Let Freedom Sting: The Wasp, The Bee, and the Valley
Recently Administration defender William Bennett suggested that prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act, rather than the Pulitzer Prizes they garnered, was a more fitting reward for reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post who had revealed the existence of, respectively, warrantless spying on Americans by the National Security Agency and the CIA’s secret prisons in Eastern Europe. This past Sunday, Peter King (R-NY), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called for criminal prosecution of the Times for yet another revelation of classified activity: government surveillance of confidential banking records.
“By disclosing this in time of war, they have compromised America’s anti-terrorist policies,” King fumed on a TV talk show. “Nobody elected the New York Times to do anything. And the New York Times is putting its own arrogant, elitist, left-wing agenda before the interests of the American people.”
Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.) were concerned, but less inclined to throw reporters and editors in jail. Both, in fact, cited the same Thomas Jefferson quote that is so often dragged out for such occasions: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” For those who know something of the history of the Fourth Estate, this elevation of Jefferson to press defender is particularly droll, as we shall see.
Blaming the press is nothing new. Government officials have always wished newspapers to be pliant servants of transitory majorities and policies, and printers have always understood that speaking truth before power placed them at peril. Freedom of the press in our fair land has not so much evolved as it has lurched forward, only to be yanked back, then inching ahead again. In elementary school we learned of John Peter Zenger, who was headed to the hoosegow for libeling colonial Governor William Cosby until a brave jury acquitted him in 1735. What we did not learn was that this famous acquittal was mere jury nullification, as in the O.J. Simpson trial. The judge advised the jurors that the truth of Zenger’s allegations was not an issue for them to consider at trial, that their sole concern ought to be whether or not the defendant had printed a disparaging comment about a person of high station. The jurors instead disregarded the judge’s instruction and set Zenger free, which was fine for Zenger, but the case formed no precedent in the law. Future journalists brought to trail on charges of libel or even treason could not claim the truth of their allegations as a defense ... until a series of events in the Hudson Valley changed all that.
We start our tale with four printers in New York and their responses to the British capture of the city. James Rivington, who had commenced his New York newspaper in 1773, was clear in his devotion to the crown. The lengthy title of his loyalist paper was Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer, or the Connecticut, New Jersey, Hudson’s River, and Quebec Weekly Advertiser. On November 25, 1775, Sons of Liberty broke up his press and ran off on horseback with the types, which were subsequently melted and cast into bullets. Rivington had to suspend publication, but when the British took over the city in September of the following year he proudly resumed his newspaper as Rivington’s New-York Loyal Gazette. As the tide turned and the patriots neared victory, Rivington changed heart and gave good service as a spy for General Washington. This enabled him to resume business after the British evacuated the city on November 25, 1783, but he never regained the stature he had enjoyed as printer to the crown and he died in poverty.
Another sunshine patriot, in Tom Paine’s immortal phrase, was Hugh Gaine. Unlike Rivington, he had supported the patriots when the British took control of the island and thus felt compelled to flee across the river to Newark with his press and types. But cut off from his New York subscribers and his Philadelphia paper supply, he switched horses and returned to New York under the crown’s patronage, leaving his types in New Jersey, where they were confiscated by the Provisional Government.
Two patriot printers who also fled New York were Samuel Loudon and John Holt, but they headed to Fishkill and Kingston, respectively. Loudon’s New-York Packet began publication in January 1776. Its sentiments were clearly patriotic, so its novice proprietor hightailed it for Fishkill, where he published an emigre Packet on October 1, 1776, making it the first newspaper in Dutchess County. As the provisional state printer, he published military and political documents as well as the first state constitution. But when the capital was located in Kingston in 1777, he found he had a rival for the state’s business. Holt was the superior printer, through long years in the trade, but where Holt seemed to careen from one disaster to another, Loudon was nimble. When he lost the state printing contract, he became a black marketer, speculating in wartime supplies and captured British equipment.
