Bache, Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin Bache 1769-1798
American journalist, editor, publisher, printer, nonfiction writer, and translator.
A leading newspaperman and Anti-Federalist of the 1790s, Bache was the grandson of American politician, writer, and diplomat Benjamin Franklin. Bache regularly voiced his political and social beliefs in his newspaper, the General Advertiser (later known as the Aurora), as well as in pamphlets and other publications. Through his newspaper and several key pamphlets, he promulgated Anti-Federalist sentiment, favoring stronger state governments that could better represent their populations and also opposing the passing of the Constitution. Bache was also a strong critic of President George Washington and his handling of the Jay Treaty, among other issues. Bache was unabashedly pro-French, and his support of France led to his arrest for sedition, and his federalist tirades were targeted in the creation of the Sedition Act of 1798. Bache is viewed by many critics as one of the earliest vocal critics of American policy, and a crusader for the freedoms of speech and of the press.
Bache was born on August 12, 1769, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Richard Bache, the one-time Postmaster General of the United States, and his wife, Sarah Franklin, the daughter of Benjamin Franklin. Bache spent his early years with his parents in Philadelphia, and accompanied his grandfather—with whom he had become very close—on a diplomatic mission to France in 1776. Bache spent his first two years there at a boarding school in Passy, but—worried that his grandson was being exposed only to royalist ideas and religion—Franklin sent Bache to another boarding school in Geneva, Switzerland in 1779. Bache spent four years there before returning to France for two more years of education in Passy, including instruction in the printing trade.
When Franklin and Bache returned to Philadelphia in 1785, Bache resumed his education at the University of Pennsylvania and continued to learn the printing trade from Franklin. Bache eventually started his own publishing business, though his efforts were initially unsuccessful. Shortly after Franklin's death on April 17, 1790, Bache founded a newspaper, the General Advertiser. At first, Bache's newspaper maintained an impartial tone and he drew on his European background to appeal to different factions within the city. Gradually, however, Bache became more outspoken about his pro-French leanings, and began translating and printing information from French sources, the only newspaperman in Philadelphia to do so. By the mid-1790s, his newspaper was known as the Aurora, and Bache had gained notoriety for his outspoken criticism of the Jay Treaty, which made concessions to England at the expense of the United States' relationship with France. President George Washington supported the treaty, though the public and Congress generally opposed it. Bache endured criticism for printing the text of the treaty while it was still being discussed in Congress. By 1796 Bache had begun to openly criticize Washington as aloof, greedy, and concerned solely with his own interests, as evidenced in Bache's pamphlet Remarks Occasioned by the Late Conduct of Mr. Washington, as President of the United States (1797). Though Bache initially supported the candidacy of John Adams in 1796, he later began to criticize him in much the same manner. For his comments about Washington and Adams, Bache was barred from the floor of the House of Representatives. By 1798 the Aurora was a prominent voice in the Anti-Federalist movement; Bache was arrested on charges of seditious libel three weeks before Adams signed the Sedition Act of 1798 into law. At issue was Bache's publication of an important letter from French Foreign Minister Talleyrand to American envoys that had been received by the Secretary of State only two days before. The letter contained sensitive material, indicating a desire on France's part to continue discussions which would have negated the necessity of war with France. In addition to being arrested and charged with this crime, Bache was physically attacked by his opponents. He was never tried for the charges—during the summer of 1798, a yellow fever outbreak ravaged Philadelphia, and Bache refused to leave the city, choosing to remain to continue publishing his newspaper. He contracted the illness and died on September 11, 1798. After his death, Bache's widow, Margaret, continued to publish the Aurora with the help of several of her husband's employees.
Bache is primarily known for publishing, printing, and writing for the General Advertiser/Aurora from 1790 until his death. Although he did not write all the content himself, Bache significantly shaped the editorial voice of the paper. Because of his knowledge of French and his connections to France established during his education there, Bache was able to translate information from French-language newspapers and other documents, thus providing information unavailable in other Philadelphia newspapers. In addition to the newspaper, Bache also wrote and published several pamphlets related to political issues. In Remarks Occasioned by the Late Conduct of Mr. Washington, as President of the United States, Bache attacks the character of the president on several fronts, including his abilities as a general and as a politician, his choices made while in office, and his focus on money. Another significant pamphlet, Truth Will Out! The Foul Charges of the Tories against the Editor of the Aurora Repelled by Positive Proof and Plain Truth, and His Base Calumniators Put to Shame (1798) responds to rumors that Bache was under the control of the French government, describes his persecution at home, and accuses the federal government of attempting to quash the press through actions both official and unofficial. Throughout his career, Bache increasingly supports the sentiments of the Anti-Federalist movement and argues against a strong federal government in favor of more powerful state governments. His works represent one of the first significant voices of dissent in American journalism.
