Callender was born in Scotland in either 1757 or 1758, but the place and date of his birth and the names of his parents are not known. He may have been the son of a tobacco merchant, and he was probably orphaned at an early age. Callender obtained a basic classical education and a strong dose of Calvinism. In 1782 he became a clerk in a public office in Edinburgh, where he learned firsthand about corruption and misuse of influence. Callender became a registered messenger at arms in 1787. He entered Edinburgh’s literary circle through the publication of several anonymous pamphlets and poems, including Deformities of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1782), a pamphlet critical of the famed author and disparager of Scotland. The work showed Callender to be both a well-read man and a slashing writer.
An intense Scottish nationalist, Callender published a series of pamphlets that brought him into conflict with the authorities. His Political Progress of Britain (Part First) (1792) led to an interrogation late in December 1792, and early in January a warrant was issued for his arrest. After he failed to attend the court proceedings, Callender was declared an outlaw and went into hiding in Dublin, where he associated with leaders of the Society of United Irishmen. In spring 1793, leaving his wife (whose name is unknown) and three children in Scotland, he immigrated to the United States and arrived in May 1793.
Through his Irish connections, Callender obtained work in Matthew Carey’s Philadelphia bookstore and ultimately became the congressional reporter for Andrew Brown’s Philadelphia Gazette, a position he helduntil the spring of 1796. In a period of intensifying partisanship, Callender became intimately associated with the emerging Republican Party and earned the enmity of leading Federalists. Between 1794 and 1798 he contributed anonymous news articles and columns critical of the administrations of George Washington and John Adams to the Philadelphia Aurora. Besides republishing his earlier works, Callender produced new pamphlets attacking the policies of the American government, especially those regarding trade, as subordinating American interests to those of the British government. Callender and other radical émigrés shared an Anglophobia and an urban economic nationalism. They rejected not only Alexander Hamilton’s fiscal program but also the agrarianism of the Virginia planters of their own party. Callender’s reputation was further enhanced by William Cobbett’s virulent attacks on his work in Porcupine’s Gazette, one of Philadelphia’s Federalist newspapers. During this time Callender’s wife and children joined him in Philadelphia, and a fourth child was born before May 1796.
Callender achieved his first great notoriety by reporting on Hamilton’s adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds in the History of the United States for 1796 (1797). Life in Philadelphia eventually became hazardous for the outspoken journalist. In addition to the recurrence of yellow fever, threats to his personal safety, and mounting personal financial problems, Callender’s livelihood was threatened by the adoption of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which sought to muzzle political criticism of the government. By the summer of 1798 his wife had died. Coming under increasing attack for his activities and hoping to remove any danger that he might be deported once the Naturalization and Alien Acts of 1798 passed, Callender on June 4 petitioned for American citizenship. The following month he abandoned Philadelphia for the relative safety of Virginia, leaving his children behind.
For several months Callender stayed at the Loudoun County plantation of Senator Stevens Thomson Mason, and then in May 1799 he moved to Richmond. He contributed articles critical of the Adams administration to the leading local Republican newspaper, the Richmond Examiner, and published his most famous work, The Prospect Before Us, Volume 1 (1800), a highly partisan political history of the 1790s with a decidedly southern emphasis and numerous insulting remarks about Adams and his policies. On May 24, 1800, the U.S. District Court grand jury indicted Callender for sedition, and after a sensational trial presided over by U.S. Supreme Court associate justice Samuel Chase, Callender was convicted on June 3, 1800, sentenced to jail for nine months, and fined $200. His trial and imprisonment made Callender a political martyr. Republicans raised money for his relief, and the Republican press throughout the country condemned Chase’s partisan behavior during the trial and made suppression of the press an issue in that year’s presidential election. While incarcerated Callender wrote and published two more volumes of The Prospect Before Us.
Released from jail, Callender resumed his activities with renewed enthusiasm, much to the dismay of moderate Republicans. Because Thomas Jefferson had covertly supported his journalistic efforts in Philadelphia and openly encouraged him in Virginia, Callender viewed him as a patron whose obligations were enhanced by his incarceration and sufferings. Not surprisingly, after Jefferson becamein March 1801 Callender expected a pardon and immediate remission of his fine, and he also insisted on being appointed postmaster of Richmond. Jefferson retroactively pardoned Callender after his release but failed to bestow a government job.
Bitterly disappointed, Callender severed his ties with the Richmond Examiner and gravitated to the Richmond Recorder: or, Lady’s and Gentleman’s Miscellany, a newspaper in which he acquired a part interest in February 1802. Much to the surprise and chagrin of his former allies, he repudiated the Republicans and openly criticized the Jefferson administration with the same strong invective he had formerly directed toward the Federalists. Beginning in September 1802 Callender published a series of articles in the Recorderof maintaining a long relationship with his slave Sally Hemings and fathering her children. Jeffersonians at the time and many subsequent Jefferson biographers discounted Callender’s assertions and emphasized his partisan bias, but recent scholarship suggests that even though vengeance certainly prompted Callender to publish his critical articles about Jefferson’s personal life, he was probably reporting accurately.
Circulation of the Recorder increased briefly, spurred by reports of Callender’s public altercation in December 1802 with George Hay, the Republican attorney who had represented him at his sedition trial, but sustained publishing success proved as elusive as ever. Amid threats of violence from Richmond Republicans, Callender quarreled with his coeditor over money and, facing an uncertain economic future, withdrew from the Richmond Recorder in April 1803. Callender, who often found solace in drink during periods of crisis, drowned in the James River at Richmond on July 17, 1803, and was buried in a local church cemetery later the same day. A coroner’s jury returned a verdict of accidental drowning as a result of intoxication.
- Deformities of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1782)
- Political Progress of Britain (Part First) (1792)
- History of the United States for 1796 (1797)
- The Prospect Before Us, Volumes 1–3 (1800–1801)