Benjamin Franklin Bache


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"...where powers are assumed which have not been delegated, a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy..."

—Thomas Jefferson

In the tumultuous closing decades of the 18th century, America grappled with the challenges of defining its post-Revolutionary identity, amidst fierce partisan divides and international pressures.

Benjamin Franklin Bache, stepping into this cauldron of political dissent, used his newspaper, the "Philadelphia Aurora," to champion Democratic-Republican ideals and critique the Federalist establishment, most notably President George Washington and later John Adams.

His confrontations with the Federalist government reached a fever pitch with the passage of the Sedition Act, reflecting the era's broader struggles over the limits of free expression and the role of the press in the fledgling republic.


Benjamin Franklin Bache's Mother, Sarah Franklin Bache
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Benjamin Franklin Bache, born on August 12, 1769, carried the legacy of one of America's most iconic statesmen, being the direct grandson of the illustrious Benjamin Franklin.

Born to Sarah Franklin Bache and Richard Bache, he was thrust into a lineage of intellectual prominence and civic duty. Sarah, being deeply involved in patriotic services during the American Revolution, and Richard—who succeeded Franklin as the United States Postmaster General—instilled in their son a spirit of public service and critical thought.

This environment shaped young Bache, propelling him to later become a notable journalist and fierce advocate for press freedoms.

Throughout his life, Bache grappled with the weight of his grandfather's immense legacy, striving to contribute to the young republic's discourse in his own unique manner.


Portrait of Benjamin Franklin
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The relationship between Benjamin Franklin and his grandson was more than just familial—it was an intellectual and philosophical mentorship. The elder Franklin, having spent the better part of his life in the crucible of scientific inquiry, political philosophy, and statesmanship, recognized the importance of cultivating these values in the next generation.

During their shared time in France, young Bache was exposed to the epicenter of Enlightenment thought. He would have been privy to his grandfather's interactions with eminent figures of the time, like Voltaire, Diderot, and other leading lights of the French Enlightenment.

These experiences were not just formal teachings but a lived experience, where Bache witnessed the power of reasoned debate, diplomacy, and the promotion of liberty and rights firsthand.

Furthermore, Benjamin Franklin's own writings, such as "Poor Richard's Almanack" and his autobiography, were imbued with themes of pragmatism, civic virtue, and intellectual curiosity.

Bache, having access to such texts and the mind behind them, would have naturally absorbed these ideals. Franklin's belief in the value of education, self-betterment, and public service would have been a guiding light for Bache as he sought his own path.

It is also worth noting that Franklin, in his later years, became a staunch opponent of slavery and an advocate for the abolitionist cause.

His evolving views on liberty, rights, and the inherent value of every individual might have influenced Bache's own views on justice and equality.


Benjamin Franklin Bache as a young lad
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As Franklin navigated the delicate intricacies of Franco-American diplomacy during the American Revolution, he saw an opportunity to provide his grandson with an unparalleled education and exposure to European intellectual circles.

The decision to have Bache accompany him to France in the 1770s was twofold: it allowed the young Bache to be groomed under Franklin's watchful eye and imbued him with a cosmopolitan education that was becoming increasingly valuable in a rapidly globalizing world.

The bond between Bache and his grandfather was strengthened during this sojourn in France, but how this affected his relationship with his younger brother, William Franklin Bache, is less explicitly documented.

Geneva's University was a natural choice for Bache's further studies, considering its reputation as a bastion of Enlightenment thought.

The decision for him to attend this institution, even briefly, aligned with the Franklin family's commitment to rigorous intellectual inquiry. The choice of Geneva also reflected a broader trend among the American elite of the time, who often sought European education for their progeny to cultivate a blend of American vigor and European refinement.


A woman reading the Philadelphia Aurora
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The "Philadelphia Aurora", founded by Benjamin Franklin Bache in the tumultuous decade of the 1790s, emerged as one of the most significant and vocal mouthpieces of Democratic-Republican sentiments.

Situated in the heart of Philadelphia, then the nation's capital, this newspaper occupied a vital place in the political discourse of the early United States.

Its pages frequently featured searing critiques of Federalist policies, reflecting the deep ideological divide of post-revolutionary America.

The Federalists, who included figures like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, championed a strong centralized government and closer ties with Britain.

In stark contrast, the Democratic-Republicans, led by figures such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were wary of centralized power, favoring state's rights, and felt a deeper kinship with revolutionary France.

The "Aurora" ardently supported the pro-French sentiments that were prevalent among the Democratic-Republicans, especially during the volatile years of the French Revolution and the ensuing European wars.

It argued that the United States, having recently thrown off the shackles of British colonialism, should naturally align with the French, who were perceived as fellow revolutionaries fighting against monarchic oppression.

This pro-French stance was a significant point of contention in American politics, as the Federalists were trying to maintain a neutral or even pro-British orientation.

It also launched scathing attacks on domestic policies and took particular aim at the administrations of George Washington and John Adams.

This staunch opposition led to Bache facing accusations of sedition, especially during the Adams administration with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.


George Washington art
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As the young republic grappled with its identity, two main factions emerged, shaping its early political landscape: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.

Bache, through the influential medium of the "Philadelphia Aurora", vehemently opposed the Federalist vision for America.

Central to his criticisms was the figure of George Washington, the first president of the United States. While Washington was widely revered, almost to the point of sacralization by many Americans—Bache did not shy away from challenging the venerated leader.

He perceived Washington's style of governance as evocative of European monarchies, particularly in the ceremonials and the establishment of certain executive precedents. To Bache, and many Democratic-Republicans, these actions betrayed the very ideals of the American Revolution, which sought to break away from monarchical traditions.

