To Josiah Ogden Hoffman1
[New York, November 6, 1799]
“Greenleafs new Dayly Advertiser” of this morning contains a publication intitled “Extract of a letter from Philadelphia dated September 20th,” which charges me with being at the “bottom” of an “effort recently made to suppress the Aurora” (a news paper of that City) by pecuniary means.2
It is well known that I have long been the object of the most malignant calumnies of the faction opposed to our government, through the medium of the papers devoted to their views. Hitherto I have foreborne to resort to the laws for the punishment of the authors or abettors; and were I to consult personal considerations alone I should continue in this course, repaying hatred with contempt. But public motives now compel me to a different conduct. The design of that faction to overturn our government, and with it the great pillars of social security and happiness, in this country, become every day more manifest, and have of late acquired a degree of system, which renders them formidable. One principal Engine for effecting the scheme is by audacious falsehoods to destroy the confidence of the people in all those who are in any degree conspicuous among the supporters of the Government: an Engine which has been employed in time past with too much success, and which unless counteracted in future is likely to be attended with very fatal consequences. To counter act it is therefore a duty to the community.
Among the specimens of this contrivance, that which is the subject of the present letter demands peculiar attention. A bolder calumny; one more absolutely destitute of foundation was never propagated. And its dangerous tendency needs no comment; being calculated to inspire the belief that the Independence and liberty of the press are endangered by the intrigues of ambitious citizens and by foreign gold.
In so flagrant a case the force of the laws must be tried. I therefore request that you will take immediate measures towards the prosecution of the persons who conduct the inclosed paper.3
With great consideration I am Sir yr Obed ser
Josiah O Hoffman Esq
ADf, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.
1. Hoffman was attorney general of the state of New York.
This letter was printed in The New-York Gazette and General Advertiser, November 8, 1799; in the [New York] Commercial Advertiser, November 8, 1799; and in The [New York] Daily Advertiser, November 9, 1799.
2. The following item appeared in the [New York] Argus. Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser on November 6, 1799: “Extract of a letter from Philadelphia, dated Sept 20.
“An effort was recently made to suppress the Aurora, and Alexander Hamilton was at the bottom of it. Mrs. [Margaret H.] Bache [widow of Benjamin Franklin Bache] was offered 6,000 dollars down, in the presence of several persons, in part payment; the valuation to be left to two impartial persons, and the remainder paid immediately on her giving up the paper: but she pointedly refused it, and declared she would not dishonour her husband’s memory, nor her children’s future by such baseness. When she parted with the paper, it should be to republicans only.
“‘I am proud to hear of your honourable state’s republicanism. The change in men’s minds is truly astonishing.’
“It would not be amiss to enquire by what magic Mr. Hamilton finds it in his power to raise a sum of money to spare, sufficient to purchase the Aurora, the establishment of which is worth between 15 and 20,000 dollars? In order to do away a charge of speculation, brought against him while he was secretary of the treasury, he says he was not able to raise 1,000 at one time. To support this assertion, he brings forward the receipts of James Reynolds, the reputed husband of the dear Maria, for that sum, paid him at different periods; alledging that a secretary of the treasury who had been guilty of the crime laid to his charge, could not possibly be supposed to require time for payment of so small a sum, when the delay left it in the power of Reynolds to blast his character.
“If the quondam secretary was really as poor as he wished to make us believe, how happens it that he can now throw away thousands upon an object that was to bring him in nothing. Perhaps however, the money was to be raised in the same manner that [James Thomson] Callender was to be driven out of Richmond,—by an association of orderly federalists. There is also another resource—British secret service money—a hint to Sir Robert would do the business at once. Mr. Liston [British Minister to the United States] is so well-bred a man, that he could not politely refuse to enter into the plot. By becoming a partner in the concern, he would naturally expect to screen the ‘Defender of the faith’ and his satellites from many hard rubs which the mildness of the sedition law as yet suffers the Aurora to bestow on them; and also prevent his courtly ears from being offended with the repetition of the story of the horse thief dispatches British influence &c.
“One would have supposed Mr. Hamilton might have fallen upon a better plan to suppress the Aurora; for it is a bungling piece of work at the best, to attempt to suppress a paper by getting it in the power of the proprietors to furnish themselves with a new set of materials.
“We would advise him, as he is now a major general, to call on capt Montgomery and his troop, whose heroism in the Northampton expedition certainly entitles them to this post of honor; they might have jibbeted the Editor and destroyed the office so effectually in half an hour, that not a vestige would have remained.
“This would have been attended with no expense whatever, which to a poor man as the general was, should be matter of serious consideration. It is astonishing that this did not occur to him. Nothing should have escaped a man of such nice calculations.”
Jacob Schneider, editor of the [Reading, Pennsylvania] Adler, had accused Captain Montgomery of the Lancaster County cavalry of breaking into his printing office without provocation and ordering that he be whipped at the public market house. For Republican reaction to this incident, see the [Philadelphia] Aurora. General Advertiser, April 24, 25, 1799. For a defense of the troops, see the Aurora, May 13, 1799.
3. This letter led to the prosecution and conviction of David Frothingham, who served as foreman or manager of the Argus. Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser. Ann Greenleaf, the widow of Thomas Greenleaf, who had died on September 14, 1798, was the publisher of the paper. In the case against Frothingham, which was tried in the New York Court of Oyer and Terminer on November 16, 1799, the “substance of the indictment was, that with a design to injure the name and reputation of General Hamilton, and to expose him to public hatred and contempt, and to cause it to be believed that he was hostile and opposed to the Republican Government of the United States, the defendant had published a libel, in which it was alleged that General Hamilton was at the bottom of the efforts to purchase the Aurora …” (Wharton, State Trials description begins Francis Wharton, State Trials of the United States During the Administrations of Washington and Adams (Philadelphia, 1849). description ends , 649).
The jury found Frothingham guilty, and the judgment of the court was “That the said David Frothingham, the aforesaid defendant, for the said offence whereof he is convicted, pay a fine of five hundred dollars, and that he be imprisoned in the Bridewell of the City of New York, for the term of four calendar months; and it is further ordered, that he stand committed until the said fine be paid, and until he enter into a recognizance, himself in $1,000, conditioned for the good behavior of the said defendant, for the term of two years after the expiration of the said imprisonment” (Wharton, State Trials description begins Francis Wharton, State Trials of the United States During the Administrations of Washington and Adams (Philadelphia, 1849). description ends , 651).
In the Historical Documents Collection, on deposit at Queens College, New York City, there is an undated signed document in Hoffman’s handwriting describing the decision of the jury.
For portions of H’s testimony at the trial, see Wharton, State Trials description begins Francis Wharton, State Trials of the United States During the Administrations of Washington and Adams (Philadelphia, 1849). description ends , 650–51.