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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Wednesday, January 02, 2013

“Our Telegraphe much news relates”

Yesterday I quoted the introductory lines of the verse for 1 Jan 1799 printed for the subscribers to the American Telegraphe in Newfield (later Bridgeport), Connecticut. In the voice of the newspaper carrier Polly, the wife or perhaps the stepdaughter of printer Lazarus Beach, that poem asked readers to “excuse what you cannot commend” in the rest of the broadside. But what might need excusing?

Those verses that followed were a poetic review of the year 1798, and they emphasized political controversies. For example:
Of Frenchmen’s “Diplomatic skill,”
Which many a Telegraphe did fill,—
Of X, Y, Z, and Talleyrand,
And ladies too, a chosen band,
Who undertook t’extort a fee,
From nations sovereign and free,
And after we had crouch’d and feed ’em,
To make us swallow Gallic freedom…
That’s a reference to the XYZ Affair (lampooned above), in which French officials had demanded bribes from American diplomats. With the facts gradually coming out, the nascent American political parties maneuvered for advantages and openings to blame the other side.
At home—of these United States,
Our Telegraphe much news relates:
How French-Americans are bang’d,
Yet Doctor L——n goes unhang’d.
How B——w a long letter wrote,
In right French stile and Gallic note:
For showing which, the Vermont L—n
The cold stone doublet has to try on.
“Doctor L——n” was Dr. George Logan, a Jeffersonian who had tried to effect peace between the U.S. of A. and France through informal contacts. Federalists denounced him as a traitor and passed a law making such unofficial diplomacy illegal.

“B——w” was the American diplomat Joel Barlow, who sent a long, one-sided letter from Paris to his brother-in-law Rep. Abraham Baldwin on 1 Mar 1798 about the friction between America and France. Rep. Matthew Lyon (the “Vermont L—n”) printed that letter and went to jail for that and other offenses under the Sedition Act. The American Telegraphe celebrated rather than condemned that attempt to limit the free press.
How Kentucke and the old Dominion,
(Akin by nature and opinion)
Are ’bout resolving, all at once,
To act the madman and the dunce.
But Carolina and Georgia too,
Are honest, Fed’ral, firm and true,
What then can poor Virginians do?
Why after they’ve cut all their flashes,
Repent in sackcloth, dust and ashes.
That refers to the conflict over the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, challenges to the central government drafted by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, respectively.

There were also some ethnic insults aimed at the French:
Great Buonaparte with his war dogs,
Has gone to Egypt after frogs…
In sum, the bulk of this broadside was Federalist invective. The American Telegraphe was one of the few newspapers to adopt that name which didn’t support the Jeffersonian party. And even at New Year’s, the paper’s employees were spreading its politics. The carrier delivering the verse was therefore in the potentially difficult position of asking for generous contributions while insulting a portion of the public.

But it could have been worse. In The Revolution of American Conservatism, David Hackett Fischer classified the American Telegraphe as “moderately Federalist in 1798.” In The Opposition Press of the Federalist Period, Donald H. Stewart called it “Independently Federalist.” Imagine what those verses would have sounded like if the paper had been strongly Federalist.

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