William Cobbett  possibly by George Cooke oil on canvas, circa 1831, National Portrait Gallery, London 1549William Cobbett (1763-1835), alias Peter Porcupine, engaged in a war of words, fueled by pro-British, anti-French, partisan messages to voters – and pummeled pro-French euphoria in competitive papers – via his own Federalist newspaper, Porcupine’s Gazette.1 Porcupine’s Gazette was filled with ephemera across the spectra of Philadelphian life, but the Gazette assumed a heightened political importance during the XYZ Affair and Quasi-War.

Born March 9, 1763, in Surrey, England, William Cobbett, joined the 54th Regiment of Foot in 1783, married in 1792, and soon afterward fled to France to avoid repercussions from opinions he published about British Army corruption. Escaping the French Revolution, he sailed to America, settling in Philadelphia in Spring 1793. He began the written equivalent of ‘thrust and parry’ journalism, aligning solidly with the Federalists and launching Porcupine’s Gazette on March 4, 1797 – the day George Washington left the presidency and John Adams was sworn in as his successor.

Eighteenth-century newspapers, such as Porcupine’s Gazette, were primarily weekly, hyper-partisan, and followed prescribed formats. Politicians, often adopting pseudonyms, used newspapers to communicate with supporters. Illustrations were few; stories were short.

George and Martha Washington subscribed to at least three papers: the Gazette of the United States, The Pennsylvania Gazette, and The Pennsylvania Packet.2 While we find no evidence that Washington subscribed to Porcupine’s Gazette, he had his opinions of the paper.3 Washington wrote James McHenry on August 14, 1797, “I had thoughts when I left Philadelphia, of ordering it to be sent to me; then again, I thought it best not to do it; and altho’ I should like to see both his & Bache’s, the latter may, under all circumstances, be the best decision, I mean not subscribing to either of them.”4  

Porcupine’s Gazette gained notoriety as a mouthpiece for the broader Federalist Party, and Cobbett used his Gazette to fan the flames of party paranoia in 1797. In August he pounced on the King of Spain. Soon enough, Cobbett released his quiver of arrows toward eminent-Philadelphia and nationally-renowned physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush.

Cobbett Vol 10 Gazette Sample, November, 1798, Mercer Museum & LibraryYellow Fever, the epidemic that, in 1793, gripped Philadelphia, killing up to one-tenth of the city population, returned in 1797 and blanketed the news. Rush, a Jefferson ally, defended bloodletting, adhering to “depletion theory,” a combination of “aggressive bloodletting coupled with a mercury-based purgative to treat the virus.”5 Bloodletting, however, was both controversial and political – with proverbial battle lines drawn between Federalists who formed the “contagionist” camp (those who thought Yellow Fever was communicable) and Jeffersonian Republicans who rallied into an “anti-contagionist” camp.6

When Yellow Fever re-emerged in Philadelphia in late July, 1797, printer-publishers set the city ablaze with bellowing diatribes. Fellow Federalists John Fenno and Cobbett attempted to outsell each other with attacks against Rush and his bloodletting theories: Fenno’s Gazette of the United States compared Rush to rebels in the French Revolution and his methods to that of the guillotine.7 Cobbett assigned Rush monikers such as “the Bleeding Physician of Philadelphia” and “Doctor Sangrado,” an ode to the nefarious physician who sucked the lifeblood from his patients in the early 1700s novel, Gil Blas, by Alain-René Lesage.8 Cobbett frequently employed a popular technique in his papers by publishing letters from fictitious individuals to make his point. In his September 25, 1797, Porcupine’s Gazette Cobbett censured Rush via a fictitious letter from “a tavern keeper:”

...I am, and shall be, nolens volens, an advocate for the practice, and it is my creed that it will cure all diseases – as our good allies the French have clearly proved in their practice. I have also another reason for commencing the business of a physician: in fact, the villanous liquors my wine-merchant obliges me to supply my guests with, have lately caused in the latter fever and harsh expostulations; and, as I am a conscientious man, I wish to follow a quiet business; and I prefer that of the lancet, because you know, Mr P. that dead men never tell tales.9

Rush’s thin skin and the deleterious effect on his practice from the discordant publicity forced Rush to sue both Fenno and Cobbett for libel on October 2, 1797.10 Rush dropped the charges against Fenno but persevered with action against Cobbett.11 Some advised Rush against bringing suit, but the fact that President Adams had passed the Alien and Sedition Acts bolstered Rush especially since Cobbett was not a U.S. Citizen, and the act clamped down on the press.12

