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Friday, April 08, 2011

SCANDAL SHEET

I believe that the term “governor” and “corruption” have been synonymous since at least 70 B.C., when Cicero made the legal case against Caius Verres, the Roman governor of Sicily. Amongst a host of other allegations, Cicero charged that Verres was stripping the interior of that contented island of everything of value, and forcing 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. Before Cicero had even finished presenting his case, on the advice of his own lawyer, Verres fled Italy with a fair part of his wealth. 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 Roman circle of life.
Fifteen hundred years later the image of the corrupt governor had changed very little, except in nationality. The new prime example was William Crosby, who was English governor of Minorca (the name means “the lesser island”). That strategic little spot of dry land in the Mediterranean Sea was 200 miles off the coast from Barcelona, Spain and 300 miles west of Sardinia. The British Navy had seized the place from the Spanish in 1708, and the Treaty of Utrecht had officially awarded it to England in 1713, but  the Spanish population was far from resigned to British rule. So in 1718 the British government could not afford to look the other way when the first English Governor of the island, William Crosby, seized a shipload of snuff, valued at nine thousand pounds sterling, for non-payment of import duties.
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. 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, the Council requested a look at the documents.
When Crosby eventually responded, (in 1724) it was immediately clear that the import papers he offered up had been “tampered” with. In other words they had been forged by Crosby. The Privy Council eventually (in 1728) ordered Crosby to pay Capedvilla ten thousand pounds sterling. He did, but it did great damage to his personal bank account. The Council 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 Crosby's bank account even more.
In 1730, as Governor Crosby was packing his bags in preparation to take up his new posting as Governor 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 visit to Thomas Pelham-Holles, the duke of Newcastle.
Newcastle was 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. He secured Crosby's appointment to America.
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. To quote one of Crosby’s staunchest critics, "The Government of New York... 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. And Crosby quickly showed his bare face to the citizens of New York.
When Montgomerie had died, 71 year old Rip Van Dam had been asked by the colonial council to step in to manage the colony until the new governor arrived. And now 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. The Dutch had founded the colony, and Van Dam did not take kindly to the rude manners and uneducated brashness of the new English royal governor. He told Crosby, that by his calculations, Crosby actually owed him four thousand pounds.
Crosby did not find that very funny. 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 three judges of the Colonies' 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. As was perfectly predictably, 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 paid to have printed up on a "broadsheet", by the “second” printer in the colony, Mr. John Peter Zenger.
Broadsheets were single pages, printed in mass, and posted on public squares throughout the colony, and even read aloud by town criers, for the benefit of the illiterate. The success of Judge Morris' broadsheet in rallying the citizens against Cosby convinced certain wealthy citizens there might be a profit made in starting an opposition newspaper. They called their new weekly venture the “New York Gazette”. And again  they used the printing press owned 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 eventually, after certain colonists complained about him to London, Crosby decided to take action.
In November of 1734 he ordered the printer Peter 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 they found Zenger not guilty.
"Truth" was not an accepted legal argument against libel at the time, and it would be some years before what the New York Colonial court had decided would gain acceptance elsewhere. And long before that happened Governor William Crosby had answered to a higher court.
In early March of 1736 the greedy Crosby died of tuberculosis at the Governor’s house, in New York City. He was buried in St. George’s Chapel. But he did not stay there. 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 there, in an unmarked grave.
And good riddance, to him.
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