On December 3rd in 1831, freewheeling author Anne Royall launched the nation's first muckraking newspaper in Washington, D.C., forever changing the state of journalism.
"We shall advocate the liberty of the press, the liberty of speech, and the liberty of conscience," Royall declared in the debut issue of Paul Pry, her singular tabloid. "The enemies of these bulwarks of our common safety, as they have shown none, shall receive no mercy at our hands."
We need Anne Royall's journalistic chutzpah today, more than ever.
One of the most notorious writers of her times, Royall shattered the ceiling of participation for politicized women a generation before the suffrage ranks of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and issued the "voice of woman" into the backroom male bastions of banking and politics nearly two centuries before politicians like Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren.
And she paid dearly for her groundbreaking role as a satirist and muckraker.
Nearly a half century after Royall's death in 1854, the Washington Post stretched a headline across its pages with a reminder of her still haunting and relevant legacy: "She was a Holy Terror: Her Pen was an Venomous as a Rattlesnakes' Fangs; Former Washington Editress: How Ann Royall Made Life a Burden to the Public Men of Her Day."
The Post's backhanded compliment of Royall as the nation's "grandmother of the muckrakers," however, missed her defining element in the art of exposé almost 200 years before journalists like Molly Ivins, Rachel Maddow, Soledad O'Brien and Amy Goodman: Her take-no-prisoners humor in defense of the freedom of the press -- at any cost.
"She could always say something," declared a New England editor, "which would set the ungodly in a roar of laughter."
Anne Royall knew how to make her readers laugh -- a dangerous talent, especially for a freethinking woman who rattled the bones of Capitol Hill as the whistleblower of political corruption, fraudulent land schemes and banking scandals, and served as the thorn in the side of a powerful evangelical movement sweeping across the country.
While Royall's extraordinary life story as trailblazing muckraker defied the times, today's journalists and writers would do well to examine the importance of her wit as much as her wrath in making Congress "bow down in fear of her," according to one contemporary editor.
The lesson of that unrelenting humor underscores the muckraker's resiliency. Anne Royall didn't simply have a second act in life; she had three or four. Born in Maryland in 1769, Royall's mixed brew of politics had been shaped in the woods of Appalachia and in the great libraries of her Free Mason and Revolutionary war hero husband, with whom she had openly cohabitated.
The role of religion in daily life affected all of her views; the separation of church and state remained a graph in nearly every column. She was anti-slavery, but supported states rights and opposed the Christian rhetoric of abolitionists. While a fair-weather supporter of Andrew Jackson's administration, Royall railed against his treatment of Native Americans. The "aborigines," she declared, were the most virtuous people on the globe, until they were "contaminated" by the missionaries. Thoroughly nationalistic in spirit, Royall detested the "America for Americans" anti-immigrant movement of the period, and called it a "despotic" plot by Protestants.
When the Royall estate was finally adjudicated in the courts in 1823, Anne was stunned to learn that the final will had been struck down, and the judge had granted her a small settlement.
In debt but defiant as ever, Royall announced her intentions to publish a book on her recent travels to Alabama and reinvented herself as a "serpent-tongued" traveling writer in the 1820s, introducing the "redneck" term to our American lexicon and a freethinking Southern view to an emerging national identity, and challenged the prevailing mores of "respectable" Christian women through one avenue suddenly available: The printing press.
When Sketches of History, Life and Manners in the United States, by a Traveller, rolled off the presses of a New Haven newspaper in 1826, Royall had launched her pioneering literary career -- at the age of 57. Traipsing across the rough country as a single woman sojourner, she quickly published a series of "Black Books" that provided informative but sardonic portraits of the elite and their denizens from Mississippi to Maine.
She announced: "I resolve to note everything during my journey worthy of remark, and commit it to writing, and to draw amusement and instruction from every source. I shall not imitate most journalists in such remarks as 'cloudy or fair morning,' and where we stop dates."
