By Jim Marquardt
Village’s first newspaper was deep into politics.
Sag Harbor should be proud — Frothingham’s Long Island Herald, published in the village from 1791 to 1798, was the first newspaper on Long Island and, during its run, the only newspaper. According to Steven Coleman, writing in the Long Island Historical Journal (LIHJ), the Herald’s owner, Henry Packer Dering, and its printer-editor David Frothingham, deserve a place in the history of American journalism.
A country newspaper editor in those years combined material lifted from larger papers with local news and letters. Printed on a single sheet and folded into four pages, the first few pages of the Herald were devoted to foreign, domestic and local news. Page four featured ads, poetry and anecdotes. Frothingham liked to inject colorful items, such as this on King George III of England, “…former kings of England usually kept fools for the amusement of themselves and their ministers. Being a rigid economist, it is suspected that his present majesty is determined to spare the drained purses of his subjects by playing that part himself.”
Battles between the two political parties in the infant United States (no, nothing has changed) gave the Herald plenty to talk about. Alexander Hamilton headed the Federalists who were committed to a fiscally sound, central government, a national bank, and better relations with England. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led the Republicans who favored a decentralized, agrarian republic and denounced a national bank. They resented the British monarchy and favored France as a counterbalance. These icons of American history were also very human politicians and fought each other strenuously, rewarding supporters with patronage and taking revenge on opponents.
Back then, newspapers boldly supported their owners’ political positions. According to the LIHJ article, Dering initially was a Federalist and for that reason was appointed by Alexander Hamilton, a staunch Federalist and Secretary of the Treasury, to the influential position of Collector when Sag Harbor became an official Port of Entry. The appointment launched Dering’s career in government and trade, and pointed towards another coveted post, Sag Harbor Postmaster. Dering’s fingers were in every pie. Besides his two official positions, he acquired shares in the town wharf, partnered with John Fordham in the village’s general store, was clerk to the town trustees, a trustee of the Presbyterian Church and a member of the public school committee.
But Dering controlled the Herald’s political direction and he and Frothingham began moving their allegiance from the Federalists towards the Republicans. Dering’s family had fled to Connecticut during the Revolutionary War, and he hated the British for plundering Long Island. He also admired Republican Thomas Jefferson’s “concept of the yeoman farmer as a bulwark of the new Republic.” In the summer of 1791, the Herald printed the first installment of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, which took a sharp jab at England. All of this put Dering at odds with Hamilton and foreshadowed the deeper divide between Republicans and Federalists.
A few years later, seeking to resolve provocations by the Royal Navy, U.S. officials signed the Jay Treaty with Britain, which angered both the French and Henry Packer Dering. Referring to the treaty, Dering editorialized, “Does there exist an independent American so lost to all recollection of the past conduct of the British government?”
Elected in 1796 to succeed George Washington, Federalist John Adams began firing Republicans from customs and postal jobs. Dering survived because Adams needed his influence in Suffolk County for what turned out to be an unsuccessful run for a second presidential term in the 1800 election.
The plot thickened even more in 1798 when the Adams administration passed the controversial and possibly unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts to quiet unrest in the frail, new nation, and some said to silence a critical Republican press. Probably to avoid a fight with President Adams and Treasury Secretary Hamilton, Dering shut down the Herald that year. Frothingham went to work for the New York Argus, which promoted competition for Hamilton’s Bank of New York. Hamilton got his revenge by arresting Frothingham for libel on another matter and he was tried and sent to prison for four months.
Dering became a staunch Republican and once Jefferson’s party took control in 1800, Dering published a succession of political papers in Sag Harbor — the Suffolk County Herald, the Suffolk Gazette, and the Suffolk County Recorder. He might only have stopped because he was running out of names. He continued as Collector of the Port and Postmaster until his death in 1822. Sag Harbor’s Customs House where Dering lived during those formative years of our country, and where he and his wife Anna Fosdick raised nine children, gives you an intimate peek at the lifestyle of this vital man.