History Speaks

When Benjamin Franklin’s Grandson was Jailed for Criticizing His President (Part I)

“THE TIMES: a POLITICAL PORTRAIT.” Artist unknown. c 1795-97. A caricature of George Washington in a carriage trampling over his critics. Inscribed at the bottom: “Triumph Government: perish all its enemies.–Traitors be warned: justice though slow, is sure.” (New-York Historical Society)

Foreword by Stephen D. Solomon, Editor, First Amendment Watch and Marjorie Deane Professor of Journalism, New York University

Here is a story about a president who lashed out at the press and thought that his critics were dangerous—and should even be thrown in jail.

No, this is not President Donald Trump. More than two centuries earlier, during a time of rising tensions with France, America’s second president, John Adams, excoriated his critics for their “tongues and pens of slander” and for their “profligacy, falsehood, and malignancy, in defaming our government.” For Adams and his Federalist party supporters, criticism was a serious political threat. They responded with the Sedition Act of 1798, the most odious anti-speech law in U.S. history. Any criticism of Adams or the Federalist controlled Senate and House could land a person in jail. And that’s where more than a dozen critics of the Adams Administration ended up.

One of the primary targets of the law was Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin, and publisher of the Aurora, an opposition newspaper in Philadelphia that scorned Adams at every turn. Though Bache may have escaped the Sedition Act, it was only because death by yellow fever took care of him before Adams could.

Bache is almost a forgotten figure. But as legal scholar and historian Ronald K. L. Collins makes clear in two fascinating essays we’re publishing in First Amendment Watch, Bache was the most important of a group of journalists of his day who “tested the fiber of the First Amendment like no one since.” The resolution of that test has reverberated to our own day. As the Supreme Court said in New York Times v. Sullivan, the Sedition Act “first crystallized a national awareness of the central meaning of the First Amendment.”

That the First Amendment should be so tested just seven years after its ratification in 1791 may seem odd, but those in power did not interpret the law as we do now The Federalists who supported the Sedition Act had a narrow view of freedom of the press, a perspective that likely stemmed as much from political expediency as from principle. The Federalists argued that the First Amendment meant nothing more than it did under English common law, which protected the press from prior restraints on publication but not from punishment for calumnies against the government after publication.

The Sedition Act spurred James Madison to articulate a much broader conception of press freedom. In his Report of 1800 on the Virginia Resolutions, Madison argued that an American understanding of freedom of the press had to flow from the Constitution’s placement of sovereignty in the people, rather than in the government in the British system. From popular sovereignty, he argued, “a different degree of freedom in the use of the press should be contemplated.” The press had a central role in holding public officials accountable to the people—what Madison described as “that right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon, which has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right.”

Madison’s view of the First Amendment eventually won the day. And it was Benjamin Franklin Bache and a group of rowdy journalists in the waning days of the eighteenth century who instigated the battle that helped define freedom of the press in America’s republic form of government.

Benjamin Franklin Bache and the Fight for the Free Press

By Ronald K.L. Collins, former Harold S. Shefelman Scholar at the University of Washington Law School, and author of Nuanced Absolutism: Floyd Abrams and the First Amendment. Collins now edits a weekly blog called First Amendment News, and serves as the co-director of the History Book Festival.

There is now only wanting … a sedition bill, which we shall certainly soon see proposed. The object of that is the suppression of the Whig presses. Bache’s [Aurora] has been particularly named. — Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, April 26, 1798

Within the walls of the New York Historical Society there is a remarkable caricature of political strife in America circa 1798. Appearing in The Times: A Political Portrait, this drawing depicts President John Adams in regal military garb leading the carriage of state while James Madison pokes his long and powerful pen into one of its wheels — this while a determined Thomas Jefferson pushes mightily to stop the carriage of state. Meanwhile, a band of marching Federalist soldiers tramples Benjamin Bache, a Jeffersonian journalist. And then a final insult: A mangy dog lifts its leg over Bache’s paper, the Aurora.

