On this day in 1796, an essay appears in the Gazette of the United States in which a writer, mysteriously named “Phocion,” slyly attacks presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson. Phocion turned out to be former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. The essay typified the nasty, personal nature of political attacks in late 18th-century America.
When the article appeared, Jefferson was running against presidential incumbent John Adams, in an acrimonious campaign. The highly influential Hamilton, also a Federalist, supported Adams over Jefferson, one of Hamilton’s political rivals since the two men served together in George Washington’s first cabinet. According to Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, Hamilton wrote 25 essays under the name Phocion for the Gazette between October 15 and November 24, lambasting Jefferson and Jeffersonian republicanism. On October 19, Hamilton went further, accusing Jefferson of carrying on an affair with one of his slaves.
This would not be the last time such allegations would appear in print. In 1792, publisher James Callendar—then a supporter of Jefferson’s whose paper was secretly funded by Jefferson and his Republican allies–published a report of Alexander Hamilton’s adulterous affair with a colleague’s wife, to which Hamilton later confessed. However, in 1802, when then-President Jefferson snubbed Callendar’s request for a political appointment, Callendar retaliated with an expose on Jefferson’s “concubine.” He is believed to have been referring to Sally Hemings, who was part black and also the likely half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife, Martha. Further, the article alleged that Sally’s son, John, bore a “striking…resemblance to those of the President himself.” Jefferson chose not to respond to the allegations.
Rumors that the widowed Jefferson had an affair with one of his slaves persist to this day and have spawned years of scholarly and scientific research regarding his and Hemings’ alleged progeny. In 2000, a research report issued by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation used DNA test results, original documents, oral histories, and statistical analysis of the historical record to conclude that Thomas Jefferson was probably the father of Sally Hemings’s son Eston and likely her other children.