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Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers

Posted: November 5, 2010 12:44 PM

"Let no man sleep at his post. Remember, the office holders are desperate, wakeful and urgent."-Anne Royall, Paul Pry, 1836

She would have skewered the rising Tea Party phenomenon with her take-no-prisoners wit.
She would have lectured President Obama and his floundering Democrats for their electoral train wreck.

More importantly: Just as she did on the heels of the 1836 elections, with another speculative banking and economy crisis readying to explode and lead to our country to its first bonafide great depression, Anne Royall would have admonished our nation's journalists and bloggers to expose the corruptive influence of money in politics.

In many respects, Anne Royall was our nation's first blogger--the godmother of muckrakers whose wicked and insightful newspaper in the 1830s in Washington, DC serves as a compelling story for the enduring role of contemporary women journalists, commentators and writers like Arianna Huffington, Rachel Maddow, Amy Goodman. Molly Ivins, Laura Flanders, Katrina vanden Heuvel and Maureen Dowd.

Born on June 11, 1769, Anne Royall was an American original, a stranger to fear, and one of the nation's most daring, impassioned and indomitable social critics in Washington, DC. In the early nineteenth century. To say she was simply a woman ahead of her time overlooks the hard wrought accomplishments of her life and the scandalous legacy she left behind. Unafraid to wrestle with the great moral questions facing our country in its infancy, Royall's pioneering role as a chronicler, publisher, muckraker, and social commentator brought to light the timeless issues that stil define the great American experience: religion and politics.

By the late 1820s, she single-handedly claimed the mantle as the witty and often ruthless literary scourge of the growing evangelical Christian movement in the United States, and the great defender of the separation between the church and the state; for a quarter of a century, as a pioneering female newspaper publisher and muckraker in Washington, DC, and a self-declared enemy of despotism, Royall's wrath made both houses of Congress "bow down in fear of her," according to a contemporary editor.

One of the most controversial figures in the Adams to Jacksonian eras -- and the only American to ever be tried and convicted for being a "common scold" or public nuisance -- Anne Royall was either revered or reviled. The notorious circus promoter P.T. Barnum, after bearing the brunt of her criticism, begged to put "the celebrated personage" on the lecture circuit. President John Quincy Adams proclaimed her the "virago errant in armor."

In truth, Anne Royall was a legend in her own times, and a wild and wicked one, who came out of the Appalachian backwoods of present day West Virginia as an independent-thinking female icon for America.

Unflinching in her crusade to expose the religious plots to take over the nation and the blatant graft and corruption in government, Royall launched her own newspaper, Paul Pry, in 1831. Gathering a gaggle of orphans, collecting donated type, relying on subscriptions, Royall's independent newspaper (a rarity for the day) quickly emerged as a force on Capitol Hill. Haunting the Congressional chambers and taverns, already in her 60s, Anne's pursuit of corruption led to numerous investigations into kickbacks, nepotism, the flaws of the American banking system, a postal scandal, the land frauds against Native Americans in the South and on the frontier.

Often dismissed as an "eccentric character" of the period, Royall's role as a pioneering female writer and publisher shattered the barriers for women in journalism and politics, and raised the standard of interviewing and fact-based "pen portraits." Royall was not only the first woman to interview the president of the United States, but every president from John Adams until Franklin Pierce. Royall is also credited with introducing the quotation mark in published interviews.

In terms of the historical record, Royall's personality and hilarious, though often caustic and "impolite" attacks on religious figures--both right and left, from Protestant fanatics of the Jacksonian era like Ezra Stiles Ely to New England abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher and his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe--as well as the corrupt political stalwarts of all persuasions, have unfairly dominated and often biased her portrayal in many histories.

As a satirical polemicist in the tradition of her husband's hero Voltaire, Royall's biting humor, predating Mark Twain's political satires, and even foreshadowed the influence of contemporary TV news parodies like the Daily Show. Royall was funny, and could be downright comic in some of her most dramatic moments.

And perhaps, most importantly, as an inspiring story for readers today, Royall's life serves as an astonishing reminder that in America there are second acts; that, in fact, her life is an extraordinary series of reinvention at a time when women were assumed to have no control over their destiny. This is Royall's story:

Having survived a hardscrabble childhood amidst the Indian Wars and American Revolution on the western frontier of Pennsylvania, including surviving a massacre by Native American forces, and abject poverty as the daughter of a servant, only to marry an elderly and free-spirited plantation owner in the wilds of the western Virginia mountains, and then lose his estate in a prolonged legal battle, Royall reinvented herself as a travel writer in some of the most remote places in the country, published her first book at the age of 57, and then went on to found her own newspaper in Washington, DC, as a pauper, in her early 60s, only to become the feared "living curiosity of Washington," in Susan B. Anthony's words, until her death in 1854.

Anthony's insistence on paying homage to Royall is significant. In some ways, the self-taught writer could be called the Southern godmother of feminism, an autodidactic intellectual who carved out her singular role as a woman to be reckoned with on her on terms, in her own idiosyncratic ways, in the most hallowed and male-dominated coven in the country--the Halls of Congress--a generation before Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton emerged on the national stage.

While the ever-impoverished Royall was buried in an unmarked grave, and her legacy was soon overshadowed by the massive upheaval of the Civil War, her journalistic imprint on the capital city never lost its edge.

After the 2010 elections, we need that edge more than ever today.

(An earlier version of this blog appeared on the HuffPo on Royall's birthday in 2008.)