Moreover, Bache was deeply critical of Washington's foreign policies.

The Jay Treaty of 1794, negotiated by John Jay, was a particular point of contention. This treaty, which sought to address unresolved issues from the American Revolution and avert war, was seen by Bache as too conciliatory to the British.

He argued that it undermined American sovereignty and favored British interests at the expense of the French, who were America's allies during the Revolution and were then undergoing a revolution of their own.

To Bache, the treaty was emblematic of the Federalists' pro-British leanings, which he believed were at odds with the spirit of American independence.

Through his writings, he propagated the idea that the Federalists, under the guise of creating a strong and stable government, were veering dangerously close to the kind of authoritarian governance that the American Revolution had rebelled against.


Benjamin Franklin Bache in jail
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The Sedition Act of 1798, a contentious piece of legislation in the annals of American history, bore the heavy imprint of the Federalist-dominated Congress and the presidency of John Adams.

The Act, ostensibly designed to protect the fledgling United States from internal dissent and "seditious" activities, was deeply political in its motivations and applications.

John Adams, the second president of the United States and a leading Federalist figure, was at the helm during a period of heightened political tensions.

The U.S. was navigating complex international waters, particularly with France, leading to the so-called "Quasi-War". Within this context, the Federalists perceived a dual threat: externally from France and internally from the vocal Democratic-Republican faction, which was sympathetic to the French.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed as a package to address these perceived threats. While the Alien Acts targeted foreigners deemed dangerous, the Sedition Act was aimed squarely at domestic dissent.

Benjamin Franklin Bache's arrest under the Sedition Act was not an isolated incident.

The act made it illegal to "write, print, utter, or publish... any false, scandalous and malicious writing" against the federal government, Congress, or the president.

Given Bache's relentless criticisms of the Federalist Party, George Washington, and later John Adams, he became a prime target. His arrest underscored the act's suppressive intent and its potential to muzzle the press.

For many, Bache's arrest was emblematic of the Adams administration's overreach and its assault on foundational American liberties.

The freedom of the press, enshrined in the First Amendment, was seen as under direct threat. Critics, especially among the Democratic-Republicans, decried the Sedition Act as a blatant tool to stifle opposition and consolidate Federalist power.

John Adams' involvement, albeit indirect, was significant.

While he did not personally arrest Bache or other journalists, the legislation occurred under his watch, and he did not veto the acts.

The act, and by extension, Adams' presidency, faced severe backlash for its perceived tyranny. The Sedition Act, in particular, became a major point of contention and played a role in the political upheaval of 1800, which saw Adams defeated by Thomas Jefferson.


A photo representing freedom of the press
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Benjamin Franklin Bache stood at the forefront of the battle for free speech and a free press.

Through the pages of the "Philadelphia Aurora", Bache promulgated the essential tenets of the Enlightenment, most notably the belief in open discourse and the free exchange of ideas.

Drawing inspiration from thinkers like John Locke and Voltaire, as well as from the democratic ideals of his grandfather, Benjamin Franklin, Bache believed that the press was not just a pillar of democracy but its very lifeblood.

He frequently espoused the notion that without an informed citizenry, enabled by a fearless and free press, democracy itself would be imperiled.

He often articulated the principle that the press served as a check against governmental overreach and tyranny, ensuring that those in power were held accountable.

Moreover, Bache's defense of free speech extended beyond just the written word.

He believed in open discourse, arguing that the crucible of public debate was where the best ideas were refined and the truth emerged. This ethos was evident in the pages of the "Aurora", where varied opinions were presented, even if they were contrary to Bache's own beliefs.


People dying in the streets during the Yellow Fever epidemic
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The Yellow Fever epidemic that claimed Benjamin Franklin Bache's life was one of the most catastrophic public health crises in early American history.

Beginning in the late summer of 1793, Philadelphia, then the nation's capital, was hit by a severe outbreak of the mosquito-borne disease. Over the course of several months, the epidemic claimed the lives of roughly 5,000 inhabitants, approximately 10% of the city's population.

The social, political, and economic fabric of Philadelphia was deeply affected.

Many of the city's elites, officials, and wealthier inhabitants fled the city, creating a vacuum in leadership at a critical time. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a leading physician of the era, remained in the city to treat the afflicted.

He and others worked tirelessly, often risking their own lives, but with the medical understanding of the time, they were fighting an uphill battle. The origins and transmission of yellow fever were not yet understood, leading to ineffective and sometimes harmful treatments.

Amidst this chaos and panic, the press played a crucial role in both informing and often exacerbating public fears.

Newspapers were filled with accounts of daily deaths, preventive measures, and frequently, unfounded remedies. The epidemic also fueled xenophobic sentiments, with many blaming recent immigrants, particularly refugees from the Caribbean, for introducing and spreading the disease.

By the time the epidemic subsided with the onset of colder weather, Philadelphia was a changed city.

The federal government's decision to move the capital to Washington, D.C., was, in part, influenced by the devastating impact of the Yellow Fever outbreak. The epidemic also sparked increased interest in medical research, public health infrastructure, and sanitation measures.

In this tumultuous backdrop, the loss of Benjamin Franklin Bache was a blow to the journalistic community and to the Democratic-Republican cause. His death at 29—meant that one of the most vociferous voices against Federalist policies and the Sedition Act was silenced.

However, the "Philadelphia Aurora" continued its publication under new leadership, and Bache's legacy as a defender of press freedom and his commitment to the principle of open discourse lived on.