Monday, July 31, 2006
Let Freedom Sting: Addendum
NEWS-BOY’S NEW YEAR’s
[Written by the Editor.]
CHANG’D be the News-Boy’s wonted jocund song,
For strains more serious to this verse belong:
In times like these, but little cause of joy
Inspires the poet, or awakes the boy—
In times like these, when great malignant foes
Condemn the press—the voice of truth oppose—
When upstart pow’r lifts high its ruthless hand,
Dejection deep pervades an injur’d land.
When our lov’d Washington, the great and good,
First in the councils of his country stood—
When his successor Adams, firm and just,
Discharg’d with faith, a nation’s dearest trust,
The Press was free—truth sanction’d by the law—
Falshood and malice kept in proper awe;
Then did a sland’rous, base, and factious band,
The scourge, the curse, the ruin of our land,
With ceaseless clamour pour their loud complaints
Of fetters, gags, infringements and restraints—
Restraints, the good were never doom’d to feel—
Restraints like those which say “Thou shalt not steal”—
Infringements, of those rights which bad men claim,
The just and wise to slander and defame—
Gags, which the mouth of falshood only knew—
Fetters, impos’d not on the just or true.
Then, to dam up the torrent of abuse,
Which flow’d from hireling pens, in streams profuse;
To blunt the arrows aim’d at virtue’s head—
O’er Truth’s fair form a coat of mail to spread,
Was deem’d a wrong, too great for those to bear,
Who breed in filth, and breathe infectious air;
A reptile race, in Envy’s bosom nurs’d
With other snakes—of all those snakes the worst.
But that refulgent Sun, whose golden ray
Appris’d our nation of the break of day,
Whose op’ning morning beam, whose noontide light,
Cheer’d our forefathers with a prospect bright;
Whose mild, whose steady, whose unerring course,
Of all our blessings was the certain source,
Alas, is set, and nothing guides our way,
Save a dim planet’s poor and cheerless ray—
A feeble, changing, wav’ring, waning moon,
Which scarcely glimmers at its highest noon.
Such dark and gloomy times, all things invite,
That shun the day, and basely shrink from light;
Knaves quit their lurking-holes, and range at will,
Usurp all pow’r, and all the places fill.
And should, perchance, a faithful watchman deign
To sound th’ alarm, and midnight wrongs restrain,
Quick is he mark’d, and ev’ry upstart’s arm
Is rais’d in might to do the victim harm.
And must we always grope our darksome way?
Must gloom forever shroud the beams of day?
Must discord, anarchy, confusion reign,
And virtuous freedom ne’er her pow’r regain?
Forbid it, Heav’n! fair freedom’s Sun must rise,
Illume the world, and gild Columbia’s skies;
Justice and truth shall meet a better fate,
Nor longer fear derision from the great.
Then let the storm of party-spirit rage;
Let foes a war of persecution wage;
Let the strong arm of power be rais’d in might,
To crush, and triumph o’er defenceless right;
Let a gigantic faction proudly vaunt;
Let human tigers after victims pant;
Let upright freedom, fetter’d, gagg’d and bound,
Be scoff’d, and spurn’d, and trampled to the ground;—
Truth unappall’d, will meet the deadly blow,
And hurl defiance at the vengeful foe;
E’en from the dust will raise its potent word—
E’en from the dungeon’s depths it shall be heard.
Tyrants themselves, shall tremble at its voice—
Th’ oppress’d shall hear, and hearing, shall rejoice.
Nor let the tyrant think himself more blest,
When, on the couch of down, he seeks for rest:
Let him not think that e’en the shades of night
Can yield him comfort, or repose invite;
For here shall conscience, with her sharpest sting,
Affright and terror to his bosom bring—
Plant in his pillow such a deadly thorn,
That e’en his solitude shall be forlorn—
Whisper such awful warnings in his ear,
His black and haggard soul shall start with fear.
Such, such are my hopes—such my wishes are,
And this my fervent and my constant prayer—
God grant, the virtuous may live to see
THE PRESS TRIUMPHANT, AND OUR NATION FREE!
Hudson, January 1, 1804.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
George Clinton: A Bridge to the Future?
When public works in our region have been named for private figures the result has seldom been a happy one. Who thinks of Joe DiMaggio when they are driving along New York City’s West Side Highway? Did you know that the Holland Tunnel does not reference the nation that founded New Amsterdam but instead Clifford Milburn Holland, the tunnel’s chief engineer? Does anyone speeding down the New Jersey Turnpike experience a frisson of dread at how close the Alexander Hamilton Rest Area is to where he met his earthly rest in a duel with Aaron Burr?
