I can’t say that I was ever the most avid reader, or the biggest fan, of Gawker. But as the trenchant news website was forced to shut down this week as the result of the combined forces of Peter Thiel and Hulk Hogan, I realized that I was being more than a little hypocritical.
After all, as a historian of 1790s culture, I rely heavily on the work of Benjamin Franklin Bache. And if anything embodied the no-holds-barred, gossipy style of Gawker in the 18th century – not to mention the attempted backlash from powerful forces – it was the Aurora General Advertiser.
Of course, it is not at all new to note that there are similarities between the internet journalism (of all types) of the early 21st century, and their late-18th century counterparts printing newspapers and pamphlets. Work such as Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor has highlighted the importance of carefully-placed gossip in structuring political networks; Jeffrey Pasley’s The Tyranny of Printers, among other works, highlights the important role that newspapers played not just in spreading the news, but in forming crucial pillars of nascent party organizations.
After all, the power of good writing often finds itself getting up the nose of powerful interests. That is the beauty of the Aurora (or, for that matter, its Federalist counterpart Porcupine’s Gazette) for the historian of 1790s political culture – it is hard to think of anything that distills the essence of partisan rivalry so clearly as the abrasive and direct writing style of Benjamin Franklin Bache (and William Cobbett). As a DPhil student working through microfilm reels in a dark room at the British Library’s Colindale building, it was a joy to see the strident nature of the Aurora’s commentary.
This was, of course, critical to the political culture of the 1790s. Though political leaders hoped that the political settlement of the Constitution might lead to a more unified, less rowdy nation, American society remained resolutely politicized. Benjamin Franklin Bache, the editor of the Aurora, was a crucial figure in maintaining this polarization. The pugnacious style, and the willingness to do the very opposite of what the government wanted, gave a perfect written embodiment of the geographically disparate opposition to the Federalist regime.
This style continued after Bache’s death in 1798 – not just through his successor as editor, William Duane (who perhaps managed to achieve the not inconsequential task of irritating more people than Bache himself) but in the many other journalists and editors and gossip-mongers inspired by what the Aurora had made possible. Like Gawker,many might have had distaste for the type of ‘news’ that the Aurora produced, but even those who sneered often found themselves imitating the style.
That achievement didn’t come without making enemies, of course. Spurred by nationalist pride in the wake of the XYZ Affair, Federalists attempted to take down their leading opponent through the legal system, passing the Sedition Act in an attempt to silence their critics. Yellow fever ended up silencing Bache, which is more than can be said for the Sedition Acts.
For when the legal system came after the Aurora, the plan backfired completely. A reversal of electoral fortunes and renewed political activism was only the tip of the iceberg. In a great testament to the spirit of the revolution, Americans took to printing newspapers with renewed vigor. Far from suppressing the gossipy tendencies of newspapers, attempts to suppress editors produced precisely the opposite effect. Democratic-Republicans were emboldened, not cowed, by attempts to limit their freedom of expression.
Perhaps the comparison between Gawker and the Aurora is a little too simplistic. Perhaps the 18th-century brand of gossip was more aimed at political targets than Gawker’s tendency to attention-grabbing salaciousness. At the same time, the website’s success – though often too prurient for my states – came through giving its readers a sense they were getting an image of the powerful that you weren’t supposed to have. Were the broadsides of the 1790s all that different in the political culture of the time? After all, this is the period in which Sally Hemings rumors first appeared. As Gawker closes its doors, it is worth reflecting on the ways in which previous gossipy publications have shaped the way we understand the past.