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Troublemaker

AMERICAN AURORA: A Democratic-Republican Returns The Suppressed History of Our Nation's Beginnings and the Heroic Newspaper That Tried to Report It.\o7 By Richard N. Rosenfeld\f7 .\o7 St. Martin's Press: 990 pp., $39.95\f7

May 11, 1997|ESMOND WRIGHT | Esmond Wright is the author of "A History of the United States of America," "Franklin of Philadelphia" and "The American Dream." He is emeritus professor of United States history at the University of London

When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein campaigned after Watergate to undo and even to compel the resignation of a president; when Anonymous, writing "Primary Colors," drew shamelessly on the alleged misdoings of another president; and when Woodward, in "The Agenda," revealed what went on behind the scenes in the Clinton White House, none of them, perhaps, realized how much vicious criticism of That Man in the White House is entrenched in the American tradition. For freedom of speech and the Bill of Rights mean, most of all, the freedom to have a go at the presidency.

The tradition, if "tradition" it is, began early. Washington was an incompetent who had blundered in the French-Indian frontier wars of the 1750s, winning the War of Independence not because of his skill in warfare (he never won a battle) but because of French aid. "His serene Highness," John Adams, was a monarchist and Anglophile at heart, preoccupied with prerogatives, titles and a parade of power that suggested that he wanted to be a king, and his wife, Abigail, wanted to be decorated with queenly tiaras. She complained in a letter to her sister about Benjamin Franklin's grandson, Benjamin Bache, the editor of the Philadelphia Aurora: "Bache is cursing and abusing daily. If that fellow is not suppressed, we shall come to a civil war."

The editors of the Philadelphia Aurora, which did this vitriolic campaigning, were arrested by the newly created federal government. Bache died at 29 of yellow fever in September 1798, while awaiting trial, and legislation was passed, the Sedition Act of 1798, to prevent such poison from being circulated. Federal prosecutors filed sedition charges against 17 people, four of them the editors of newspapers, including the Aurora, that supported the Democratic Party. They won 10 convictions. The law expired in March 1801, but for three years, there had been no freedom of speech. In 1798, Vice President Thomas Jefferson called this period "a reign of witches." It was a special time in the American Story.

If there was a true founding father, he was Benjamin Franklin, who died at 84 in 1790 and who got little recognition--or so the Aurora editorialized. In Franklin Court, the house in which he died, and on the same printing press that he had used to put out the Gazette and the Poor Richard's Almanacks, a tradition of free speech and prompt criticism continued, voiced now by Franklin's grandson, Bache, and by Bache's associate editor and successor, the Irish immigrant William Duane, who married Benjamin Bache's widow, Peggy. Their offices on Market Street in Philadelphia were only a few doors away from the president's home, for this was the first decade of American history, when Philadelphia was the national capital. It made it easy for neighbor to spy on neighbor. Not that the way of life of the neighbors was hard to overlook: Washington traveled in an elaborate gilded coach, drawn by four cream-colored horses. His formal weekly levees were semi-regal receptions, in which he bowed stiffly to his visitors and found relaxation difficult. And Adams was even more keen on style and titles: If he favored as a title High Mightiness of the United States, the Protector of their Liberties, to his critics, he was simply "His Rotundity." The taste for monarchy was all too clear. It made the passage of the Sedition Act, the Alien Act and the Naturalization Act (which extended the residence period of immigrants seeking citizenship from five to 14 years) all the more sinister.

Richard Rosenfeld's story, which reads almost like fiction, is about the nation's leading opposition newspaper from 1790 to 1800, when parties and partisanship were, if not new, certainly very vigorous. He has probed the original issues of Bache's newspaper and has chosen as his heroes and narrators its two young editors, Bache (familiarly known as Lightning-Rod Junior) and Duane. Their motto was "Truth, Decency, Utility." Bache, who was 20 when his grandfather died, had attended school in properly Protestant Geneva "to be a Presbyterian and a Republican." He spent the final two years of his grandfather's ambassadorship in Paris, where he learned his trade as a printer. He lived his life with, and in the shadow of, the grand old man and was with him at Franklin Court when he died. From him, he derived much of his radicalism; his opinions of Washington, Adams, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton were probably acquired from listening to Franklin's own verdicts on them.

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