Let Freedom Sting: The Wasp, The Bee, and the Valley; Part II
Since we commenced this tale of how our nation’s freedom of the press came to be created in the Hudson Valley more than 200 years ago, Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) has repeated his call to prosecute the New York Times for treason. Joining the chorus have been Vice President Dick Cheney, Senator Jim Bunning (R-Ky), and the editors of the Wall Street Journal (the last-named to the horror of its reporters). And the National Review, in a deliciously servile bit, has called on the White House to revoke press credentials for the Times. To all these folks we extend our heartfelt thanks for blowing the dust off our story and making it seem, alas and alack, fresh. Let’s get back to it.
We concluded last week’s installment with the Federalists, led by Hamilton, Madison, and Adams, about to reap the whirlwind they had created with their Sedition Act of 1798, which had permitted the Administration to mark key opposition editors for prosecution. Among these had been Charles Holt of The Bee, which he had launched in New London, Connecticut, to provide an impartial lens through which the public might view society and politics. His attempts at neutrality, however, were ill-received: Federalist views were greeted with mild interest, but whenever he published an article of Democratic sentiment, New London’s preponderantly Federalist population would voice its displeasure via boycott. Holt was even sentenced under the Sedition Act to three months in prison and a $200 fine for publishing an article that reflected poorly on President Adams. Angered by his treatment and discouraged by his impecunious state, he accepted a proposition from a group of Democrats residing in Hudson, New York, in 1802 to relocate The Bee there, but this time as a plainly partisan paper. With Jefferson in the White House, it was a good time to be an anti-Federalist.
Holt’s transformation was not an isolated phenomenon. The political climate was so superheated that journalistic attempts at objectivity appealed to no one; to attain a readership, a printer had overtly to endorse one party or the other. And while Holt managed to find subscribers for his Hudson Bee, he found also a local rival in Harry Croswell, who would seek to destroy him and the ideology for which he stood. In response to The Bee Croswell, who had entered journalism with The Catskill Packet, created a personal newspaper, The Wasp. This he published in the garret of Hudson’s Balance and Columbian Repository, a Federalist paper in which he was a one-third partner. The Wasp, under Croswell’s pen name of Robert Rusticoat, undertook “To lash the Rascals naked through the world.” It addressed Holt thus:
It is well known that you was bro’t here by virtue of $500 raised for that purpose by the leading Democrats in this city. That the public may know, therefore, with how much purity and independence you will conduct in your editorial labors, would you be kind enough to answer the following questions:
Did the contributors to the $500 purchase you, as they purchase Negroes in Virginia, or hire you as they hire servants in New England?
Are you not a mere automaton in the hands of your masters: pledged to publish whatever slanders or falsehoods they shall dictate? And by your contract with them if you refuse to pollute your sheets have they not a right to ship you back again to your 350 subscribers in New London?
Holt chose not to reply in kind, maintaining his dignity and assuring his continued utility to the Jeffersonians, who dominated Hudson in any event. However, it was the fiery Croswell and not the decorous Holt who would leave an indelible impression upon American journalism. Croswell did not limit his attacks to Holt or his Hudson crowd but went after Jefferson himself. As reported here last week, the President regarded Croswell’s claims as all the more outrageous because they were true. Most outrageous of these was a remark that Croswell actually quoted from James Callender, the disaffected Federalist whom Jefferson had bribed to slander Adams and Washington in the run-up to the election of 1800: “Mr. Jefferson has for years past while his wife was living and does now since she is dead, keep a woolly headed concubine by the name of Sally—that by her he had had several children, and that one by the name of Tom has since his father’s election taken upon himself many airs of importance, and boasted his extraction from a President.”
Jefferson, although he had disapproved of the Sedition Act because it empowered the Federal government to prosecute those who printed or uttered allegedly treasonous statements, nonetheless believed that state governments had the right to try matters of libel, and that they ought to do so on a selected basis: “a few prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a wholesome effect,” he wrote. Croswell was not the only printer to incense Jefferson. William Coleman, the editor of the New York Evening Post—created after their defeat in 1800 by well-heeled Federalists including Alexander Hamilton—published similar criticisms of the President. Coleman was not prosecuted, however, because Jefferson’s minions were reluctant to square off against the brilliant Hamilton in court. As we shall see, however, their attempt at evading Hamilton by prosecuting Croswell proved ineffectual.
