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His pistols within his reach: the volatile history of the Examiner

Written by Anne McCrery, Virginia Newspaper Project volunteer

The Examiner, published semi-weekly in Richmond, Virginia from 1798 to 1804, held a prominent place in the incendiary world of early American politics. An organ for Thomas Jefferson’s administration and edited by Meriwether Jones and his brother, Skelton Jones, the Examiner committed itself to the Republican cause, boasting in its masthead, “truth, its guide, and liberty, its object.”Examiner mastheadPassionately dedicated to their cause, the Jones brothers constantly found themselves in hostile conflict with Jefferson’s critics, filling the Examiner’s pages with vehement editorials.

These enmities were especially fiery, as Meriwether and Skelton Jones were quick to employ vitriolic personal attacks, in contrast to editors like Thomas Ritchie, their successor, who, after purchasing the Examiner in 1804 and changing its name to the Enquirer, asserted, “this paper will not condescend to become the vehicle of personal abuse; much less of dishonorable slander. Private character is too delicate a subject for any public print.”

The most infamously volatile of these conflicts occurred between the Jones brothers and James T. Callender, editor of the Recorder (Richmond) and their former friend and employee. The feud began when Callender revealed that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemmings, launching a scandal that remains contentious even today. Calling Callender’s paper “the Recorder of Lies,” the Examiner frequently published attacks on Callender’s character, calling him a liar, a drunk, and an adulterer, and accusing him of causing his wife’s death by giving her a venereal disease:

September 18, 1802In an article addressed “To JAMES T. CALLENDER” in the Examiner, Meriwether Jones states, “The world hates you. Wherever your name travels, it carries with it that repulsive chill, which hurries our retreat from a vault of putrid human mortality!” Jones continues to lambast Callender’s character even after his … read more »

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