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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
Federalist judges immediately went to work and soon had indictments against Bache, Duane, Callender, and a dozen other Democratic-Republican editors. The Jeffersonians responded at the state level with the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions of 1798, which declared the Alien and Sedition Acts altogether void and introduced the doctrine of nullification into American constitutional thinking—a seed that would bear ominous fruit in a later era. Up and down the land, Jeffersonian editors bellowed mightily that the Federalists were attempting to erase the First Amendment and destroy the free press.
The Jeffersonian counterattack was beautifully executed: the Federalist judges retreated in disarray and all but abandoned the unpopular prosecutions alter a mere ten convictions. The nation roared into the election of 1800 with both sides strenuously exercising their right of free speech. But except for a few slugging editors who sneered at “Massa Jefferson” the slave owner, most of the Federalist propaganda came from pulpits, where clergymen pictured the election of the pro-French and “atheistic” Jefferson as the beginning of a Jacobinical reign of terror against religion. In the print shops the Jeffersonians had the bigger, more vituperative guns. James Callender’s pamphlet, The Prospect Before Us, slandered Washington and Adams with such recklessness that it achieved an unenviable literary fame. Although Federalist papers theoretically outnumbered the Jeffersonians 103 to 64, most of them maintained a tepid semineutrality that permitted the Democratic-Republicans to run away with public opinion and the election. Defeated John Adams wrote mournfully, “If we had been blessed with common sense, we should not have been overthrown by Philip Freneau, Duane, Callender. … A group of foreign liars have discomfited the education, the talents, the virtues, and the property of the country.”
But the Federalists were down, not out. Older leaders like John Jay might retire to their estates in dismay, but there were numerous young, vigorous Federalists in the prime of middle life, such as Hamilton and Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, who did not feel it was time for them to abandon politics. They decided Federalism was not dead, it had just been misrepresented, distorted, and smeared without rebuttal. It was time to junk the older Federalist ideas about the vulgarity of appealing to the people through the press. Ames suggested a Latin motto as a guide: Fas est et ab hoste doceri (“It is perfectly proper to be taught by one’s enemy”). Up and down the Republic, Federalists began founding papers in which, Ames declared, “wit and satire should flash like the electrical fire.” At the same time, the paper he helped found, the New England Palladium, would, he predicted, be “fastidiously polite and well-bred. It should whip Jacobins as a gentleman would a chimney sweeper, at arms length, and keeping aloof from his soot.”
In New York, Alexander Hamilton soon gathered a group of well-heeled Federalists who put up $10,000 for a daily to be called the Evening Post (still in business today, as the New York Post). Its editor, William Coleman, met Alexander Hamilton by night and took down his editorials from the very lips of the great man himself. Throughout the other states, similar papers suddenly blossomed: in Baltimore, for example, the Republican, or, Anti-Democrat; in South Carolina, the Charleston Courier. In Hudson, New York, another group of Federalists led by Elisha Williams, one of the state’s most noted attorneys, backed Ezra Sampson as the editor of the Balance and Columbian Repository. As a junior editor Sampson hired twenty-two-year-old Harry Croswell.
Connecticut born, this well-built, dignified young man had studied for a time in the household of Noah Webster, later of dictionary fame and a high Federalist of the old school. (Webster’s solution for rampant Jeffersonianism was to raise the voting age to forty-five.) Temperamentally, Harry Croswell was a born Federalist. He was religious, had a natural deference for older, wiser, richer men, and tended to see political developments of the day as a clash between the forces of darkness and light.
Hudson at this time was not the somnolent little river town it is today. In the decade after the Revolution it carried more ships on its registers than the city of New York. Much of western Massachusetts and northern Connecticut used Hudson for a shipping center. One March day in 1802, a reporter counted 2,Hoo sleighs loaded with goods on Hudson’s streets, creating a traffic jam of prodigious dimensions. At the same time, with Albany, the state capital, a mere twenty-eight miles upriver, it was hardly surprising that Hudson and surrounding Columbia County were politically sensitive areas. Later in the century one local historian unabashedly claimed that the county had produced more distinguished politicians than any other comparable area in the entire country.