Close up of the political cartoon “The Times: A Political Portrait.” Highlighted in yellow on the bottom left is Benjamin Franklin Bache, crushed by the weight of Washington’s carriage. The artist also drew a dog (middle) peeing on Bache’s newspaper the Aurora. (New-York Historical Society)

Acerbic, caustic, vile, vituperative, uncontrollable, scurrilous, and often mean-spirited — this was the trend of the times in 1790s America. The Federalist and anti-Federalist printers and newspaper editors of that time tested the fiber of the First Amendment like no one since. So much so, that no treatment of that guarantee can be complete without some serious discussion of one of its most colorful figures, Benjamin Franklin Bache (1769-1798).

One must look long and hard to find much more than fleeting references to Bache, if that, in many of the major works on the First Amendment. He is an unknown in law school casebooks and treatises, a nameless nobody in numerous journalism texts, a missing person in political science books, and a figure of slight notice in many volumes of American history, though there are a few notable exceptions.

Hero or heretic? By and large, it is as if the railings of the old Federalist rag, John Ward Fenno’s Gazette of the United States (May 11, 1798), had cursed Bache’s fate forever: “Let none attempt to describe him — language is too weak — no combination of words will come so near to expressing everything that is monstrous in human nature as BENJAMIN FRANKLIN BACHE. Let him sink into contempt, and let oblivion cover him.”

Foe of George Washington and John and Abigail Adams and friend of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, this grandson of Benjamin Franklin was an anti-Federalist crusader at a time when the prosecutorial winds blew strong against “sedition.” When Bache died at age 29 on Sept. 10, 1798, the Republican-spirited Independent Chronicle (Sept. 17, 1798) hailed him: “The real friends of [our] country cannot but lament the loss of so valuable a citizen.” Years later, in 1811, Jefferson wrote to his lawyer friend William Wirt about the importance of Bache’s Aurora: “It was our comfort in the gloomiest days.” Jefferson deemed this kind of “watchful sentinel” as crucial for constitutional government in America.

Whatever one may make of this firebrand pamphleteer and printer of the Aurora, Bache’s story reveals much about the birth of political suppression in the new nation and the spirited response to that oppression. It is, to be sure, a complicated history, but nonetheless noteworthy in its record of the struggle for freedom of the press at a time when the First Amendment was first tested — with vicious vigor.

Franklin’s imprint. Benjamin Franklin was the wind beneath Benjamin Bache’s wings. It was his famous grandfather, more than his father Richard or his mother Sarah, who most shaped the philosophical and professional life of the young Bache. At age 7 the boy ventured to faraway France to the court of Louis XVI; his grandfather was America’s ambassador. There he attended French boarding schools and played with John Quincy Adams until Franklin sent him off to Geneva with a Swiss diplomat, Philibert Cramer, one of Voltaire’s publishers. The boy learned French, Latin, and Greek and took much joy in the ways of Enlightenment education. In 1782, Benny Bache returned to France where he took up the “fine art” of printing in Passy. In time, he worked as an apprentice to some of the most noted printers in France.

Around that time, Benjamin Franklin counseled moderation in publishing, stressing that an editor should “consider himself as in some degree the Guardian of his Country’s Reputation, and refuse to insert such Writings as may hurt it.” At first, that gospel sat well with the European-educated lad, who nonetheless hated any form of monarchy or oligarchy.

When Franklin and his grandson returned to Philadelphia in mid-September 1785, the revered statesman was greeted with wild enthusiasm and thunderous cannon fire. In that glorified atmosphere, Bache enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, still determined to be a printer. After a few years, he took his Bachelor of Arts degree, though his graduation was delayed by meetings of the Constitutional Convention, which were held nearby.

Benjamin Franklin (center, in red) and his grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache (to the left, in blue) return to Philadelphia from Europe, where Bache was educated. (Library of Congress)

Bache follows Benjamin

Benjamin Bache depicted in the background of an image of Benjamin Franklin in his Philadelphia printing shop. Painting by Arthurs, S.M, unknown date. (Library of Congress)

With Franklin’s encouragement and capital, Bache became a Philadelphia printer, at first printing and selling Greek and Latin grammar books along with books for children. By the time his famous and wealthy grandfather died in 1790, the 21-year-old Bache was ready to enter into the political fray and publish his own newspaper. In a prospectus for the paper he released at the time, Bache declared: “This Paper will always be open, for the discussion of political, or any other interesting subjects, to such as deliver their sentiments with temper & decency, and whose motive appears to be … the public good.

