Today is the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the President of the United States. Today also marks the seventh anniversary of The Gossips of Rivertown. The coincidence of the two events inspires me to share an important bit of Hudson history which doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves.
In 1801, Harry Croswell came to Hudson as a young man of 23, to work with Ezra Sampson and George Chittenden in publishing a newspaper called The Balance and Columbia Repository. Croswell's contribution to the publication was stinging political commentary, but he also, as editor of The Balance, is credited with writing and publishing, on May 15, 1806, the first definition of the cocktail.
Croswell has some notoriety in today's Hudson for that achievement, but something else he did is far more important and more relevant for today. In 1802, Croswell started his own publication, The Wasp, using the pseudonym "Robert Rusticoat, Esquire." The Wasp has been characterized as "the first comic book." I see blogs as part of The Wasp's lineage.
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 report 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 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."
Hamilton's eloquence, however, did not succeed in overturning the original verdict. The judges were deadlocked. Croswell was never sentence or re-tried. But the important outcome of the trial is this: In 1805, two years after the trial and a year after his death in the duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton's argument in the Croswell case--that reporting the truth is not libel--was incorporated into law.
So, on this the seventh anniversary of The Gossips of Rivertown, in addition to expressing my sincere and enduring gratitude to the many individuals and businesses who through their contributions and advertising make Gossips possible and asking you to celebrate seven years of hyperlocal news with a contribution to ensure Gossips' future, I pay humble tribute to Harry Croswell and celebrate the event, which was the crucible of the free press in the United States, that happened right here in Hudson.
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