A controversial figure, Bache enjoyed a loyal readership, and was was supported among the Anti-Federalists. His opinions drew criticism from powerful enemies, however, especially from leading figures in the federal government. Many of the latter denounced Bache for his Anti-Federalist leanings and his criticism of President Washington, and his writings caused his imprisonment and impacted the development of the Sedition Act of 1798. After his death, Bache's writings passed into obscurity until the early twentieth century. Many scholars attribute this lapse in interest to the long shadow of his famous grandfather and to the radical nature of his political views, though some have pointed out that Bache played an important role in the history of early American journalism. Modern critics are divided in their opinions of Bache: while some consider him rash and criticize his journalistic style and ideals, others view him as a crusader and political activist. Many critics, including Bernard Faÿ, Jeffery A. Smith, and James D. Tagg, have analyzed Bache's motivations for writing and publishing such politically-charged works, scrutinizing his background and political views, especially as they relate to the influence of his famous grandfather and his education in Europe. James Morton Smith and Tagg have also approached Bache's work through the content of his newspapers and pamphlets, tracing the evolution of his political views as well as his attitude toward his readership, including women. Critics like Karen K. List, Smith, and Tagg have also discussed Bache's importance as a newspaper publisher of the time, particularly in regard to the increasing importance of newspapers in American society, politics, and elections. Many scholars now consider Bache as a significant voice against the accepted ideologies of his day, crediting him as a trailblazer who helped expand the ideals of freedom of the press and free speech early in the development of the United States.
Remarks Occasioned by the Late Conduct of Mr. Washington, as President of the United States (pamphlet) 1797
Truth Will Out! The Foul Charges of the Tories against the Editor of the Aurora Repelled by Positive Proof and Plain Truth, and His Base Calumniators Put to Shame (pamphlet) 1798
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SOURCE: Cobbett, William. “The Detection of Bache; or French Diplomatic Skill Developed. Very necessary to be kept in all Families in Town and Country.” Early American Imprints, first series, no. 33524, 1955-83.
[In following essay, originally published in 1798, Cobbett criticizes Bache for what he argues were deceptive actions surrounding Bache's publication of a letter from Talleyrand, the foreign affairs minister of France.]
On Saturday, the 16th inst. Bache (the grandson of Old Franklin) published a Letter from Talleyrand, the French minister for Foreign affairs, to the American Envoys at Paris. This letter was evidently calculated, not for the perusal of the Envoys, but for that of the people of America. Its object is to persuade them, that France always has been, and yet is, friendly to them; and that all the calamitles they have suffered, as well as the war, which they have been driven into, are to be ascribed solely to their own government. How this at once fawning, insolent, and malicious letter got into the hands of Bache the following certificate will prove.
“At Paris, on the 19th or 20th of March last, or soon after at Bordeaux, Mr. LEE, the gentleman who brought dispatches to government, desired me to take charge of a number of letters addressed to different persons in America, among others, one to Benj. F. Bache, another to...
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SOURCE: Faÿ, Bernard. “Benjamin Franklin Bache, A Democratic Leader of the Eighteenth Century.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 40, no. 2 (October 1930): 277-304.
[In the following essay, Faÿ offers a biographical sketch of Bache, discussing his political writings and his importance as a publisher. He also relates Bache's work to the theories of his grandfather, Benjamin Franklin, and places Bache in historical context.]
The glory of the years 1770-1785 overshadows the period of the administrations of Washington and Adams.1 A military victory and a triumphant peace appear more impressive than any political achievement or any social development. These are not so easy to celebrate for the poet, and the historian finds them more difficult to study. Nevertheless there is no spectacle more interesting and enlightening to a scholar or philosopher than this 1790-1800 period. The world had seen and is seeing a great many revolutions; to achieve them does not seem so difficult after all, but the world had never seen, and may never again see a great country able to frame, organize, and stabilize its Government in ten years, after a long civil war, in the midst of the most difficult circumstances, and without ever resorting to violence, while the whole world was torn by one of the most gigantic and bloody conflicts which ever stirred the human passions.
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SOURCE: Smith, James Morton. “The Aurora and the Alien and Sedition Laws: Part 1, The Editorship of Benjamin Franklin Bache.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 77, no. 1 (January 1953): 3-23.
[In the following essay, Smith describes the events surrounding Bache's activities as a journalist, his arrest in 1798 for sedition, and the contemporary reaction.]