Croswell was brought to trial in Columbia County in July, 1803, before Chief Justice Lewis. The indictment read, in part:
... it is represented that Harry Croswell, late of the city of Hudson, in the county of Columbia aforesaid, printer, being a malicious and seditious man, of a depraved mind and wicked and diabolical disposition, and also deceitfully, wickedly, and maliciously devising, contriving and intending, Thomas Jefferson, Esq., President of the United States of America, to detract from, scandalize, traduce, vilify, and to represent him, the said Thomas Jefferson, as unworthy the confidence, respect, and attachment of the people of the said United States, and to alienate and withdraw from the said Thomas Jefferson, Esq., President as aforesaid, the obedience, fidelity, and allegiance of the citizens of the state of New York, and also of the said United States; and wickedly and seditiously to disturb the peace and tranquility, as well of the people of the state of New York, as of the United States; and also to bring the said Thomas Jefferson, Esq., (as much as in him the said Harry Croswell lay) into great hatred, contempt, and disgrace, not only with the people of the state of New York, and the said people of the United States, but also with the citizens and subjects of other nations....
Peter King’s blast against the Times seems rather mild after that.
Croswell’s lawyer, Elisha Williams, argued convincingly that the veracity of the “slander” was of paramount importance; how, he wondered, could American citizens “pluck down the vicious demagogue and raise and support the virtuous patriot unless their variant conduct could he faithfully represented? And what printer would dare to represent such conduct if the truth of the fact so represented could not shield him from destruction?” Nevertheless, once Judge Lewis, a staunch Jeffersonian, made it clear that neither the truth of the allegations nor the motives of the accused were defenses under New York law, the jury had no choice but to convict Croswell, unless they were to echo the jury nullification that had marked the Zenger trial of 1735.
Croswell was convicted. But the Federalists were not disposed to let a small-town printer take the fall for their crusade. His attorneys requested that his case be heard at the New York Supreme Court. The appeal was granted, and Croswell would be represented gratis by none other than Alexander Hamilton.
In 1804 the State Supreme Court was comprised of four justices: Chief Justice Lewis, who had presided over the previous trial; Brockholst Livingston, another Jeffersonian advocate; Smith Thompson, also an enemy of Federalism; and James Kent, a solitary Federalist. On Croswell’s behalf on February 13 and 14, Hamilton presented rich examples from common law, both English and Roman, which stressed the importance of truth in cases of libel. He argued that freedom of the press consisted in the right to print the truth, if with good motives and for justifiable ends, even if this truth reflected on “the government, magistracy or individuals.”
Hamilton easily persuaded Kent, the loyal Federalist. He even convinced Livingston and Thompson, two men accustomed to opposing Federalist sentiments. Chief Justice Lewis, however, entrenched in Jeffersonian doctrine, remained adamant and even convinced Livingston to switch his vote. Thus the court was split two to two. The prosecution could have moved immediately for a judgment against Croswell but, fearing further dueling with Hamilton, no such motion was made, and the case was dropped. Croswell’s case proved an implicit victory for Hamilton and for the press, as it stimulated the formulation of truth-in-libel bills across several states, thereby securing by the following year what we today consider to be America’s historic freedom of the press.
Unfortunately for Hamilton, his celebration of his legal victory would meet an abrupt end. At a dinner party held in Albany during the trial, he delivered several criticisms of Vice President Aaron Burr, labeling him “a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reigns of government.” When Burr—and many who read newspapers, for the remark was widely reprinted—discovered this insult months later, he challenged Hamilton to a duel. And although Hamilton openly disapproved of dueling, for two years earlier it had been the means of his son’s demise, he agreed to participate, perhaps fearing the injury to his reputation that might follow his declining the challenge. On the morning of July 11, 1804, Burr shot and killed Hamilton, thereby eliminating his personal rival and the primary Federalist intellect.
What of the other players in this high drama? Charles Holt went on to New York City, where in 1810 he commenced a new paper, The Columbian, for which he sought Jefferson’s support in a sycophantic reference to their former alliance on behalf of The Bee. Jefferson replied, “I remember too well the principles and intrepidity of the Bee in the gloomy days of terrorism, to entertain any doubt on the principles of your present paper; but I wish to indulge myself in more favorite reading, in Tacitus & Horace, and the writers of that philosophy which is the old man’s consolation and preparation for what is to come.”
After his trial, Croswell resumed his role with the Balance and Columbian Repository, though The Wasp was no more. After relocating to Albany, he recommenced his frank denunciation of public figures and was promptly tried for libel again, this time successfully, at the behest of Ambrose Spencer, who as New York’s Attorney General had prosecuted him in the great trial of 1804. Embittered, Croswell renounced politics altogether and entered the pulpit. He served temporarily as the rector at Christ Church in Hudson, and then at Trinity Church in New Haven, where he would remain for forty-three years. But Croswell had already left his imprint on American journalism. Editor of a fourth-rate paper in a third-tier city, he had emerged from Jefferson’s assault scarred yet victorious. For the freedom of the press we now consider our natural and inalienable right, we hail Harry Croswell, local and national hero.