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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
It amounts to this then. He [Jefferson] read the book and from that book inferred that Callender was an object of charity. Why! One who presented a face bloated with vices, a heart black as hell—one who could be guilty of such foul falsehoods, such vile aspersions of the best and greatest man the world has yet known—he an object of charity! No! He is the very man, that an aspiring mean and hollow hypocrite would press into the service of crime. He is precisely qualified to become a tool—to spit the venom and scatter the malicious, poisonous slanders of his employer. He, in short, is the very man that a dissembling patriot, pretended “man of the people” would employ to plunge for him the dagger, or administer the arsenic.
Again and again Croswell sank his stinger into this Jeffersonian blister.
Will the reader turn to that inaugural speech of 1801 and see how this incarnate [Jefferson] speaks of Washington. There he makes him a demigod—having already paid Callender for making him a devil … Will the word hypocrite describe this man? There is not strength enough in the term.
When Holt attempted to answer Croswell by impugning Callender’s character, the young Federalist editor hoisted him with another petard.
About the time of Callender’s trial, you [Holt] printed a paper in New London—in that paper Callender was extolled to the skies. He was then an “excellent Republican,” a “virtuous man,” a “good Citizen,” a “suffering patriot.” … If there is anything on earth to be pitied, it is a miser-”able editor” constantly tumbling into the mire; and whose every struggle but sinks him deeper.
The disarray of his antagonists emboldened Croswell to aim some shafts at local Democratic-Republicans. In the September 9, 1802, issue of the Wasp appeared the following poem:
The poem went on to describe how the attorney general, “madly frowning on the clown,” asked him how he had the insolence to address him as a “fellow lab’rer for the common good.”
Croswell lampooned other leading local characters who were perfectly recognizable even when he named no names. One satire described a prominent judge who spent an evening eating and drinking at a nearby tavern and then refused to pay his bill. In a memoir that he attached to one of the few surviving complete sets of the Wasp (now at the New-York Historical Society), Croswell told how he was walking through the streets of Hudson, not long after publication of the latter tale, when up thundered a local justice of the peace, a big man named Hagedorn, who leaped off his wagon, shook his horsewhip under Croswell’s nose, and vowed that he considered the tavern story slander and was going to extract instant revenge.
“I had no cane or other means of defense,” Croswell wrote. “But I stood erect and dropping my hands to my sides looked him full in the face and in the most cool and collected manner apprised him that … neither he nor any other man could ever whip me and it was a mistake for him to talk so loud about it. He … broke out again in a tempest of oaths, turned shortly on his heel, mounted his wagon and drove off at a furious pace, his poor horse having received the rash intended for me.” Looking around him, Croswell noticed a staunch Federalist friend in a nearby doorway laughing heartily at the exchange. “Harry Croswell,” said he, “how could you be so sure that he would not whip you?”
“Mainly,” Croswell replied, “because I planned to run away if he had attempted it.”
It never seemed to occur to Croswell that he was a David taking on a number of political Goliaths. One reason may have been the illusion created by the preponderance of Federalists in Hudson. Among his prominent contributors was a young attorney, Thomas Grosvenor, who was the brother-in-law of Elisha Williams. Williams did more than merely threaten Charlie Holt when the Bee turned some of its venom in his direction. He caught the small, thin Holt, described as a “cripple” by a Columbia County antiquarian, and with several supporters nearby, thrashed him thoroughly.