AUGUST   2020


Friday, May 10, 2013


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.
- 30 -

Sunday, May 05, 2013


I believe that houses are like the people who occupy them. If they remain standing long enough  they can become all things. First the little house on K street was a home,  and then it was a bordello and a bar, and then it sat empty for a few years. I mean, who would want to live in such an infamous den of inequity? That question was answered during the roaring twenties, when 1625 K street became the home of various fraternities associated with George Washington University - the campus is one block south across Pennsylvania Avenue, between 24th and 19th Streets. But the frat parties came to abrupt end with the onset of the Great Depression.
One in four Americans lost their jobs. Those who still had a job saw their wages fall by almost half, at the same time that the price of food went up. Those who lost their home or apartment threw up shacks and shanties on vacant land and called them "Hoovervilles". Empty pockets turned inside out were called "Hoover Flags". There were literally millions of Americans in agony. Industrialist Henry Ford proclaimed that the Great Depression had been caused by “an era of laziness”, and President Hoover, from his government subsidized home three and ½ blocks south of the Little Green House, seemed to agree. But to the vast army of unemployed, that did not seem to be so much an answer as a justification as to why Ford's family was not going hungry like theirs. The District of Columbia in 1930 had a population of 607,000 people, and almost half of them had no regular income.
Still the town should have barely noticed when on December 5th ,  1930 some 3,000 communists came from all over the eastern half of the United States to stage a “hunger march” in Washington. The march was badly organized. The timing was stupid. Two marchers died from exposure to the harsh winter weather, fifteen others came down with pneumonia, twenty with the flu. Still the government managed to overreact. There were more cops than marchers. Great sums had been spent to isolate the communists, far more than was spent in relief efforts. If the American Communists had been better organized, they might have posed a real threat to the capitalist system, because President Hoover decided the best capitalism could do was to encourage those with money to invest it. They did, but not in America.
In response to Hoover's pleadings, some investments were made. In 1931 the frat house at 1625 K street was remodeled into office space. But by then there was not much call for new office space, even in Washington D.C. The economy did not need old spaces given new names. It needed new purposes. The little Green house, now a little green office building, sat empty, waiting for something to happen.
In 1932 fifteen thousand well organized WWI veterans marched on Washington, petitioning their government for early payment of their long promised war bonuses. The money was supposed to be paid in 1945, but the men were hungry now -  their children were hungry now. But this time the government had the tools to respond to such a petition. This was why Washington had been established. The powers that be called out their District of Columbia police force (above). Shots were fired. Two veterans were killed. A few cops were beat up. The Federal government decided that the problem was not that the working stiffs had been pushed to far, it was that not enough force had been applied to keeping them under control.
That “enough force” had a name – General Douglas MacArthur (above, left). Ordered to clear the “Bonus Army” from around Jenkin's Hill, the imperious MacArthur sent in tanks and troops with fixed bayonets and tear gas. Crowds of government workers shouting “Shame, shame” at the soldiers did not shame MacArthur.
Once the area around capital had been cleared the General led his little army across the river to attack the shanty town  where the desperate veterans had left their families (above). This had not been ordered. MacArthur did this on his own. The two infants who died in this assault were MacArthur's trophies, as were the hundreds of mostly women, who were beaten and bloodied in this lesson for the lazy. Major Dwight David Eisenhower, who was the liaison with the district cops, described the burning of the shantytown as “pitiable.” MacArthur, who had pity only for injustices suffered by himself, was quietly retired and given a  job in the far off Philippines where it was to be hoped, he would never be heard from again.
In 'upper crust' Washington, “Old” Washington, the removal of General MacArthur was a defeat equal to surrender at Appomattox Court House. He had been one of them. Still, with the incoming new administration there was reason for the wealthy denizens of Washington to hope. Wrote the Saturday Evening Post, “No occupants of the White House since Theodore Roosevelt had been so significantly favored as to birth and material circumstances (as FDR). Even the so called "Cave Dwellers" dropped their masks of indifference and cheered openly. At last the Nation was to have a President and First Lady who have enjoyed exceptional privileges due to family position and wealth”.
The upper crust of Washington had acquired the nomen of The Cave Dwellers, because they were rarely seen outside their Kalorama neighborhood, to the North of K street. And the subsequent invasion of Washington by the army of Roosevelt's New Deal technocrats now destroyed “the incomparably delightful relationship between the official and social life” of Washington.
The small southern town inside Washington was suffering a revolution - as usual, hardest felt in the mundane things of life. In 1937 some 40,000 people jammed Washington's Union Station (above) twice a day, coming and going.  Suddenly, Washington (and the government) was going to work.
Federal clerks toiling away in unconditioned offices now numbered a daily invasion of  200,000, since most could only afford to live outside the district. And then came the final insult.  In 1937 plans were announced to cut down 50 of the imported Japanese Cherry trees to make room for the planned Jefferson Memorial.
Outraged, a group of female Cave Dwellers chained themselves to the trees – their final line in the sand had been drawn at trees, not people. But it was a pitiable last stand. A brainy New Dealer came down in person and served the ladies coffee in china cups. He listened to their passion for tradition. He served them more coffee and promised to replant any trees damaged. Then he served them more coffee, and when the ladies slipped their chains to escape to the toilet, the trees were bulldozed, and the construction proceeded. (the trees were later replaced).
Like an ancient totem which had lost its magic, in early December of 1941 the Little Green House on K street was also bulldozed. The safe in the backyard was plowed over. And in its place an 11 story steel frame concrete structure would rise. And like the rest of Washington, it would be filled with lobbyists.
- 30 -

Blog Archive