Saturday, May 5, 2012

Jane's Walk: Site 5

This building stands on the northeast corner of Warren and Third streets, beautifully restored in recent years by its current owners. It is a very old Hudson building, constructed sometime during the last fifteen years of the 18th century. It was in this building that Harry Croswell published his Federalist newspaper, The Wasp, the counterpart to Hudson's pro-Democratic paper, The Bee. 

Croswell came to Hudson in 1801, at the age of 23, to work with Ezra Sampson, a retired Congregational minister, and George Chittenden, a bookseller, in publishing a newspaper called The Balance and Columbia Repository. Croswell's contribution to the publication was stinging political commentary. In 1802, he started his own publication, The Wasp, using the pseudonym, "Robert Rusticoat, Esquire." 

Less than a year after he started The Wasp, Croswell was indicted for "seditious libel." The charges brought against him characterized him as "a malicious and seditious man . . . of a depraved mind and wicked and diabolical disposition" and accused him of contriving to "scandalize, traduce and vilify" the President of the United States"--Thomas Jefferson. What Croswell had done was publish a story claiming that Jefferson had paid newspaper publisher James Callender to run articles in his paper that were hostile to Jefferson's political opponents in Washington.

At Croswell's trial here in Columbia County, the jury was instructed to consider only the question of whether or not Croswell was the person writing as Robert Rusticoat. A request to introduce the truth of the story as a defense was denied. Croswell was found guilty. He appealed to the New York Supreme Court, and in his second trial, he was represented by none other than Alexander Hamilton, who, according to one source, had been overwhelmed with other cases and unable to take on Croswell's case the first time around. 

Hamilton's defense of Croswell is considered to be among his finest courtroom performances. His closing argument, which is said to have lasted for six hours, was delivered before a standing room only crowd. He passionately defended the freedom of the press, arguing that the press had the right to print the truth, "with good motives or for justifiable ends," even if the truth reflected badly on "the government, magistracy or individuals."

Unfortunately, Hamilton's eloquence did not succeed in overturning the original verdict. The judges were deadlocked. Croswell was never sentenced or retried. In 1805, two years after the trial and a year after his death in the famous duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton's argument in the Croswell case--that reporting the truth is not libel--was incorporated into law.

A few years later, Croswell was persuaded by Federalist friends in Albany to start another newspaper. The project proved to be a life-altering disaster. Promised financial support never happened, Croswell was sued by a supporter, and he ended up spending part of 1811 in jail. After that experience, Croswell decided to give up publishing and become an Episcopal priest. He was ordained in 1814. Then 36, he served briefly as the rector of Christ Church in Hudson before becoming the rector of Trinity Church in New Haven, a position he held until his death in 1858. 


  1. Gossips, I get no joy from questioning whether it wasn't a different building in which Croswell published his newspaper "The Wasp."

    I can't remember the source at this moment (perhaps the Columbia County Historical Society's "Columbia County History & Heritage"), but I know I've seen at least one detailed description of the original building placing it on the south side of Warren Street between 1st and 2nd Streets, an account or accounts in which the building did not survive.

    It would be marvelous to learn that you are correct instead, and that the building still stands.

    It wasn't until 1962 with "New York Times Co. v. Sullivan" that the US Supreme Court found the denouement to Croswell's case, which involved a libel action brought by a public official, Sullivan, against critics of his official conduct.

    Along with the 1962 case which turned on the question of "malice," further developments (e.g., the various Larry Flynt, "Hustler" cases) have contributed to the press freedoms we all take for granted today. We bloggers especially rely on the 1962 case whenever we scrutinize the City of Hudson's policy-makers.

    It is alarming that the histories of these specific freedoms, so long in development, are being undermined in Congress at this very moment by "The People's Rights Amendment," sponsored by Representatives McGovern and Pelosi. (Vis-a-vis Croswell, it should be noted that the political ancestors of both sponsors of the bill were Croswell's enemies, the anti-Federalists. Not unsurprisingly, some of the same themes find resonance in today's bipartisan split.)

    In my opinion, there couldn't be a more important building in the City of Hudson than the one that launched the nation's long struggle to secure the freedoms of the Fourth Estate.

    If it really does survive, the building that published Croswell's "Wasp" ought to be a candidate for a National Historic Site.

  2. Unheimlich--A friend whose credibility as a researcher I rarely question told me that he had read in some 19th-century work of local history that Harry Croswell's office was on the northeast corner of Warren and Third streets. After reading this, he rushed to the spot to see the building at that location was old enough to have been there in 1803. It was, and since then this information has been part of his (and my) stock of local lore.

    I spoke with him this morning, and he promised to look back through this notes to tell me the title of the work in which he found the information. I too will be searching for the source.

  3. Excellent CO!

    And today I've also spoken with our favorite historian (DV), and there is real interest in getting to the bottom of this.

    Now I just have to find that printed reference of mine ...

    I know that I'm not mistaken in my zeal that the Croswell story is more than a mere footnote in American history.

    The anti-Federalists were searching nationwide for a test case, and they found what they were looking for right here in Hudson.

    If there was such a thing as a tour of the history of world political philosophy (especially in regard to the freedom of the press), the building that housed 'The Wasp' would surely be on it.

  4. The book may have been this 1909 work "History of the City of Hudson, New York" by Anna Rossman Bradbury, online at:

    It states on page 70 that Croswell's printing press was on the upper floor a building on Warren, near second. The ground floor was possibly a bookshop. Printing shops and book shops were often joined together, as with the press bookshop combination that Croswell knew form his days in Catskill working with his brothers up to 1801.

    It also states on page 71 that Charles Holt's "The Bee" was at 23 Warren Street.