Our neighborhood, however, is blessed, as the bridge connecting Kingston and Rhinecliff is actually an apt memorial for its honoree, George Clinton. Not exactly a Founding Father — he didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence, as he was occupied in battle to achieve what it propounded; nor did he sign the Constitution, as he and Patrick Henry, among others, withheld their assent until they were assured that a Bill of Rights would be added — Clinton was nonetheless a great figure of his day, a patriot and, well, a bridge to the Republic that improbably survived its fledgling period. With his July 26 birthday celebration upon us this week, let’s pause at his burial monument in the graveyard of Kingston’s Old Dutch Church and reflect upon who he was, what he did, and why he still matters.
It is a measure of the man’s humility and unassuming way, not any paucity of accomplishment, that his personality was little known to the public, then as now. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison, and many more may be cited without credentialing — even without first names — in confidence that they are recalled at least through grade-school lessons. But George Clinton was a Gary Cooper type of hero —disinclined to trumpet himself and putting himself forward for public service reluctantly. Extraordinary times can make heroes of ordinary men, and that may well explain Clinton’s enduring place at the center of power. Though he left behind public papers that were published in ten volumes, he was neither an incisive writer like Hamilton nor a silver-tongued orator like Henry. It is left largely to others to testify to his stature ... and there is the undeniable record of dedication.
The bare bones are these: born in Little Britain, New York in 1739 (then in Ulster County, now in Orange), Clinton was a British soldier in the French and Indian and War, and later a Brigadier General against the British with the onerous and, as it proved, futile duty of defending Kingston against the incendiaries of General Vaughan on October 16, 1777. Undermanned and, it has been alleged, unprepared, the patriot forces mustered no meaningful opposition. No one claims for General Clinton martial genius, only a solid, reliable ability to get things done.
As a politician he served in the Continental Congress, voted for the Declaration of Independence and, in 1777, while still on active duty in the military, became first Governor of the State of New York. This post he held for 21 years (six consecutive terms from 1777 to 1795 and a seventh from 1801-1804), which is still the longest tenure of any U.S. Governor. Aging and tired, he nonetheless accepted his party’s nomination for Vice President in 1805. Following the acrimonious Aaron Burr as Jefferson’s sidekick, like Burr he balanced the ticket geographically and was chosen again in 1809 as running mate to Madison, another Virginian.
For a while as Jefferson’s second term neared an end, Clinton had thoughts of becoming president, though at his age and coming off an uninspired performance as vice president that left Senators shaking their heads and reminiscing about the brilliance of Burr, he had no realistic chance of nomination; even his old ally Jefferson turned against his effort. All the same, he remained the best choice to run alongside Madison, whose victory he assured by assuaging the worry of the Northern states that agrarian interests were beginning to monopolize the Presidency.
Clinton died in 1812, the third year of his second term, and was buried with honors in Washington. In 1908, largely at the instigation of historian Benjamin Myer Brink and Chaplain Roswell Randall Hoes, Clinton’s remains and funerary monument were transported to Kingston amid pomp and circumstance all along the way, particularly in New York City. On May 30 Kingston, amid celebration of the 250th year since its founding, welcomed the return of New York’s first governor to New York’s first capital.
George Clinton was especially admired, even revered, for his efforts to keep New Yorkers’ taxes low: he confiscated Tory lands and he used New York City port fees to buttress real-property collections. During the war, he was concerned that New York taxes would have to make up for a shortfall in funds from other states, laggardly in their obligated deliveries, and accordingly he backed Hamilton’s move for a strong Federal government that had the power to raise revenues. But when the Federal government moved to expropriate New York City’s port revenues for itself via a national tariff, Clinton reversed course, becoming vigorously anti-Federalist. In truth he was neither doctrinaire in his political beliefs nor idealistic in his political machinations; he was simply a pragmatist, and above all a New Yorker.
Concerned that a Federal government that could strip his state of its revenues might also trample individual liberties, Clinton became a prime backer of what became the Bill of Rights. He may have placed himself on the wrong side of national renown by preferring the loose Articles of Confederation to the centralizing force of the Constitution, and by casting the tie-breaking vote in the Senate that in 1811 abolished the National Bank. However, he is inextricably lodged in the hearts of his countrymen and in the pantheon of those dedicated to the rights of man.
In 2006, George Clinton may offer a further bridge, this time to New York’s future. At the turn of the last century, New York opened the golden door to millions of European immigrants, who swelled the population and increased the demand for support services and state revenues. After World War II, as Southern states held welfare payments beneath subsistence level, the indigent and unemployed migrated to the North, where more humane benefits were available. Today New York and other “blue” states seem to represent not only an old manufacturing economy and a discredited welfare state, but also an antiquated attitude toward the common weal. Conservative and liberal New Yorkers alike are, or ought to feel, as alienated from the national course as the South felt in the 1850s. We have seen a drift of talent and treasure to the rest of the country, as frightening to us as the draining of the Port of New York coffers was to George Clinton. Maybe New York, and no longer Alabama or Georgia, is the future home of state’s rights.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
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.
Sunday, July 02, 2006
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.