The chief target of the Sedition Law of 1798 was Benjamin Franklin Bache, namesake of his illustrious grandfather and editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, the nation's most influential Republican newspaper.1 So anxious were the Federalists to bring him to “condign punishment,”2 however, that they moved to silence his criticism of their administration without awaiting the enactment of that law. On June 26, 1798, nearly three weeks before President John Adams signed the sedition bill, the Republican editor was arrested to answer a Federal common law indictment for seditious libels against the President and the executive branch of the government.3
The Federalists had plenty of reasons for wanting to move against the leader of the opposition press. Bache had founded his paper in 1790, when he was only twenty-one, building it into the leading Republican journal by 1798.4 In his brief career he directed a constant fire against the Federalists, hitting every...
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SOURCE: Tagg, James D. “Benjamin Franklin Bache's Attack on George Washington.” The Pennsylvania of History and Biography 100, no. 2 (April 1976): 191-230.
[In the following essay, Tagg outlines Bache's writings critical of President George Washington, focusing on how Bache's background influenced his work, his motivation in attacking Washington, and the development of his opinion of Washington.]
It is common knowledge that during his second administration George Washington was severely attacked by radical opposition journalists. Serious attacks on the President began with Washington's Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793 and increased with the Genêt affair of that year, but did not reach a crescendo until after Washington had signed and defended the Jay Treaty in 1795. In the year before Washington's retirement the attacks had become so extreme that “the President was assailed with a virulence such as few of his successors have suffered.”1
The attacks were as varied as they were virulent. Included in the catalog of Washington's alleged shortcomings, failures, and crimes were: his cold, aloof, arrogant manner; his lack of intelligence and wisdom; and his love of luxury and display. According to his critics, he was both incompetent and unrepublican. He had been a poor general and a lukewarm patriot; he was ungrateful to France; he had conspired to destroy American liberty...
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SOURCE: List, Karen. “Two Party Papers' Political Coverage of Women in the New Republic.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 2, no. 2 (June 1985):152-65.
[In the following essay, List discusses how Bache and rival newspaperman from Philadelphia William Cobbett treated the topics of women and politics in their publications.]
The decade of the 1790s was a time of transition for men and women in the new American republic. As newly formed parties brought politics to a fever pitch and dramatically shaped the future of American government, changes also were stirring in the nature of society itself and in the perception of women's roles. While the political changes seemed bold and precise, alterations in thought about women were, by contrast, subtle, sometimes almost imperceptible.
Politically, Americans in the 1790s were polarized in their attitudes toward the warring nations of Britain and France and toward the two early parties that adhered to them—the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, respectively (Miller, 1960). While the Federalists controlled government in these years, the capital, Philadelphia, remained a center of Democratic thinking (Smelser, 1951; Tinkcom, 1950).1
During John Adams' presidency (1796-1800), France's depredations on U.S. shipping and her subsequent unwillingness to negotiate unless the United States agreed to a bribe and a...
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SOURCE: Smith, Jeffery A. “The Enlightenment Education of Benjamin Franklin Bache.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 112, no. 4 (October 1988): 483-501.
[In the following essay, Smith discusses the influence of Bache's education in Europe, as well as of the ideas of his grandfather, Benjamin Franklin, on his career as a journalist and on his political beliefs.]
Unlike the newspaper writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, early American journalists were sporadic writers. A few sought publicity for themselves, but most preferred to be anonymous or used pseudonyms. They thus avoided possible embarrassment or legal retribution and left their publishers to face any consequences from their articles.1 As partisan journalism intensified in the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary periods, however, journalism moved closer to being a recognized, full-time profession for some Americans. If their work did not make them wealthy, it could at least bring them notoriety and the satisfaction of airing their views, especially when their abrasive writings challenged the leaders of the early republic.
No journalist provoked more wrath in the administrations of the first two presidents than did Benjamin Franklin's grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache. Known as “Lightning Rod Jr.” to his detractors, Bache enraged Federalists by revealing the contents of the Jay...
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SOURCE: Tagg, James D. “The Limits of Republicanism: The Reverend Charles Nisbet, Benjamin Franklin Bache, and the French Revolution.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 112, no. 4 (October 1988): 503-43.
[In the excerpt that follows, Tagg considers Bache's early life, especially his relationship with his grandfather, and its effect on his views on the French Revolution, liberty, sovereignty, and other political ideas of the time.]
