’s publishing community were critical to Bache’s early career. Few publishers have been as loved and as despised as Bache; profoundly partisan, he could be vicious and unforgiving toward his political enemies.

Bache began to make a name for himself as founder and editor of Philadelphia’s General Advertiser. Indeed, he very quickly revealed both his liberal European education and his devotion to liberty. At a time when freedom of the press was perhaps not as well developed as in the twentieth century, Bache developed a reputation as a firebrand, as revealed by his nickname, ‘‘Lightning Rod Junior.’’ His criticisms of the first two American presidents, George Washington and John Adams, while occasionally unfair and often perceptive, meant that Bache was not popular with Federalists.

By the beginning of Washington’s second term, Bache had identified him as a legitimate target of liberal criticisms. First was the perception that Washington had aristocratic tendencies. His aloofness in public as well as his inclination toward grand and ceremonial events led Bache and others to the conclusion that Washington was a monarchist in disguise. As well, Washington’s position as a slaveholder and rumors of financial malfeasance in the Washington administration made him vulnerable to pointed attacks. Further, as popular devotion to Washington culminated in public celebrations of his birthday, and as Bache observed a growing opinion that Washington was somehow beyond criticism, Bache began to attack the President through his newspaper. Bache endorsed the sentiments of one of his anonymous correspondents: ‘‘Opinion has so far consecrated the President as to make it hazardous to say that he can do wrong.’’

As Bache’s criticisms grew more pointed, Washington was forced to lead the country’s young army into action to put down an insurrection in western Pennsylvania, and Bache began a sustained attack on Washington. When Washington condemned the actions of the Whiskey Rebels and the Democratic Societies he believed were responsible for the rebellion, Bache published pieces that supported the Democratic Societies’ right to exist (although he condemned any violence on their part), and blamed the administration for the excise policies that motivated the rebels. A member of the Philadelphia Democratic Society himself, Bache’s suspicions about Washington drove him to a near obsession with the President.

When the Washington administration entered treaty talks with Britain over what would later be known as the Jay Treaty, Bache blasted them for their secrecy and for tendencies he believed to be as anti-French as they were pro-British. He acquired a copy of the treaty before it was made public and printed it, along with a detailed criticism of its major provisions: he hated the fact that it created a political connection between a republican government and a monarchy; he could not stand the fact that it essentially forgave the British for various wrongs committed against America; and he had a particular problem with a conflict of interest—John Jay, the primary negotiator of the treaty, could potentially have the responsibility to approve the treaty in his role as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

When Washington decided to retire after two terms, and as it became clear that John Adams would stand for president as a Federalist, Bache found himself in a dilemma: he initially saw Adams as a welcome alternative to Washington, but Thomas Jefferson had a record that more closely matched Bache’s own political sensibility. His primary criticism of Adams, then, was based on his close political affiliation to Washington. Meanwhile, the General Advertiser had folded, and Bache founded another newspaper, the Aurora.

Bache had also become the exclusive publisher and distributor of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason II, which further alienated him from Washington. By 1798 Bache had few friends in Washington. His relentless attacks on, first Washington, and then Adams, made him an easy target for those less inclined to support universal freedom of the press. The looming military conflict with France set the stage for a final showdown between Bache and the Federalists.

When Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, it was clear that some politicians had newspaper editors like Bache in mind when the bills were drafted. The provisions were vague enough, and Bache was inflammatory enough, that many insiders predicted a challenge from Bache. Even though the acts technically allowed truth as an absolute defense against prosecution under the law, Bache attacked the laws with typical enthusiasm. He published an attack on the Alien and Sedition Acts as illegal; he argued that they violated the First Amendment, and that the acts’ mere existence was evidence of the Federalists’ unsophisticated view of freedom of speech and press. Anticipating trouble with Bache, the Federalists had filed a libel suit against Bache even before the Alien and Sedition Acts had been passed, but their passage gave them a more powerful vehicle to quiet Bache.

Bache was arrested ‘‘on the charge of libeling the President, and the Executive Government in a manner tending to excite sedition, and opposition to the laws, by sundry publications and re-publications.’’ While awaiting trial in a Philadelphia jail, Bache contracted yellow fever and died.

Sometimes unfair in his criticisms, Bache nonetheless saw himself as a watchdog against the intrusion of monarchy or aristocracy. He took seriously the idea of republic. He was a pioneer in the American tradition of dissent and criticism.


References and Further Reading

  • Smith, Jeffery A. Franklin and Bache: Envisioning the Enlightened Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990
  • Tagg, James. Benjamin Franklin Bache and the Philadelphia ‘‘Aurora.’’ Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.