The Trial of Harry Croswell
1804

 

DEFENDER OF FREEDOM OF THE PRESS

"The most memorable law case of Hamilton, because of its public bearing, was the defense of Harry Croswell, February, 1804, against a charge of libeling Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States. Croswell was editor of a little newspaper, The Wasp, in which he reprinted some tart comments on Jefferson by John Holt. 'Holt says... the burden of the Federal Song is that Jefferson paid Callender for calling Washington a traitor, a robber, a perjurer. '
     Croswell was indicted. Croswell tried in vain to have his trial put off until James Thompson Callender could be called as a witness to prove the truth of Croswell's charge.
     Croswell was convicted, and the case came into the Supreme Court of New York on a motion 'for a new Trial'. Hamilton * was obliged to decline * Croswell's appeal to defend him in the trial * from demands of other business. It was as well that Hamilton's effort was reserved for Croswell's appeal, before the Court of Errors at Albany, in February 1804.
     In this instance, defending freedom of the press, he recalls Andrew Hamilton who performed a similar service in the case of John Peter Zenger. Alexander Hamilton's persuasiveness in Croswell's appeal for a new trial... was an exposition of principles, not a recital of debaters' points. He often conceded the ostensible application of authorities relied on by his opponents, only to nullify them as Star Chamber proceedings.
     His theme was that 'The liberty of the press consists in the right to publish with impunity truth, with good motives, for justifiable ends, though reflecting on government, magistracy, or individuals. ' The allowance of this right is essential to preservation of free government.
     Hamilton strengthened his argument, lifted it into the sphere where the attorney is truly an officer of the court by refusing to deal in dogma. He referred... with contempt to the 'little, miserable conduct of the [colonial] judge in Zenger's case ...' He ended with a noble warning: 'Never can tyranny be introduced into this country by arms... the only way to crush it down is by a servile tribunal. It is only by the abuse of the forms of justice that we can be enslaved.'
     On the last day of the May term Chief Justice Lewis announced that the court was equally divided, so the motion had
failed. " -Alexander Hamilton by Broadus Mitchell, NY 1962

     "But aroused public sympathy for Croswell and Hamilton's side helped push through the legislature the bill to correct the outworn dictum that the truth could not be introduced as a defense to a charge of libel. It became law in 1805, after which the court unanimously awarded Croswell a new trial. Hamilton's position became the settled law of libel in the United States. His defense of the obscure 'village printer' became part of the long struggle of English-speaking peoples for freedom of
speech. " - The Rise and Fall of Alexander Hamilton by Robert A. Hendrickson 1981

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