Hamilton and Freedom of the Press
HAMILTON, ALEXANDER, et al. The Speeches at Full Length of Mr. Van Ness, Mr. Caines, the Attorney-General, Mr. Harrison, and General Hamilton, in the great cause of the people, against Harry Croswell, on an indictment for a libel on Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States
New York: Waite, 1804
78 pp. Removed. Very good.
FIRST EDITION. Angered by attacks on his administration by Federalist newspapers, Thomas Jefferson decided to use the Sedition Act to “restore the integrity of the press.” (Jefferson had previously attacked the Adams administration’s use of the Sedition Act to silence its enemies.) Jefferson encouraged selective prosecutions, one of which became a landmark in First Amendment history. Harry Croswell’s The Wasp accused Jefferson of paying pamphleteer James Callender to charge Washington and Adams with various crimes and to refer to Adams as a “hoary-headed incendiary” and Washington as a “traitor, robber, and perjurer.” In Croswell’s trial for seditious libel, the judge ruled that the truth was not a defense.
Alexander Hamilton’s six-hour appellate argument, “his last and one of his finest speeches” (Appleton), likened the trial to cases brought by the infamous Star Chamber in England. Hamilton argued that freedom of the press “consists, in my idea, in publishing the truth, from good motives and for justifiable ends, though it reflect on government, on magistrates, or individuals.” Hamilton’s approach to liberty of the press was to be adopted in many state constitutions, making it a landmark of American law. This volume contains several other addresses, including a strong argument for truth as a defense by Hamilton’s friend William Van Ness, who served as his second in the fatal duel with Aaron Burr later that year.