It was a noble intent, one expressed at just the time when political conflict was starting to be the coin of America. And that conflict worked its ways into the bones of Benny Bache, who became less serene and more outraged as the 1790s unfolded. Soon enough his philosophical detachment gave way to partisan protests.

‘Jeffersonian journalism’ vs. Federalist favoritism. In Colonial times and thereafter, there was a certain faith in the printed word and in the rough-and-tumble of divergent views. This reflected the old Miltonian belief in the staying power of truth and in men’s ability to discern it. Benjamin Franklin, the onetime editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette, held dearly to that sentiment. As early as June 10, 1731, he wrote the following in the Gazette: “Printers are educated in the belief that even when men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that even when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.”

As politics collided with principle in the 1790s, the nation was hopelessly divided and confidence in a free exchange of ideas began to wane. In those days one either sided with the presidential administration (Washington, Adams, Hamilton and the like) or opposed it (Jefferson, Madison, Paine and the like). One either hated France and prepared for war against it (Federalists) or admired its egalitarian resolve and tried to maintain peace (anti-Federalists). One either supported calls for a greatly expanded federal army (Hamilton) or opposed them (Jefferson).

The newspapers of the day mirrored this stark dualism of views, this at a time when public interest in the press increased greatly. “During the 1790s,” as author Ron Chernow has written, “the number of American newspapers more than doubled.” And of those, he added, “many partisan sheets specialized in vituperative character attacks.”

“Printers are educated in the belief that even when men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that even when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter,” Franklin (1731).

On the Federalist side, there were papers like John Fenno’s Gazette of the United States and William Cobbett’s Porcupine’s Gazette. On the anti-Federalist side, there were the likes of the Boston Independent Chronicle and Benjamin Bache’s General Advertiser, Commercial, Agricultural, and Literary Journal, which later came to be known as the General Advertiser or simply the Aurora. (Some years later, Matthew Lyon, a Vermont congressman, published The Scourge of Aristocracy and Repository of Important Political Truths — a radical Jeffersonian Republican newspaper dedicated to opposing Federalist publications that “vomit[ed] forth columns of lies.”)

The arrival of the Aurora. When Benny Bache’s paper came on the scene on October 1, 1790, a graphic of the Aurora borealis appeared on its nameplate. It was “just as [Benjamin] Franklin had represented the phenomenon, with luminous electrical rays emanating through the earth’s atmosphere.” Below the word “Aurora,” Jeffrey A. Smith has also noted, was the motto: “SURGO UT PROSIM” — “I rise to be useful.” For $5.00 a year one could receive Bache’s commercial and political messages six days a week. The paper’s circulation began at around 400 and increased to an impressive 1,700 within a few years.

Gazette of US

A writer calling himself “Americus” calls Bache wicked and claims the printer has “labored to destroy” his country.

Soon enough Bache had a nickname in Philadelphia circles and elsewhere — “Lightning Rod Junior.” He was so called, observed James MacGregor Burns, “because he was the grandson of Benjamin Franklin and liked to apply electric shocks to the Federalists.” Such officials and Federalist-supported causes quickly became targets in Bache’s editorial crosshairs. For example:

  • The Aurora joined ranks with tradesmen, manufacturers, and farmers in the fierce battle over excise taxes.
  • The Aurora led the charge against the Jay Treaty when it disclosed its contents after the senate approved it but before President Washington signed it and made its terms public. 
  • Soon afterwards, Bache reprinted the entire document in a pamphlet and then ventured to New York, Boston, and elsewhere to distribute it, hoping to spawn opposition to it.
  • Much ink was spent on Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist bogyman for many Jeffersonian Republicans. “By some it is whispered,” Bache wrote in the Aurora on November 8, 1794, “that he is with the army without invitation and by many it is shrewdly suspected his conduct is a first step towards a deep laid scheme, not for the promotion of the country’s prosperity, but [for] the advancement of his private interests.”
  • The anti-Federalist attacks against George Washington were as harsh as they were commonplace. After the president had signed the Jay Treaty — Bache wrote that many “cannot yet believe it” — citizens were warned to be on the alert against being “lulled … into a dangerous security by the arts of those whose interest is to deceive them.”
  • And in “the year before the election of 1796,” Jeffrey Smith has observed, the Aurora was chock full “with regular reminders that Washington was a slaveholder and . . . that he was servile to Britain and hostile to France.”

