“Fake News!”: Newspapers and George Washington’s Second Presidential Administration

A Political Cartoon titled "Congressional Pugilists".
TOPICS: Founding Era Politics, George Washington, Presidency

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
May 24, 2019

A Political Cartoon titled "Congressional Pugilists".
“Congressional Pugilists,” a political cartoon depicting–according to the Library of Congress–”a fight on the floor of Congress between Vermont Representative Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold of Connecticut.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The cry of “fake news” has become ubiquitous in the United States today, particularly with regard to politics. When a news story paints a negative view of a politician, a partisan belief, or a proposed law, the public’s response now often involves attacks on the press. However, the use of the press to spread misleading or outright false information, usually about a political opponent, is nothing new. George Washington experienced attacks by Democratic-Republican newspapers in attempts to destroy his character, discredit his administration, and promote opposing viewpoints. And it was up to the reader to determine what truth, if any, lurked beneath partisan criticisms—or outright penned assaults.

The National Gazette (Philadelphia), run by Philip Freneau, a clerk in the Department of State under Thomas Jefferson, was notorious to Federalists for its content.1 A favorite target of the paper was any action relating to the Washington administration that smacked of monarchy. The celebration of Washington’s birthday became an easy scapegoat to compare the first president to a king. Wrote one “Gentleman”: “The monarchical farce of the birth day was as usual, kept up, but with this difference, that great exertions were made to render it important.” He then continued to accuse the American people of accepting obviously royalist actions simply because the president was “the man of their affections.”2

A writer with the pen name “Valerius” likewise attacked “citizens” for their worship of Washington: “It appears by the conduct of some men, that we are only republicans in name and not in principle. For surely the customs and manners emanating from, and congenial with, monarchy, must be incongruous in a republic. Who will deny, that the celebrating of birth days is not a striking feature of royalty?”3 However, the National Gazette was not the only newspaper to aim at President Washington. The Aurora General Advertiser (Philadelphia), published by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache, critiqued George Washington politically as well as personally. “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by WASHINGTON,” one writer roared. “If ever a nation has suffered from the improper influence of a man, the American nation has suffered from the influence of WASHINGTON. If ever a nation was deceived by a man, the American nation has been deceived by WASHINGTON. Let his conduct then be an example to future ages.”4

Unsurprisingly, Washington was not a fan of either the National Gazette or the Aurora General Advertiser. In 1793, he wrote to Henry Lee, “The publications in Freneau’s and Beach’s Papers are outrages on common decency; and they progress in that style, in proportion as their pieces are treated with contempt, & passed by in silence by those, at whom they are aimed.” He nonetheless accepted that the newspapers would not relent while he was in office: “The arrows of malevolence therefore, however barbed & well pointed, never can reach the most valuable part of me; though, whilst I am up as a mark, they will be continually aimed.”5 Washington’s political opponent Thomas Jefferson had a different perspective, writing less than two weeks after Washington’s letter to Lee that the president lost his temper over his treatment in the newspapers.6

Regardless of his reaction, a well-known quote by George Washington from his Newburgh Address of March 15, 1783 demonstrates he understood the necessity of spirited political discourse. Speaking to officers of the Continental army, he asserted that “the freedom of Speech may be taken away—and, dumb & silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.”7

To be sure, the Washington administration had support from the press as well. The Gazette of the United States (Philadelphia) opposed the National Gazette and the Aurora General Advertiser to promote Federalist policies and the president. For example, the July 24, 1793 issue of the Gazette of the United States contained an article titled “For the Gazette” and authored by “JUSTICE.” It begins, “While every citizen of a free government claims the privilege of thinking as he pleases, and of publishing his thoughts to the world, he must expect that the rest of the community will also exercise their right of judging as they please of his opinions, his motives and himself.” The article continues, “Who then is the Editor of the “National Gazette,” that takes the liberty upon every occasion, both trifling and important, not to examine with candor and decency into the conduct of our first magistrate, but to cast at him the most illiberal and unwarrantable abuse—its absurdity deserves to be hooted at, and its impertinence punished.”8

Politics has always involved conflict in the United States. While the earliest inhabitants of the new nation didn’t yell “Fake News!” when they disagreed with a published perspective, political battles still existed in contemporary news media. The extent of media outlets has vastly expanded, as has the media’s influence on political decisions, but the relationship between the press and the public remains the same.

 


  1. For the debate on Thomas Jefferson’s role in the National Gazette, see Philip Marsh, “The Griswold Story of Freneau and Jefferson,” The American Historical Review, 51 (1945): 68-73.
  2. National Gazette (Philadelphia), 2 March 1793.
  3. National Gazette (Philadelphia), 27 Feb. 1793.
  4. Aurora General Advertiser (Philadelphia), 23 Dec. 1796.
  5. George Washington to Henry Lee, 21 July 1793, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified on April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-13-02-0176. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 13:261.
  6. “Notes of Cabinet Meeting on Edmond Charles Genet,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified on April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-26-02-0545. Also available in print: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Main Series, 26:601-603.
  7. “From George Washington to Officers of the Army, 15 March 1783 [Early Access document],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified on April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-10840.
  8. Gazette of the United States (Philadelphia), 24 July 1793.