- Historic Sites
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
The Jeffersonians were strongly entrenched there. In 1802, the attorney general of the state of New York was sharp-eyed, hatchet-faced Ambrose Spencer, a native son of Columbia County. Morgan Lewis, chief justice of the state supreme court, was married to Gertrude Livingston, whose family’s vast upstate holdings included a huge chunk of the southern portion of the county. The Livingstons were the most potent voice in the Jeffersonian party at that time.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the Jeffersonians decided to set up a rival to the Federalist Balance. For their printer they chose Charles Holt, former editor of the New London Bee and a Sedition Act martyr who had been convicted in 1800 for libel and spent several months in jail. Holt prepared to launch a Bee in Hudson and made it clear it would buzz impertinently in the face of the dignified Balance.
Young Harry Croswell forthwith saw an opportunity to prove his extreme devotion to Federalism. He persuaded his senior editor, Sampson, to let him publish in the garret of the Balance office a paper entitled the Wasp. As an editorial pseudonym, Croswell chose “Robert Rusticoat”; for a motto, “To lash the Rascals naked through the world.” Down in New York, an observer in the Evening Post told the story in doggerel obviously modelled on “Yankee Doodle.”
Croswell’s opening number was nothing less than a declaration of war:
Wherever the Bee ranges, the Wasp will follow over the same fields and on the same flowers—Without attempting to please his friends, the Wasp will only strive to displease, vex and torment his enemies ... The Wasp has a dirty and disagreeable job to perform. He has undertaken the chastisement of a set of fellows who are entrenched in filth—who like lazy swine are wallowing in a puddle. He must therefore wade knee deep in smut before he can meet his enemits on their own ground.
At his opposite number, Holt, Croswell levelled the following blast:
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?
Croswell soon made it clear that this was more than a local war. Down in Virginia, James Callender was demonstrating his lack of principle by turning on his former idol, Thomas Jefferson. After Jefferson became President, Callender, working on the assumption that his slanderous attack on Washington and Adams had done much to swing the election, coolly asked to be made postmaster of Richmond. Jefferson declined, whereupon Callender revealed in print that while he was working on The Prospect Before Us, Jefferson had sent him a hundred dollars and had even read part of the manuscript, returning it with the declaration, “Such papers cannot fail to produce the best affect. They inform the thinking part of the nation …”
This was sensational stuff, the kind of thing that could hurt Jefferson politically. Washington was now in his grave two years and already the process of canonization was in full swing. Federalist printers rushed to their presses to discuss Jelferson’s rather lame explanation that he had sent Callender the hundred dollars out of charity, and because he was a Sedition Act victim. But few equalled the savagery with which the Wasp pilloried this explanation.