The Boston Commercial Gazette praised the nuances of Royall's satirical observations: "A little incident which happened to herself, makes in her pages as great a figure as an epoch in history, not from egotism, but from a wish to tell the whole truth ... She marches on speaking her mind freely, and unpacking her heart in words of censure or praise, as she feels." The Hampden Journal responded that the work had emerged from "a poor, crazy vagrant," who should be committed to a "Home of Correction."
Her Black Books became prize possessions, if only for the delight of devastatingly funny descriptions of her "pen portraits." Power brokers sought out her company or locked their doors. John Quincy Adams called her the "virago errant in enchanted armor."
The anti-Mason religious fervor sweeping the Atlantic Coast and across the frontier infuriated Royall and prodded her to sharpen her witty pen in a self-appointed role as journalist and judge. The Second Great Awakening's had provided the nation with one of its most critical opponents: Royall took on the dour and reactionary forces of Presbyterians intent on establishing a Christian Party and entering American politics. "The missionaries have thrown off the mask," she warned. "Their object and their interest is to plunge mankind into ignorance, to make him a bigot, a fanatic, a hypocrite, a heathen, to hate every sect but his own, to shut his eyes against the truth, harden his heart against the distress of his fellowman and purchase heaven with money."
In one of the most bizarre trials over freedom of the press in Washington history, the "troublesome" woman writer -- make that the "vituperative powers of this giantess of literature," according to the New York Observer -- was indicted in 1829 as "a common scold," an offense of inappropriate public behavior for women plucked from old English laws.
The Jacksonian era's defining trial underscored a thinly veiled witch-hunt singling out Royall's "unruly" boldness as a funny, foul-mouthed, politically charged and outspoken woman in a volatile period of religious fervor. Tossed to the heap pile of "hysterical" women, the federal court and subsequent historians brandished Royall with the shame of drunkards and prostitutes.
Under her bonnet and fraying shawl, an amused grin emerged from Royall's aging figure as the prosecutor told the courtroom of men that "some of the young ladies were actually afraid to pass" in her presence on Capitol Hill. "Nor could they come within hearing, without having themselves outraged by language, to which no delicate female could listen."
Royall had already been thrown down a flight of stairs in New England, publicly whipped in Pennsylvania, and chased out of taverns on the Atlantic Coast. She relished the attention in the nation's capital. Andrew Jackson's Secretary of War testified on her behalf. In the aftermath of the bitter 1828 election, her "Black Book" travelogues had scandalized the nation and struck fear into politicians, bankers, clergymen and the "respectable" citizens with their "opprobrious and indecent language."
Translation: The power brokers didn't know how to handle a woman who dared to mock their "gospel" as a self-deprecating "poor ignorant heathen."
"It required no ordinary share of animal, as well as moral courage," the Morning Courier opined, "in any three and twenty men to make so daring an attack upon the rights of this belligerent authoress."
Royall dismissed the carnivalesque proceedings as an inquisition; that it had less to do with her "respectable" behavior than her journalistic right to free speech. Why had no man, among many other equally abrasive journalists, ever been put on trial? She also understood her infamous toast to the emerging power of the Presbyterian "blueskins -- may all their throats be cut," still resonated in the naves and the legislative chambers.
In the meantime, Royall noted the "complete stage effect" of the trial, "nothing wanting but the rack," and couldn't resist satirizing the courtroom in her own book: "Judge Thruston is about the same age as Judge Cranch but harder featured. He is laugh-proof. He looks as if he had sat upon the rack all his life and lived on crab-apples."
Royall's "wicked sayings" brought an archaic conviction as a public nuisance that entertained the nation and outraged the press corps and First Amendment advocates. Despite the "common scold" conviction -- the penalty of "dunking" reduced to a fine, which fellow Washington journalists paid -- Royall went on to carry out two decades of investigative reporting and often hilarious commentary in an increasingly divided nation as a pioneering woman editor and publisher.
In launching her own newspaper in Washington in 1831, which continued in various incarnations until her death in 1854, Royall issued a prophetic reminder for today's writers: "Let no man sleep at his post. Remember the office holders are desperate, wakeful and urgent."
And then added with a smile:
"Let all pious Generals, Colonels and Commanders of our army and navy who make war upon old women beware."
Follow Jeff Biggers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeffrbiggers