Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Baptis Irvine
MSA SC 3520-13915

Biography:

Republican.  Editor, the Baltimore Whig, 1807-1813; New York Columbian, 1815-1817.

Baptis/Baptist/Baptiste Irvine came to Maryland from Pennsylvania, where he worked with William Duane, publisher of the Philadelphia Aurora, a sounding board for Jeffersonian Democrats. Duane faced criminal charges numerous times for the items he published. Irvine himself was tried for contempt of court in February 1808 for publishing an editorial which criticized the judges and juries of the Baltimore County Court of Oyer and Terminer. His criticism was in response to the conviction of George Tomlin, a foreman in the Whig office, for assault. Tomlin's sentence was still pending at the time of publication. During this case Alexander Contee Hanson served as one of the lawyers for the state of Maryland, and described Irvine as a "factious, hot headed, turbulent printer...who himself fattens upon the 'dead carcass; of plundered reputation.'"1 Thomas Kell, one of Irvine's attorneys, argued

A free press is the best safeguard of freedom. It is the only sure dependence upon which the people rely for information and the preservation of their rights and liberties. It is the only certain vehicle of intelligence which instructs them upon topics equally interesting to us all. It is the duty of every virtuous citizen to preserve it pure and free from all undue influence and improper bias. To ward off every blow which is aimed at the liberty of the press, is alike the duty and interest of us all.2
Irvine was found guilty of contempt, and sentenced to thirty days in prison and to pay court costs. The court based the conviction on the "principle of common law...that publication of any matter, during the pendency of a suit tending to influence the decision of the court or jury, or reflect upon the persons or parties concerned in the execution of justice, is a contempt," because Tomlin's sentence was pending at the time of publication.3 In his opinion, Walter Dorsey, Chief Justice of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, noted "there is a wide difference between liberty of the press, and its licentiousness."4

In July, 1808, Irvine was convicted of printing libel against Edward J. Coale, the Baltimore City Register. Coale later went on to become a bookseller and publisher. Irvine was fined $200 plus court costs, and received a sixty day jail sentence. One hundred dollars of the fine was remitted by Governor Robert Wright. Other criminal charges Irvine faced in 1808 included exhibiting the effigies of John Marshall, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and two others, with the purpose of burning them. These charges were dropped, but in February, he was found guilty of assault.

Spencer H. Cone and John Norvell took control of The Whig in 1813. At this same time, Irvine was serving as a second lieutenant in the Maryland Militia during the War of 1812. Irvine reappeared in New York around 1815, when he began editing the Columbian, where he remained until sometime in 1817.  Sources also credit him  with editing the Washington City Gazette.5

On January 21, 1818, Irvine was appointed special agent to Venezuela. U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams instructed Irvine to seek restitution of two U.S. ships that had been seized during the reovlution taking place there. His negotiations had him in direct contact with dictator Simon Bolivar.

In 1822, Baptis Irvine took part in an expedition against Puerto Rico led by Henry William Ducoudray Holstein. Irvine claims his involvement in the expedition was a result of his desire to use some of Holstein's work in his book Traits of Colonial Jurisprudence: or, A Peep at the trading Inquisition of Curacoa. Accounts indicate that the intention of the expedition was to overthrow the Spanish government, and establish the Republic of Bortguen, with Holstein serving as president and commander in chief, and Irvine as government secretary. Following the failure of the expedition, Irivine and his cohorts were imprisoned on the island of Curacoa, in the Netherlands Antilles. Attempts to have Irvine freed based on his status as an American citizen also failed, because the governor of the island viewed him more as the secretary of state for the Republic of Bortguen, as he had been referred to in numerous documents concerning the whole affair. After a trial, those involved were sentenced to thirty years of labor in salt mines. In 1824, after sixteen months of imprisonment at Curacoa, the King of the Netherlands, who controlled the island, ordered Irvine's release. His exploits after this date are unknown.

1.  An Accurate Report of the Argument, on the Motion Against Baptis Irvine, Editor of the Whig, for a Comtempt Against the Court of Oyer and Terminer for Baltimore County (Baltimore, MD: P.K. Wagner, 1808), 46.
2. ibid, 91-2.
3. ibid, 107-8.
4. ibid, 111.
5. Niles Weekly Register, 14 December 1822.

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