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.