JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Thursday, December 04, 2008


I believe that the term “governor” and “corruption” have been synonymous since at least 70 B.C. when Cicero (above) made the legal case against Caius Verres, the Roman governor of Sicily. Amongst a host of other allegations, Cicero charged that Verres had famously stripped the interior of that contented island of everything of value, and then forced the city of Syracuse to build and crew a new ship each year to transport Verres’ plunder back to Rome, where he kept the plunder and sold the ship. And kept the money. Before the prosecution had even finished its case, on the advice of his own lawyer, Verres fled Italy with a fair part of his wealth still intact. We know this because years later Mark Anthony had Verres executed, in order to steal what Verres had stolen from Sicily. The murder of corrupt Roman officials by other corrupt Roman officials had, by then, become part of the circle of life.
Fifteen hundred years later the image of the corrupt governor had changed very little, except in nationality. A prime example was William Crosby (above), who was English governor of Minorca (the name means “the lesser island”). The strategic little island is 200 miles off the coast from Barcelona, Spain and 300 miles west of Sardinia. The British Navy had just seized the island from the Spanish in 1708, and the Treaty of Utrecht had not officially awarded it to England until 1713, leaving the Spanish population far from resigned to British rule. So in 1718 the British government could not afford to just look the other way when Governor Crosby seized a shipload of snuff, valued at nine thousand pounds sterling. The problem was that Crosby had just mugged a local power broker. His name was Bonaventura Capedvilla, a Portuguese merchant and it had been his snuff that had been filched by Crosby. Capedvilla contended that he had paid the import duties on the snuff, and when the local authorities began to ask questions, Governor Crosby simply refused to allow them access to government documents. But Capedvilla was wealthy enough and powerful enough to fight back against Crosby. Besides, Portugal was an English ally in their war against Spain, and the British government really could not afford to offend one of Portugal's richest citizens. So Señor Capedvilla appealed directly to the Privy Counsel in London, and eventually, in 1722, they requested a look at the documents themselves. When Crosby eventually responded, (in 1724) it was immediately clear that the importation papers he offered as proof had been “tampered” with. In other words they had been forged. The Privy Council finally (in 1728) ordered Crosby to pay Capedvilla ten thousand pounds sterling. He did but it did great damage to his personal bank account. The Coouncil also decided that perhaps it would be better if Crosby were governor of some other island not quite so vital to the security of Great Britain. And that could end up hurting his bank account even more.In 1730, as Governor Crosby packed his bags to take up his new posting to the Leeward Islands off the north coast of Venezuela, he received word that John Montgomerie, the royal Governor of New York and New Jersey in America, had just dropped dead of a stroke. Immediately William Crosby made his way to London to pay a little visit to Thomas Pelham-Holles, the duke of Newcastle. Newcastle had been the secretary of state for the Southern Department, which included everything in America south of Canada. He was also a first cousin to Grace Montague, who was Cosby’s wife. And Newcastle was ever happy to see another relative doing well in government service.And that was why, in 1731, William Crosby arrived in New York armed with the royal seal of approval and carrying his own particular brand of insensitive and clumsy avariciousness still intact. To quote one of Crosby’s staunchest critics, "The Government of New York by the death of Coll Montgomerie came seasonably in (Crosby’s) way to repair his broken fortune." When a New Yorker later pointed out that one of Crosby’s actions was illegal, he answered directly, “How, gentlemen, do you think I mind that: alas! I have great interests in England, of the Dukes of New Castle, Montague and Lord Halifax." Now that is arrogance with its mask off.When Montgomerie had died, 71 year old Rip Van Dam (above) was asked by the colonial council to step in to manage the colony. Shortly after his arrival in New York, William Crosby asked Van Dam to turn over half of the salary he had collected since Montgomerie’s death. That was actually a fairly common practice in the British Empire, but Van Dam was a survivor of the Dutch power structure (they had founded the colony) and he did not take kindly to the rude manners and uneducated brashness of the new royal governor. He told Crosby that by his calculations Crosby actually owed him four thousand pounds. Crosby did not find that very funny, and in August of 1732 he sued Van Dam for half of his salary.Crosby was of course, not going to allow a jury to tell him what was legal. So he instructed the Colonies’ three judge Supreme Court to hear the case. Van Dam challenged the legality of that order, and his challenge was argued before…the three judges of the Supreme Court. Their vote was two-to-one, in Crosby’s favor. Crosby then ordered the dismissal of Chief Justice Lewis Morris, the only court member with the courage to vote against the governor. Justice Morris laid out his reasons for opposing Crosby’s actions in a letter he had printed up by the “second” printer in the colony, Mr. John Peter Zenger. The success of that broadsheet in rallying the citizens against Corsby convinced certain wealthy citizens to start an opposition newspaper, the weekly “New York Gazette”, again using the printing press operated by Mr. Zenger. Crosby paid little attention, as he was busy stealing land from the Indians, from the original Dutch settlers and from recent English immigrants. But finally, after certain colonists complained about him to London, Crosby decided to take action. In November of 1734 he ordered Zenger arrested.And that is how a lowly German immigrant - Peter Zenger - who could barely spell in English, became the center of the first great confrontation between Americans seeking “Liberty and Justice” and the caprice of a Royal prerogative. In the trial on August 5, 1734, an American jury decided that the truth of an allegation was a valid defense against libel, and found Zenger not guilty.
"Truth" was not an accepted legal argument against libel at the time, and it would be some years before it would gain acceptance. But long before that happened Governor William Crosby had answered to a higher court. In early March of 1736 the pompus jerk died of tuberculosis at the Governor’s house, in New York City. He was buried in St. George’s Chapel (below), but in 1788 the post-revolutionary American governor of New York had the last word on the old royal governor, when he ordered Crosby's remains be moved to the graveyard at St. Paul’s Church, and dumped in an unmarked grave.And good riddance, to him.
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