James Thomson Callender (1758-1803), well known in his lifetime as a political writer and newspaper editor, is remembered today chiefly for his series of newspaper articles alleging that Thomas Jefferson had children with Sally Hemings.
Born in Scotland, informally educated, and later employed as a clerk in Edinburgh, Callender began writing political pamphlets around 1790. When The Political Progress of Britain, an attack on British institutions, was outlawed in January 1793, Callender fled to America, arriving in the United States in May 1793.1
Having established himself as a journalist in Philadelphia, Callender proceeded to criticize elements of the U.S. Constitution that he believed were undemocratic, such as the election of the president through the Electoral College. He said that the Senate was flagrantly unrepresentative because it was not directly elected by the people, and blasted George Washington, who had "debauched" and "deceived" the nation by promoting himself as a popular idol. An advocate of an unfettered press, Callender declared, "The more that a nation knows about the mode of conducting its business, the better chance has that business of being properly conducted."2 Throughout Callender's career his writings were rabidly partisan.
When Callender lost his job as the congressional reporter for the Philadelphia Gazette, he turned to writing pamphlets supporting the Republican party cause. Despite employment, he was continually in debt. Jefferson helped his journalist ally by securing him a position on the Republican paper, The Aurora, and provided him with money off and on for several years.3 Jefferson understood the power of the printed word to reach people and he did not stop Callender in his attacks against Federalist leaders.
In order to curb Alexander Hamilton's influence, Callender published, in his The History of the United States for 1796, a report of the affair between Alexander Hamilton and Maria Reynolds, a married woman.4 The day before the Alien and Sedition Acts became law on July 13, 1798, Callender fled to Virginia to the home of Senator Stevens Thomson Mason of Loudoun County. Then, in 1799, he moved to Richmond where he wrote for the Richmond Recorder. His anti-Federalist pamphlet, The Prospect Before Us, led to his prosecution under the Sedition Act.5 He was sentenced on May 24, 1800, to nine months in jail and a $200 fine.
When he got out of jail in the spring of 1801, Callender expected President Jefferson to reward him for his work and his loyalty. He wanted the Richmond postmaster job but he did not get it. In the president's view, Callender was now too radical, and in an attempt to foster reconciliation after the difficult election of 1800, Jefferson did not patronize the more militant or radical Republicans. As Jefferson wrote, "I am really mortified at the base ingratitude of Callender. it presents human nature in a hideous form."6 In February 1802, Callender joined with Federalist newspaper editor Henry Pace and began to attack both parties, particularly the Republicans and specifically Jefferson. In a series of articles beginning on September 1, 1802, Callender alleged that Jefferson had several children by a slave concubine, Sally Hemings.7
Callender's life quickly began to disintegrate, in large part due to his bitterness and alcoholism. On December 20, 1802, George Hay, Callender's past defense lawyer, beat Callender for threatening to publish stories about him. Callender continued to drink heavily and ended up breaking off his partnership with Pace. Callender was seen in a drunken stupor on July 17, 1803, and later that day, he drowned in the James River. Before his death, he wrote a letter that was published posthumously and in which he tried to make amends for his past. In particular, the letter focused on editorial exchanges dealing with the Skelton Jones and Armistead Selden duel, which had set off a series of bitter newspaper attacks. Callender's letter, however, did not address most of his writings and never mentioned the attacks on Thomas Jefferson.
3. Jefferson helped Callender financially in three ways. He helped him find work, he bought his pamphlets, and he gave him money outright. The first payment Jefferson made to Callender was for $15.14 for multiple copies of Callender's series of pamphlets entitled The History of the United States for 1796. See MB, 2:963, 2:975, 2:980, 2:1002, 2:1005, 2:1018, 2:1028, and 2:1042 Transcriptions of Jefferson's memorandum books for 1797, 1798, 1799, 1800, and 1801 are available at Founders Online.
6. Jefferson to James Monroe, July 15, 1802, in PTJ, 38:72. In this letter, among others, Jefferson wrote that Callender was an object of "mere charity," "without attention to political principles." Transcription available at Founders Online.