The Tragic 1803 Death Of James Callender, The Journalist Who Exposed The Founding Fathers

Journalists have been exposing politicians for hundreds of years, and one of the most notorious of them is James Callender, a Scotsman who got his start criticizing the British monarchy. When they came after him, he made his way to Philadelphia via Ireland in 1793 (via Encyclopedia Virginia). He began reporting about politics in Washington, established the "Political Register," and published several pamphlets, according to

Callender wrote hit pieces on Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and the Federalist Party. By 1799, Thomas Jefferson began helping him financially, per PBS. The next year, Callender published a pamphlet entitled "The Prospect Before Us," which attacked Adams. At the time, such attacks were against the law, and in 1800, Callender was charged with sedition. In May 1800, he was sentenced to nine months in jail. While behind bars, Jefferson became president, and Callender saw this as a beacon of hope, reports Encyclopedia Virginia.

From bad to worse

When James Callender was released from jail in 1801, he expected Thomas Jefferson (above) to reward him for his loyalty to the Richmond postmaster job. Jefferson pardoned him (via Encyclopedia Virginia), but that was the extent of his kindness. By then, Jefferson viewed Callender as too polarizing, distancing himself from the journalist, who did not appreciate the indifference. The newly-elected president wrote that Callender's ingratitude "presents human nature in a hideous form," reports Monticello.

Callender then set his sights on attacking Jefferson and, as a result, ended up exposing the fact that Jefferson had several children with an enslaved person, Sally Hemings (via Monticello). It's not clear if Callender thought these fresh attacks would make his life easier, but what is obvious is that they did not. PBS reports that his life took a turn for the worse because he became destitute and prone to drink. It was difficult for Callender to find work, a situation that encouraged more drinking, per Encyclopedia Virginia.

Callender drowned in 1803

James Callender seemed to make enemies out of those who once supported him. He even managed to offend George Hay, the lawyer who defended him during his sedition trial. Hay reportedly beat Callender in 1802 with a stick after he threatened to publish stories about him (per Hay even had Callender arrested for libel. Callender also reportedly argued with his publisher, Harry Pace, about wages. Pace eventually fired Callender in 1803.

On the evening of July 17, 1803, Callender was allegedly spotted walking intoxicated near the James River in Virginia. Later that evening, he was discovered drowned in shallow water on the shore (via Monticello). The Encyclopedia Virginia reports that a coroner determined that Callender drowned accidentally, but author Willaim Saffire has another theory. Saffire writes in the book "Scandalmonger" that Callender may have been murdered in an attempt to keep him quiet, per The New York Times.