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Verdicts Of History IV: “a Scandalous, Malicious, And Seditious Libel”
Is it libel to say that the President of the United States tried to seduce his neighbor’s wife—even if he did? Thomas Jefferson tried to gag the venomous editor of upstate New York’s Wasp; Alexander Hamilton argued brilliantly in defense of journalistic candor.
December 1967 | Volume 19, Issue 1
“At a Court of general Sessions of the Peace, holden at Claverack, in and for the county of Columbia, it is presented that Harry Croswell, late of the city of Hudson, in the county of Columbia aforesaid, Printer, being a malicious and seditious man, and of a depraved mind and wicked and diabolical disposition, and also deceitfully, wickedly and maliciously devising, contriving and intending, Thomas Jefferson, Esquire, President of the United States of America, to detract from, scandalize, traduce, and vilify, and to represent him, the said Thomas Jefferson, as unworthy of the confidence, respect and attachment of the People 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; … the said Harry Croswell did on the ninth day of September, in the year of our Lord 1802, with force and arms, at the said city of Hudson, in the said county of Columbia, wickedly, maliciously and seditiously print and publish and cause and procure to be printed and published, a certain scandalous, malicious and seditious libel, in a certain paper or publication entitled ‘The Wasp.’ …”
All history is a mingling of the great and small, of kings losing kingdoms for want of a horseshoe nail, of presidents assassinated because a guard needed a smoke. But seldom has there been a stranger concatenation of the petty and the magnificent, the comic and the tragic, the trivial and the profound, than in the case of the People v. Croswell, in 1803. By an odd blend of good and bad luck, an obscure twenty-four-year-old printer wrote himself into the Dictionary of American Biography, established the libel law on which contemporary press freedom still rests, jarred the political security of President Thomas Jefferson, and indirectly helped to involve Alexander Hamilton in his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.
In 1803 the infant American Republic was running a high political fever. The ferocity of the verbal warfare raging between the Federalists, the party created by Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans, led by President Jefferson, has rarely been matched in American politics, even by the diatribes of today’s New Left and Ultra Right.
The first fusillades had been fired during Washington’s Presidency. The Jeffersonians, with not a little help from the Sage of Monticello himself, had set up journalists such as Philip Freneau and Benjamin Franklin Bache with one mission, to deflate and discredit an administration that was, in Jefferson’s view, “galloping fast into monarchy.” They soon had the Father of His Country in a state of near apoplexy. “That rascal Freneau,” as Washington called him, insisted on sending his scurrilous National Gazette, published in Philadelphia, to the President’s house even after he had cancelled his subscription. Freneau spent most of his abuse on Hamilton. Baclic preferred Washington as a target, calling him “treacherous,” “mischievous,” “inefficient,” and sneering at his “farce of disinterestedness” and his “stately joumeyings through the American continent in search of personal incense.”
These verbal guerrillas soon had imitators. Among the more savage was William Duane, Bache’s successor as editor of the Philadelphia Aurora. Washington, he wrote, had “discharged the loathings of a sick mind.” Even this was topped by an English newcomer, James T. Callender. In the Richmond Examiner he declared that “Mr. Washington has been twice a traitor.”
The Federalists, the upholders of upper-class dignity, labored under a difficult handicap in such a war. They soon became afraid, in Washington’s words, that “there seems to be no bounds to … attempts to destroy all confidence, that the People might, and … ought to have, in their government; thereby dissolving it, and producing a disunion of the States.” The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were an expression of this fear. Passed by a Federalist Congress with Washington’s public approval, the Alien Act gave President John Adams the power to deport any foreigners he deemed dangerous to public peace. The Sedition Act empowered the federal judiciary to punish anyone convicted of false or malicious writing against the nation, the President, or Congress with a fine of not more than $2,000 and imprisonment for not more than two years.