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Friday, September 09, 2011

A VILE HERO

I believe that Harry Croswell may be best explained by a story he told about himself. One of his victims, a local Justice of the Peace named Hagedorn, spotted the young newspaperman about to cross a street in the river port boom-town of Hudson, New York (above). It sat on the east bank of the river, about 30 miles south of Albany. Without warning Hagedorn, an enormous man, leaped from the driver’s seat of his wagon and confronted the unsuspecting Harry. Standing toe to toe, Justice Hagedorn hotly accused Harry of slandering him in his newspaper, and threatened to whip Harry soundly. Harry calmly responded that he did not believe that Hagedorn would “whip” him. The offended justice exploded in a stream of profanity and insults, and then, without touching Harry, spun on his heels, remounted his carriage again and whipped his “poor horse” instead. As the angry Justice disappeared down the street a witness asked Harry how he could have been so certain the J.P. would not have used a horse whip on him, to which Harry replied, “Mainly because I planned to run away.”
Harry lived in a world not so different from our own. True, he never experienced the joys of indoor plumbing, nor the miracles of modern medicine, but his America was a land bitterly divided, plagued by partisanship, confused by conspiracy theories right and left, and afflicted with a media that fanned the flames of discord in the name of profit. Of course, the American republic of Harry Croswell’s day had a valid excuse for its childish behavior; it was little more than a child itself.
First, Congress had passed the Naturalization Act, of June 18, 1798. Openly supported by outgoing President George Washington, (above), this law required anyone applying for citizenship first be a resident for at least 14 years. (At this point it had only been 22 years since the Declaration of Independence)
Then there was the Alien Friends Act, of June 25, which authorized incoming President John Adams (above) to deport any resident alien whom he personally considered dangerous. This was followed by the Alien Enemies Act of July 6, which allowed the President to deport any alien whose original nation was currently at war with the United States. And finally, there was the Sedition Act of July 14, 1798. This made it a crime to publish anything “false, scandalous, and malicious” about the government or its officials. Taken together these were the Alien and Sedition Acts, a sort 18th century version of the Patriot Act.
The acts were the creation of the Federalist President John Adams, supported by his Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton (above).
And few in the country had any doubt that they were aimed at the friends and allies of Vice President Thomas Jefferson (above).
To oversimplify the situation, the Federalists were in favor of a strong central government, while Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans were in favor of strong states. The contest between the two philosophies seemed to have been decided in 1800 when Jefferson was swept into office, succeeding the one term Adams. But as soon as President Jefferson had the reins of power in his hands he began to beat the horse he rode into the White House on, just as President Adams had.
In fact most of this hysteria was started by the Republican side. James Callender, Jefferson’s personal attack dog, actually called George Washington, the father-of-our-country, a traitor. Philip Freneau’s “National Gazette” described Washington’s speeches as the “discharged loathings of a sick mind.” In response the restrained Gentleman of Mount Vernon canceled his subscription to Bache’s paper. But Bache paid for Washington's subscription himself, and continued to mail it to the President’s house.
I am tempted to describe the string of vitriol pouring from Jefferson’s publishers as a sort of Fox Network News of its day. But in fact the Federalists opposition in New York City, funded by Alexander Hamilton, had its own foul mouthpiece in NYC, the Evening Post, a newspaper which eventually became the New York Post, the current paper voice of Fox News in the big apple. In any case, having put himself in the drivers seat, the Sage of Monticello was not shy about using the Federalists weapons he had just denounced. And his first target was 22 year old Harry Crosswell.
The “tall, and manly” Harry Crosswell, was the son of a Connecticut preacher. His tutor had been the old Federalists, Noah Webster, of the dictionary fame. Harry began his career as an assistant editor on the Hudson, New York Federalist newspaper the “Balance”. But in 1802 when Hudson Republicans started an attack sheet called “The Bee”, Harry convinced his publisher to fund a Federalist four page attack sheet in response, called “The Wasp”. He wrote under the pen-name of “Robert Rusticoat”, and pledged that “Wherever the Bee ranges, the Wasp will follow…Without attempting to please his friends, the Wasp will only strive to displease, vex and torment his enemies .” And he did.
Most of his really nasty material Harry reprinted from the pen of James Callender, the ex-confidant of Jefferson himself. In 1801, when Jefferson refused to name Callender Postmaster for Virginia, Callender turned on his one-time master. In his own Virginia newspaper, Callander detailed how Jefferson had fed him word for word the vile attacks upon Washington. And it was Callander who first printed the story of Jefferson’s liaisons with his slave, Sally Hemings, and their many offspring. And Harry reprinted every one of the salacious details in The Wasp.
In January of 1803, Harry Croswell was dragged before three part-time Republican judges and charged with “... being a malicious and seditious man, and of depraved mind and wicked and diabolical disposition, and also deceitfully, wickedly and maliciously devising, contriving and intending, toward Thomas Jefferson, Esquire, President of the United States of America, to detract from, scandalize, traduce and vilify, and to represent him… as unworthy of the confidence, respect and attachment of the people of the said United States…”
Now this was nothing new for Harry. He was constantly being sued by his targets, such as the angry Mr, Hagedorn, J.P. But this time the Jeffersonians were determined to bring the full weight of their political power to bear. Harry’s lawyers requested copies of the indictments; denied. They requested a delay to bring James Callender up from Virginia, to testify; denied. They requested a change of venue; denied. After six months of motions and denials, the case was finally went to the jury, and Chief Justice Morgan Lewis’ instructions sealed Harry’s fate. “The law is settled. The truth of the matter published cannot be given in evidence.”
This was old English Common Law, the standard still in use in the new America. And under its rules, the jury retired at sunset, and at 8 A.M. the next morning convicted Harry. His lawyers immediately filed an appeal for a new trial, and while that was heard, at least Harry was out of jail. That did not seem to help much because over the summer his primary witness for the defence, James Callender, scorned confidant of Thomas Jefferson, and life-long alcoholic, fell into mud flats along the James River in Richmond, and drowned.
Speaking for Harry's defense before the New York state Supreme Court, on February 13, 1804, was Jefferson's nemeses, Alexander Hamilton himself. He argued that the only restraint on publishers should reside not with the government and politicians, but with the “occasional and fluctuating group of common citizens” sitting on juries. Only if a charge was untrue, and only if the writer had reason to know it was untrue, should it be considered slander; or so argued Alexander Hamilton.
Amazingly the New York State Supreme Court agreed. They overturned Harry’s conviction and ordered a new trial. But by then the political winds had shifted. Public opinion had not taken kindly to Republican politicians arguing they should be exempt from public criticism. The New York Legislature even re-wrote their libel and slander laws. But, Thomas Jefferson as not willing to take "no" for an answer, and Harry was brought up on new charges. And he was convicted again. But this time the jury awarded the plaintiff exactly six cents, which wasn’t a lot of money, even in 1804.
Harry Croswell was now made senior editor of "The Balance". But the fire had also gone out of the Federalists cause, and the paper foundered financially. In 1811, having served a short term in debtor’s prison, Harry retired from politics completely; he never even voted again. Instead, he became an Episcopal Minister and eventually was assigned to the Trinity Church in New Haven. He preached there for 43 years. Said one of his flock of the man, “He was not a great preacher, but he had an extraordinary knowledge of human nature, and could ingratiate himself into every man's heart.”
Thus, having applied his talents in a more productive way than politics, Harry Crosswell,  died on March 13th , 1858, at 80 years old.  His life could be divided in two. In the first phrase, he made history. In the second phrase, he made a real difference.
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