Benjamin Franklin Bache Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.