Harry CroswellHarry Croswell

New York newspaperman Harry Croswell, a staunch Federalist and supporter of John Adams, used his paper “The Wasp” to attack Thomas Jefferson. Under New York libel law, Croswell was charged and convicted of “being a malicious and seditious man, and of depraved mind and wicked and diabolical disposition, and also deceitfully, wickedly and maliciously devising, contriving and intending, toward Thomas Jefferson, Esquire, President of the United States of America, to detract from, scandalize, traduce and vilify, and to represent him, the said Thomas Jefferson, as unworthy of the confidence, respect and attachment of the people of the said United States.”

In 1804, Croswell appealed his case to the New York Supreme Court where the judges deadlocked following Alexander Hamilton’s defense that Croswell printed the truth and that American law, derived from natural rights and Roman common law, should reject the English legal precedent that the truth is no defense in libel cases. The following year, the New York legislature amended its libel laws, adopting Hamilton’s argument that printing the truth was not libel “where published with good motive and justifiable ends.” Over time, the rest of the States and the Federal government incorporated Hamilton’s reasoning, enshrining the truth as a defense as a cornerstone of freedom of the press.


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