The “infamous scribblers,” as Washington branded them in late June of 1796, were relentless in their criticisms of his second term. Finally, he could take it no more; in a momentous move Washington declined to pursue a third term — this though “many Americans expected him to serve for life,” as Chernow has noted.

The ink on his Hamilton-inspired farewell address was hardly dry when the anti-Federalists lashed out at old George Washington. Thus, as recorded by Joseph Ellis, Bache gave prominent attention to Tom Paine’s anti-Washington rants. In a letter published in the Aurora, Paine wrote: “[T]he world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.”

Bache agreed, entirely. In his eyes, Washington’s retirement was a splendid occasion: “If ever there was a period for rejoicing,” the Aurora proclaimed (March 6, 1797), “this is the moment — every heart, in unison with the freedom and happiness of the people, ought to beat high with exultation that the name of WASHINGTON from this day ceases to give currency to political inequity and to legalize corruption . . . .”

Typical Bache, thought John Fenno, editor of the Gazette of the United States, a Federalist-sympathetic paper. “Mr. Bache . . . seems to take a kind of hellish pleasure in defaming the name of WASHINGTON. (March 7, 1797)

As for George Washington, he had had it with this contemptible printer: His “Calumnies are to be exceeded only by his IMPRUDENCE, and both stand unrivaled,” he complained to Jeremiah Wadsworth in a March 6, 1797 letter.

But Bache’s editorial arrows were not limited to Hamilton and Washington. For like his grandfather, the young Bache held strong views about John Adams. On the one hand, the elder Franklin granted that Adams was “always an honest man,” as he told Robert Livingston in late July of 1783. And he conceded that Adams was “often a wise” man, too. On the other hand, “sometimes, stressed Franklin, he is “absolutely out of his senses.” That sentiment held strong with Benny Bache — in the 1790s it turned to outright animosity, expressed unabashedly, openly, and frequently. 

“Old, querulous, Bald, blind, crippled, Toothless Adams” is how the editor of the Aurora described the president he loved to loathe. For Mrs. Adams, she hoped and prayed that “the wrath” of the people would one day “devour” this “lying wretch of a Bache.”

The war of words was escalating; it quickly became a fight for freedom itself.

Aurora Borealis Nameplate

An image of Aurora‘s nameplate, which included a graphic of the aurora borealis and the Latin motto “SURGO UT PROSIM,” meaning “I rise to be useful.”

The second part of Collins’s essay will be published next Friday, May 22, 2020. 



Raffi Andonian, “The Adamant Patriot: Benjamin Franklin Bache as Leader of the Opposition Press,” Penn State University Libraries (n.d.)

James MacGregor Burns, The Vineyard of Liberty (Knopf, 1982)

Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (Penguin Press, 2010)

Bernard Fay, The Two Franklins: Fathers of American Democracy (Little, Brown, 1933)

Martin Gruberg, “Benjamin Franklin Bache,” The First Amendment Encyclopedia (n.d.)

Merrill D. Peterson, ed.  Thomas Jefferson: Writings ( Library of America, 1984)

Richard N. Rosenfeld, American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns (St. Martin’s Press, 1997)

Arthur Scherr,  “Inventing the Patriot President: Bache’s Aurora and John Adams,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (1995) 119 (4): 369-399.

_______. “‘Vox Populi’ versus the Patriot President: Benjamin Franklin Bache’s Philadelphia Aurora and John Adams (1797),” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies (Fall 1995) 62, No. 4 pp. 503-531

Jeffrey A. Smith, Printers and Press Freedom: The Ideology of Early American Journalism Printers and Press Freedom: The Ideology of Early American Journalism (Oxford University Press, 1987)

_______.  Franklin and Bache: Envisioning the Enlightened Republic (Oxford University Press, 1990)

James Morton Smith, Freedom’s Fretters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca (Cornell University Press, 1956)

Stephen Solomon, Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Speech (St. Martin’s Press, 2016)

James Tagg, Benjamin Franklin Bache and the Philadelphia “Aurora” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991)

_______. “The Limits of Republicanism: The Reverend Charles Nisbet, Benjamin Franklin Bache, and the French Revolution.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (1988) 112 (4), 503-543.