The Rush-Cobbett arguments clotted on December 14, 1799, when George Washington died. “You know I never take anything for a cold. Let it go as it came,” Washington had chastened Lear not two days prior.13 The cold Washington thought he had did not go but, indeed, remained. Despite four physicians’ attending as well as various procedures tried, Washington succumbed to a throat infection, but death was hastened by the removal of over eighty ounces of blood (about 40% of the total blood composition) from Washington’s body.14

On this same day, December 14, 1799, the Pennsylvania court issued its verdict in the Rush-Cobbett case, awarding $5,000.00 in damages to Rush (about $103,000 in today’s currency).15 Notwithstanding this decision, Rush’s reputation was tarnished, and his practice foundered. 

Porcupine’s Gazette ceased its prickling and needling on January 1, 1800, after 3,000 daily copies and 770 issues.16 Cobbett moved back to England, started another paper – The Weekly Political Register, spent time in prison (for libel), and won the Oldham Seat in the House of Commons before his death in 1835. Believing judge and jury to have been biased against him in what was a Jefferson-friendly court, Cobbett’s bitterness persisted from the Rush verdict.17 In a parting shot to Dr. Elisha Dick, one of Washington’s attending physicians, Cobbett stabbed Rush for his culpability in Washington’s death, spewing, “poor Fate had much less to do in the business than you and your colleagues. . . P.S. Don’t you think it would be a good thing, Doctor, if the names and places of abode of all Rush’s pupils were published? If you don’t, I do.”18

 

Cynthia Lynn Miller, M.B.A.

 

Notes

1 Courtesy of the William Reese Company, New Haven, Connecticut.

2 Kevin Hayes, George Washington: A Life in Books (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 309.

3 George Washington to Tobias Lear, March 9, 1797, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-01-02-0017

4 George Washington to James McHenry, August 14, 1797, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-01-02-0261.

5 Andrew G. Shuman, Marc Edelman, and Joseph J. Fins,  “Bleeding by the Numbers. Rush versus Cobbett,” The Pharos. Volume 77, Number 4 (Autumn 2014): 12-15. http://alphaomegaalpha.org/pharos/PDFs/2014/4/Complete.pdf.

6 Ibid., 11.

7 Stephen Fried, Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor who became a Founding Father (New York: Broadway Books, 2018), 392.

8 Shuman, Edelman, Fins, "Bleeding by the Numbers. Rush versus Cobbett," 13; Fried, Rush, 393.

9 William Cobbett, Porcupine's works containing various writings and selections, exhibiting a faithful picture of the United States of America : of their government, laws, politics, and resources : of the characters of their presidents, governors, legislators, magistrates, and military men : and of the customs, manners, morals, religion, virtues and vices of the people : comprising also a complete series of historical documents and remarks, from the end of the war, in 1783, to the election of the President, in March, 1801 (London: Cobbett and Morgan, at the Crown and Mitre, Pall Mall, 1801). http://bit.ly/2IhHDmE.

10 Fried, Rush, 393-394.

11 Ibid., 394.

12 Ibid., 401.

13 “Excerpt from Trick or Treatment,” On Point, WBUR, September 9, 2008. https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2008/09/09/excerpttricktreatment.

14 Howard Markel, “Dec. 14, 1799: The excruciating final hours of President George Washington,” Health (December 14, 2014). Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/dec-14-1799-excruciating-final-hours-president-george-washington.  

15 Shuman, Edelman, Fins, “Bleeding by the Numbers. Rush versus Cobbett,” 14; Fried, Rush, 402.

16 Courtesy of the William Reese Company, New Haven, Connecticut.

17 David A. Wilson, Paine and Cobbett: The Transatlantic Connection, (Kingston and Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988), 144; Richard Brookhiser, “Conversation with Richard Brookhiser.” Interview, via YouTube, by Dr. Douglas Bradburn, CEO of Mount Vernon. Member Mondays. Mount Vernon, June 8, 2020. Audio, 56:17 of 1:01:00. Link available with Mount Vernon Membership.

18 Shuman, Edelman, Fins, “Bleeding by the Numbers. Rush versus Cobbett,” 14.

 

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