For more than two decades, a great transformation has been taking place in our understanding of the nature and evolution of late eighteenth-century American republicanism. Before the late 1960s, historians generally saw early Americans as natural republicans, pragmatically free of ideology. Insofar as philosophical ideas intruded on a republican ethos, they did so primarily through a common Lockean source. It was assumed that ideas were tangible, employed by individuals who consciously and deliberately embraced them in order to resolve real political issues and problems.1
With the work of the republican revisionists—notably Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, J.G.A. Pocock, Lance Banning, and Drew McCoy—the emphasis on things merely republican gave way to a more encompassing notion of an ideological essence of republicanism. At one level, these scholars substituted for the simplistic Lockean universe that formerly prevailed a complex...
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SOURCE: Smith. Jeffery A. “The Revolutionary Journalist: The Court of the Press.” In Printers and Press Freedom: The Ideology of Early American Journalism, pp. 142-61. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
[In the following excerpt, Smith discusses Bache as a journalist and printer, describing Benjamin Franklin's role in setting him up in the business as well as in his political activities.]
The main target of Federalist wrath in 1798 was Benjamin Franklin Bache, a man who had been introduced into the printing trade by his grandfather, Benjamin Franklin. A Jeffersonian editor in Philadelphia, Bache was educated under Franklin's supervision. He became a doctrinaire proponent of Enlightenment and revolutionary principles—particularly those of Benjamin Franklin's protégé, Thomas Paine. Unlike his grandfather, who had talents and ambitions in many fields, Bache made newspaper writing an almost exclusive occupation, as it was possible to do in the United States by the 1790s. Fully prepared to see the journalist as one who performed missionary service for knowledge, justice, and democracy, Bache represented the epitome of libertarian press theory and practice in eighteenth-century America.
Benjamin Franklin formed an emotional attachment to his grandson years before meeting him. When Franklin's daughter, Sarah, gave birth to the boy in 1769, Franklin was on an extended stay in...
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SOURCE: Smith, Jeffery A. “World Revolution and American Reform.” In Franklin and Bache: Envisioning the Enlightened Republic, pp. 111-33. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
[In the excerpt that follows, Smith focuses on Bache's newspaper and publishing activities, describing the evolution of his goals as a publisher, the content of his publications, and his political and social beliefs.]
In the first few months of publication, Benjamin Franklin Bache attempted to follow his announced plans for making the General Advertiser an educational newspaper. The second issue, for instance, had articles on calculating erosion and checking the quality of gunpowder. Having promised in the first issue “to gratify the Public” with anecdotes about his grandfather, he also inserted an account from an English newspaper of some of Franklin's accomplishments. Stories about Franklin and instructive items continued to find a place, but Bache was not satisfied with the merely informative. With fundamental conflicts arising over national goals, he wanted to publish a paper that would report the thrust and parry of contending conceptions of the future. In his fourth week as an editor, he complained to readers about a temporary shortage of exciting news. Heads were not then being cut off in France, he said sarcastically, and in domestic politics he found no party disputes, legislative debates, or “even so...
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SOURCE: “A Democratic Society, 1794-1795,” in Benjamin Franklin Bache and the Philadelphia Aurora, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, pp. 205-38.
[In the following essay, Tagg considers Bache's discussion of civic, social and domestic issues in his newspaper and how his activities in Democratic Societies influenced this content. Tagg argues that Bache saw the societies as another way to shape pubic opinion.]
If a law is obnoxious to any part of the country, let the citizens there petition for its repeal, expose its defects, or injustice through the medium of the press; let them change their representation, put into their legislature men whom they know will be active to procure its repeal.
(General Advertiser, July 26, 1794)
Bache's naive advocacy of closer relations with revolutionary France could not have struck a responsive chord even among those most infatuated with the French cause. But in 1794 and early 1795 Bache happened on issues that rescued him from the alienation inherent in an international vision too extreme to be taken seriously and too remote to promise resolution. The crisis with Great Britain in early 1794, and the threat of commercial retaliation against that nation by Congress, had opened the way.1 As Federalists proclaimed the commercial necessity of peaceful relations with that...
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Dennis, Everette E. “Stolen Peace Treaties and the Press: Two Case Studies.” Journalism History 2, no. 1 (Spring 1975): 6-14.
Considers how Bache used the Aurora, in denouncing the federal government's secrecy surrounding the Jay Treaty.
Rosenfeld, Richard N. American “Aurora”: A Democratic-Republican Returns—The Suppressed History of Our Nation's Beginnings and the Heroic Newspaper That Tried to Report It. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997, 988p.
A narrative history of Bache's influence written in the voice of William Duane, his assistant and editor after Bache's death.
Stewart, Donald A. “Newspapers and Their Role.” In The Opposition Press of the Federalist Period, pp. 3-32. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1969.
Offers a brief overview of the political history of the era and the role that newspapers and newspapermen, including Bache, played.
Additional coverage of Bache's life and career is contained in the following source published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 43.
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