Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Libel and Libations

Earlier this week, a reader emailed Gossips from Paris to say that, in conversation with friends, the question of the origin of the word cocktail came up. He consulted Wikipedia and discovered that the first known definition of cocktail appeared in The Balance and Columbian Repository, published right here in Hudson on May 13, 1806.

Asked by a reader what a cocktail was, the editor of The Balance explained: "Cock-tail . . . is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters--it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said, also to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else." (The Balance and Columbian Repository was a Federalist newspaper.)

Wikipedia attributes the definition to Harry Croswell, who, in addition to being the editor of The Balance, started his own publication in 1802 called The Wasp. In 1803, Croswell was indicted for "seditious libel" for publishing a story in The Wasp that claimed Thomas Jefferson had paid a Washington publisher to run articles in his newspaper that were hostile to Jefferson's opponents. Croswell was represented in court by none other than Alexander Hamilton, who defended freedom of the press by arguing that the press had the right to print the truth, even if the truth reflected badly on "the government, magistracy or individuals." In 1805, Hamilton's argument--that reporting the truth is not libel--was incorporated into law.

Addendum: It seems the Gossips reader in Paris wasn't the first to discover, on Wikipedia, the 1806 definition of a cocktail that originated right here in Hudson. Susan Simon stumbled upon it back in January, while doing research for her "Food for Thought" column in the Register-Star: "Cocktail hour with some flair."


  1. Here I'd thought that Croswell's greatest contribution was to set American libel law on its own path from the onerous publishing standards still endured in the UK.

    But cocktails too? This fellow was a font of good works, which is surely why he finally transformed himself at last into an Episcopalian clergyman.

    Which reminds me of a few good cocktail jokes ...

  2. it only makes sense that HUDSON is home to the cocktail - so many have been drunk there

  3. Among much other writing about Croswell here, from 2002: