The Poison Pen Duels of William Duane and Peter Porcupine

October 16, 2014 in American History, general history, History



The Weekly Aurora and Editor William Duane, and at botttom, William Cobbett (Peter Porcupine) and the Porcupine Gazette

The Weekly Aurora and Editor William Duane, and at botttom, William Cobbett (Peter Porcupine) and the Porcupine Gazette

Some eight thousand  times a day, six days a week,  pressmen  cranked the heavy wooden press of the Weekly Aurora newspaper  of Philadelphia. They were printing platens of tiny type on the Aurora’s eight linen paper pages, much of it poison pen invective written by pro-Jeffersonian editor William Duane against mortal enemy Peter Porcupine (William Cobbett), the editor of the pro-Federalist paper The Porcupine’s Gazette, just a few blocks away.

Duane and Cobbett continued their written vendetta through their respective presses for over 15 years and even across the Atlantic, until, with the end of the War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent, the fiery Irishman Duane and prickly Brit Cobbett “buried the hatchet” in early 1815,  shook hands symbolically, forgave each other their lying slanders, and called a pax on their maddened mud-slinging.

The editors’ political battles began with the swearing in of President John Adams, whose Executive Mansion residence was just down the block from the Aurora’s press. Both Duane and his publisher, Benjamin Franklin Bache, despised Adams as a Federalist with British monarchist sympathies. The Aurora was a Jeffersonian Democrat political publication friendly toward the French, even during the US Quasi-War with France. Duane began writing lengthy editorials against presidential policies and cohorts, saying “the pen and the press are my formidable weapons,”  and he kept his press running scorching hot most of the time. Cobbett, a British emigrant and bookseller in Philadelphia, started the Porcupine’s Gazette the day Adams took the presidential oath, and keenly defended with his quill any critical press about the President or his party, especially coming from the Aurora. Cobbett took up the prickly “nom de guerre” Peter Porcupine for his essays, and chiefly delighted in shredding the Aurora opinions with biting vitriol. In the maiden issue of the Porcupine’s Gazette, Cobbett declared the Aurora and its editorial staff “his enemies,” declaring “engarde!” for a lengthy duel of type fonts, ink,  and paper.

Like boxers in a ring, both editors were well-matched: Duane and Cobbett were equally gifted writers, both thrived on provoking controversy, and both likewise found themselves the targets of such unfriendly responses as broken office windows and libel suits from readers who didn’t appreciate being victimized in the press. Both also served stints in jails and prisons for their published opinions. Both were called “crazy.” They thrived in testing the boundaries of a “free” press.

Duane, in conjunction with Bache, produced a noteworthy attack on Cobbett  in a June 1796 issue of the Aurora called the “History of Peter Porcupine” in which the authors deigned to give a formal account of the “celebrated manufacturer of lies and retailer of filth.”

“His usual occupation at home was that of a garret-scribbler, excepting a little night-business occasionally, to supply unavoidable exigencies…He took a French leave for France. His evil genius pursued him there, and, as his fingers were as long as ever he was obliged as suddenly to leave the Republic, which has now drawn forth all his venom for her attempt to do him justice. On his arrival in this country, he figured some time as a pedagogue; but as this employment scarcely furnished salt to his porridge, he having been literally without any bread to eat, and  not “a second shirt to his back,” he resumed his old occupation of scribbling, having little chance of success in the other employments which drove him to this country.”

Peter Porcupine countered “Their great object is to silence me, but I am sorry to tell them it is all in vain; for I am one of those whose obstinacy increases with opposition.”

Cobbett, not content to just nettle Duane and the Aurora, also made it his particular business to sully the reputation of noted physician Dr. Benjamin Rush, whom he called a murderer due to his bleeding practices while attending patients ill from yellow fever. Dr. Rush sued Peter Porcupine for $5,000 in damages, and as luck would have it, the judge who heard the case happened to have been libelled by Cobbett, too, so the case was found in the plaintiff’s favor, Cobbett was bankrupted, and soon went back home to England to regroup. Duane and Bache gloried in the finding, but not for long. Bache died of yellow fever, and Duane assumed ownership of the Aurora after marrying his publisher’s widow. Cobbett, now back in his British homeland, began publication of a new paper, the Political Register, targeting some British practices as well as his old arch-foe, William Duane. The Atlantic offered no defense from his pen.

In 1802, the Republican newspaper of Baltimore Maryland published an editorial examining the Duane-Cobbett feud thusly:

“On every occasion where the French government has been the subject of discussion, either in its concerns with this country, or its war, or peace with Great Britain, the Aurora man has discovered the strongest predilection for the plundering republic. This he has displayed particularly, in his many false, contradictory and blundering paragraphs, respecting the cession of Louisiana, the bloody scenes in St. Domingo, and the conduct of Le Clerc relative to the property in St. Domingo of American merchants. On all these subjects Duane has manifested a peculiar sympathy with the French; and it was consistent in him, because their conduct and principles are congenial with the depraved sentiments of his own mind, and their revolution has exhibited on a large scale, what he has experienced on a small one__the complete triumph of scoundrelism.

“On the ebullitions of his gall, he has often attacked the ‘noted’ Peter Porcupine (as he affects to call him) and this conduct is natural, for Peter’s enmity to the French republic is as well known as this united Irishman’s cordial attachment. When Porcupine’s house was attacked by the rabble of London, for refusing to illuminate for the peace, our jacobin editor could not suppress his exultation; and with the same spleen has he lately noticed Cobbett’s letters to the British ministers, who negociated the preliminaries with the French agent. But, for his own sake, this MERCENARY ALIEN should be cautious how he introduces the name of Porcupine to the public with disrespect, as it invites an examination of his own character contrasted with that of William Cobbett. Two characters cannot be more dissimilar; and whenever they are mentioned together, the contrast fixes itself on the mind, much to the disadvantage of the hero of Clonmel {note: Duane’s family was from Clonmel Ireland} __The one has always been a consistent, loyal subject; the other, ever since he has been known has been distinguished as a seditious traitor. The one detests the modern French, for their numerous and unexampled crimes against the rights and independence of other nations; the other vindicates them for the same reason. The one has been the scourge of Jacobins and mock patriots; the other their constant panegerist. The one possesses a rough, unequivocal, unaccomodating independence of mind, scorning to wear the livery of any man; the other has been the supple tool, and sycophant of a party  ‘no less intolerant, than despotic and wicked.’ The one has been unremunerated for numerous services, in the “defence of his country, of religion and social order; the other has been compensated, with a prodigality disgraceful to the United States, for his wicked labours in the cause of anarchy and atheism. The one has acquired and deserves the thanks of many good men, although they condemn SOME of his publications; the other has merited, though from the fatality of the times, he has hitherto escaped it, a ____.” [One can only imagine what epithet filled in the blank.]

Duane and Cobbett’s pugilistic press matches reached their peak in late 1806, when Peter Porcupine had the nerve to suggest in the Political Register the assassination of  his American rival, and said Duane’s earlier banishment from India “has cost us (Great Britain) millions in the other hemisphere (America), and greatly decieved am I,”  he opined, “if this cost has yet reached its amount.”  Duane wasn’t going to take that lying down, so in one of his typical long-winded rebuttals, he shot Cobbett down in the pages of the Oct. 27, 1806 Aurora:

“Cobbett knew how and by whom and for what purposes the millions were expended in America__he says the resistance of the Aurora to the views and policy of England cost her millions! Where are we to look for the expenditure of those millions? They were not lavished in supporting the Aurora certainly__there was no doing anything with such a man unless you take his life [referring to Cobbett’s statement advising someone should get rid of him] !”

Not content with that, Duane went on: “Millions were expended by England to oppose a single newspaper! And how expended?__Look at the rival newspapers__look at their columns__see English prejudices__English alliances__English laws__even English vices, fashions and follies how they are extolled, defended and held forth for invitation_go farther, look at the columns of those newspapers, opposed to the Aurora, and see the names registered in their advertisements, one of the prices of British devotion is to be found there…. Look at the facts. Why do the merchants shun the Aurora, which prints more papers, and has a more extensive circulation, and more readers, than any other paper in America__and go to papers which have little circulation out of the city, which have less in the union at large, and whose hostility to the American principles of the government are as open and unequivocal as their abject servility to British views!”

Then he took direct issue with Cobbett’s statement there is “no doing any thing with such a man unless you take his life.” Duane wrote, “The editor would be guilty of squeamish affectation or hypocrisy, if he did not most proudly exult in the sentiments conveyed by this pithy sentence. There is no doing with such a man__that is you can neither terrify him from the assertion of his principles and opinion__you cannot corrupt him__and the only mode in which you can get rid of him is by the hand of an assassin.”

Cobbett said in the same Political Register that “Of all the men in America, whether natives or foreigners, whether high or low in life, William Duane has been, and yet is, the most formidable enemy of England.”

Duane responded, “Upon the absurdity of this, no two men in America can form a different opinion; but it was necessary to the end in view that to justify an act of assassination, the object should be made of the greatest possible importance, therefore it is that the hyperbole is resorted to; the publication of Mr. Cobbett was not calculated for Philadelphia where we knew it would be laughed at; it was calculated for London__and by enhancing the supposed consequence of a vigorous and independent press in Philadelphia, and indirectly to obtain a similar credit of consequences for himself there.”

No attempt was ever made on Duane’s life, but he did occassionally suffer vandalism at the offices of the Aurora, when enemies broke windows overnight and kept the glass-installer busy.

When the two battling editors finally called their truce in early 1815,  US newspapers were amused but not overly surprised, given that in their late 50s Duane and Cobbett had become milder year by year in their attacks on each other, as each in turn went from radical extremes of political thought to meet more or less in the middle.

According to the Connecticut Mirror of March 27, 1815, “Cobbett…confesses in his paper that when he was in this country, he used to tell lies about Duane, and Duane, unwilling to be left behind in the race of magnanimity, in the Aurora of March 16, 1815, confesses that he lied about Cobbett,__”was his great opponent. We said very bitter things of each other, and some things, which, on both sides, were very false.” Duane continued that in those days of turbulence and terror, “To the violence of which Mr. Cobbett contributed so largely when he was the great opponent of the editor of the Aurora, much was no doubt said concerning Mr. Cobbett which was a matter of inference from the tenor and effect of his writings.”

The editor of the Connecticut Mirror reflected tongue in cheek that “So long as this course is pursued by these patriots, they will not only be secure of the goodwill of the Madisonian party in this country, but their mutual attachment will be beyond the danger of interruption. That sympathy which commences within the walls of a prison and is cemented by a course of lying and scurrility abroad against every thing virtuous and praise-worthy, will be as lasting as life, and will go in full vigour with its possessor to the grave, even if the lenity of the laws should suffer their existence to be lengthened to the ordinary age of man.”

Duane and “Peter Porcupine” remained friends and penpals for the rest of their lives.

So who were these mud-slinging fireballs of the press, and what were their backgrounds, other than that both came from humble origins, and were mostly self-taught?

Born near Lake Champlain, N.Y., in 1760, William Duane was raised by his mother in Ireland, where he learned printing by apprenticeship before he left for India in 1784. In India, he was editor of  the popular “The World” newspaper for a brief period before his unfavorable opinions about the East India Company government found him arrested, his goods confiscated, and himself on a swift ship back to England. Undaunted, Duane soon became editor of the “General Advertizer” and continued his controversial writings until disfavor prompted him to return to the United States in 1795. There he joined Benjamin Franklin’s namesake grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, as editor for the Weekly Aurora at Philadelphia, a post he would hold until his retirement in 1822. He died in 1834.

Cobbett was born in Farnham, Surrey, in 1763, and in his youth had been a farmer and then a British soldier who had served in Nova Scotia before being discharged in 1791. He taught himself grammar and essay writing, and then studied printing. After publishing a pamphlet critical of the treatment of enlisted men in the British Army, Cobbett was nearly indicted before he fled to France in 1792, only to have to flee again due to the French Revolution underway. He arrived in the US and moved to Philadelphia in 1793. He ran the Porcupine’s Gazette only a few years before returning to England in 1800, and in 1801 he started the Political Register, which appeared weekly from January 1802 until his death in 1835. He became a member of Parliament late in life.

TO COME: William Cobbett the Bodysnatcher, or What Happened To Thomas Paine’s Corpse


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