J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, November 24, 2012

The End of the Constitutional Telegraphe

When we left off with John S. Lillie on Tuesday, he was feeling triumphant about the election of Thomas Jefferson as President in 1800. His Constitutional Telegraphe newspaper had strongly supported the Jeffersonian party, though—given how Massachusetts had a favorite son in the race and was already awarding all its Electoral College votes to whoever won the state—that hadn’t actually affected the election.

But Federalists were still in power in New England. And Americans were still working out their understanding of a free press. In February 1801 Chief Justice Francis Dana convinced a jury to indict Lillie for printing an anonymous piece that called him “Lord Chief Justice of the Common Law of England” and cast other aspersions on his integrity. Dana had been trying to apply English libel law in Massachusetts as a way to stamp out “sedition.”

Lillie announced in his 18 February paper that he “prefers to remain for a short time incog.” Too short a time, since state authorities brought him to court in August. Lillie produced the handwritten essay he had published about Dana. People recognized the writing of John Vinal—I suspect this was the man born in 1761 who taught in Boston’s Writing Schools and not his namesake father.

Both Lillie and Vinal were tried in the spring of 1802. For his attorney Lillie had George Blake, who had published essays about the case in the Independent Chronicle and had just been appointed U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts. Vinal had Harrison Gray Otis and John Quincy Adams. That team argued that handwriting wasn’t legal evidence—and indeed it wasn’t yet. So Vinal was acquitted for lack of proof.

There was no question, however, that Lillie’s name appeared on the Constitutional Telegraphe’s masthead. And the U.S. hadn’t established our current understanding of protected political speech. So Lillie was convicted of libel and sentenced to three months in jail and a $100 fine. At the end of March 1802, nineteen days into his term, he published an angry account of the proceedings from his cell and announced he was giving up the newspaper.

A printer named John Moseley Dunham took over, soon changing the paper’s title to the Republican Gazetteer. (The fad for Telelgraphe newspapers had passed.) Later it got new owners and became the Democrat. Dunham went into the ink business before moving to Ohio.

On 12 Oct 1803 Lillie wrote to President Jefferson, enclosing a bill for $4.50 for sending him the Constitutional Telegraphe for six months (October 1801 to April 1802). He explained:
When I was Editor of the News Paper called the Constitutional Telegraphe, I sent it on to you, as did Doctr. [Samuel S.] Parker, who was the original Editor of that Paper. I should not at this late period have thought of forwarding my Bill to you, which I have inclosed in this Letter, but for my misfortunes. I have suffered, Sir, very much in consequence of my too ardent zeal in the Republican cause, & am willing, if it should be necessary, still to suffer more, neither the neglect of my Republican friends, nor the contumely or contempt of my federal enemies, will, I trust, ever induce me to alter my political creed. Perhaps my zeal in the Republican cause when I edited the Telegraphe, made me rather imprudent; I certainly meant well, & my concience does not reproach me with an intention, to injure, either directly, or indirectly, the private character of any man. The distress of my family was great during my unfortunate imprisonment for a supposed libel on Judge Dana; at that time, two of my Children lay at the point of Death, particularly, the youngest, who has the honor to bear your name . . .

You no doubt will recollect Sir, that the Constitutl. Telegraphe, was, at one time, the only decided Republican Paper in this State. and if I know my own heart, when I became its Editor, I had no other view, than the good of my native Country, in the promotion of Republicanism in your Election to the Chief magistracy of the nation, and to this single point I exerted with pleasure all the abilities which I possessed, & had the inexpressible satisfaction to find the cause triumphant
Lillie got what look like federal patronage jobs in the U. S. Loan Office and the U.S. Bank. In 1802 he also inherited the “the old Franklin house on Milk Street”—the Benjamin Franklin birthplace—from his uncle. However, he enjoyed that house for only eight years before it burned down. Lillie died at age 76 in 1842.

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