Holt was a Virginian who, after starting the Connecticut Gazette, that colony’s first newspaper, came to New York in 1759. In 1766 he founded his fourth paper, the weekly New-York Journal, or General Advertiser, whose banner was ornamented with the King’s arms. This device he discarded with the issue of June 23, 1774, replacing it with a snake cut into parts, with “Unite or Die” for a motto. Six months later the snake appeared in a new form, joined and coiled, with the tail in its mouth, forming a double ring; within the coil was a pillar standing on the Magna Carta and surmounted by the liberty cap. No printer wore his patriotic passion more openly than Holt, who on July 11, 1776 devoted a whole page to the Declaration of Independence, using a large typeface and embellishing it with a border of printers’ decorations. Holding on as long as he could, he published a last New York issue of his Journal on August 29, 1776, then fled to Kingston with his press.
It took nearly a year for Holt to establish his new print shop. His first issue of the emigre New-York Journal was not issued until July 7, 1777, making it the first newspaper in both Kingston and Ulster County. It carried this editorial message: “After remaining for ten months past, overwhelmed and sunk, in a sea of tyrannic violence and rapine, The New-York Journal, just emerging from the waves, faintly rears its languid head to hail its former friends and supporters-to assure them, that unchanged in its spirit and principles, the utmost exertions of its influence as heretofore, will ever be applied, with a sacred regard to the defense of American rights and freedom, and the advancement of true religion and virtue, and the happiness of mankind.”
When the troops of General John Vaughan burned Kingston on October 16, 1777, Holt removed to Poughkeepsie, under orders of George Clinton. Impoverished and without the rudiments of his trade, Holt was provided with charity and the confiscated type of Hugh Gaine. He published his Journal intermittently there from May 11, 1778 until the peace of 1783, when he returned to New York and resumed publication under the title of the Independent Gazette, or the New-York Journal Revived. Within a year the great patriot succumbed to yellow fever.
In the period after the War of Independence, many newspapers started. As of 1798, barely 10 percent were Federalist, by which was meant support for a strong Federal government, fear of the bloody excesses of the French Revolution, and fond regard for Mother England in matters of law and political conduct. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay were the leading advocates of this party. Anti-Federalists—whose party name confusingly evolved from Democratic-Republican to Republican to Democratic—distrusted centralized government and believed that power should be distributed primarily among the states. Led by Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, this group embraced the French experiment in making all things new, including the code of law.
As feelings on both sides intensified, newspapers became ever more vitriolic in their attacks—even upon such revered figures as Washington and Adams. The Alien Act of 1798, passed by a Federalist Congress with Washington’s public approval, gave President Adams the power to deport any foreigners (i.e., Frenchmen) he deemed dangerous. The Sedition Act, passed in that same session of Congress, empowered the Federal Judiciary to punish anyone convicted of uttering, writing, or printing any “false, scandalous and malicious” statement “against the Government of the United States; or either House of the Congress of the United States, with intent to defame ... or to bring them ... into contempt or disrepute.”
In its brief three-year life, the Sedition Act nearly eliminated the opposition press. The 1800 election turned, in large part, on these two laws. Jefferson reviled them. Adams supported them. Jefferson won and, even with the Sedition Act expired, still had ways of dealing with a dissenting press. The Federalists had been spreading stories about him that were all the more uncomfortable for being true: (1) that he had fathered children with a slave concubine; (2) that he had attempted to seduce the wife of a close friend, John Walker; and (3) that during the Presidential campaign he had paid $100 to James Callender to write the vitriolic pamphlet “The Prospect Before Us,” which attacked not only Adams but also Washington (“twice a traitor”).
The new President Jefferson wrote Thomas McKean, the governor of Pennsylvania, that the “press ought to be restored to its credibility if possible.... I have therefore long thought that a few prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a wholesome effect.... Not a general prosecution, for that would look like persecution: but a selected one.” In Hudson, New York, the selected victim was Harry Croswell, an obscure twenty-four-year-old printer whose garret-published quarter-sheet The Wasp stung not only that city’s Republican paper, The Bee, and its editor Charles Holt (no relation to John), but the President himself.
The trials that followed, which we will detail in our next installment, established the libel law without which freedom of the press would be timorous indeed, exposed the clay feet of President Thomas Jefferson, and brought Alexander Hamilton from a final triumph to his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.