Friday, January 20, 2017

An Inauguration and an Anniversary

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.


  1. Thank you, Carole, for this fascinating piece of history. I'm writing as our new President is delivering his inaugural address, which I'm NOT listening to. As with so many other foundational principles, the fact that printing the truth is not libel will be news to him should he ever follow through on his various threats. What a bleak day and time for our country.
    Happy 7th anniversary to your daring adventure in Gossips. I've occasionally disagreed with your reportage and/or interpretations of events, but I'm grateful for your vigilance and commitment to an enlightened citizenry. We're all in your debt.

  2. Well told, Gossips.

    Another thing to celebrate in this story is the lineage of pseudonymous commentary in Hudson, of which 'The Wasp' was both a participant and a beneficiary. (A pox on that intellectual cowardice which automatically reduces reasonable arguments to the personalities advancing them.)

    But the pseudonymous Robert Rusticoat achieved so much more than merely perpetuating the tenets of The Enlightenment. Every libel law in the nation owes its existence to People v. Croswell, a case which liberated the American legal definition of libelous speech from the assumptions which continue to burden like speech in the UK, our previous country.

    It's no exaggeration to point out that People v. Croswell was a turning point in human history.

    We need to erect an historical plaque at the precise location of the long-gone newspaper building where Croswell printed 'The Wasp' (several doors west of Vico).

    Perhaps if we in Hudson made some effort to commemorate Croswell's and Hamilton's watershed achievement, we'd be more justified worrying aloud about specific threats to our ongoing experiment in self-governance.

    Though the following must remain apocryphal, a contemporary account had it that Hamilton's visceral insult of Burr was delivered at a dinner party in Albany while Hamilton was defending Croswell. Sounds about right.

  3. Hudson is not only an early home of the first amendment, it will be the birthplace of the free press' revival -- at least that's what we are trying to do with School Life News, as we promote journalism education for youth. Come vist us at And see our short video, directed by local videographer David McDonald, finished the day after the election and titled "Now More Than Ever." We are teaching kids to know the facts and respect the truth. --pm

  4. What a watershed moment was the Croswell trial, and how exhiliarating to know that it happened here in Hudson. As Judy Garland said at the end of Meet Me in St. Louis, "Right here where we live." Let's hope that the lessons learned from that trial are not undermined by the new regime.