Protecting the Best Men: An Interpretive History of the Law of Libel

By Norman L. Rosenberg | Go to book overview
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Chapter Four
The Era of the Sedition Act and First-Amendment Thought

Although leaders of the Washington administration did not believe that the First Amendment prevented them from prosecuting political speech, only Alexander Hamilton was prepared to brave the political storms that national libel prosecutions would produce. But as partisan passions intensified, prominent Federalists urged an end to the cautious approach of the Washington administration.


The Sedition Act of 1798

Alexander Hamilton again led the way, but other Federalists were no longer far behind. Hamilton's celebrated "Reynolds Pamphlet" of 1797, in which the former treasury secretary denied charges of public wrongdoing but admitted an extramarital affair with one Mrs. Maria Reynolds, began with a scathing attack upon the Jeffersonian press. "The spirit of jacobinism," Hamilton claimed, menaced the republic. "A principal engine, by which this spirit endeavors to accomplish its purposes" was a carefully calculated assault on the reputations of prominent public leaders. The "most direct falsehoods" were invented; lies that had been "often detected and refuted" were "still revived and repeated, in the hope that the refutation may have been forgotten or that the frequency and boldness of accusation" would fool the public; the "most profligate men" were bribed with money and political favors "to become informers and accusors"; and when all these tactics failed, the agents of Jacobinism continued "in corroding whispers to wear away the reputations which they could not directly subvert." These "conspirators against honest fame," against the well-deserved reputations of high public officials, considered nothing sacred. "Even the peace of an unoffending and amiable wife is a welcome repast to their insatiate fury. . . . Even the great and multiplied services, the tried and rarely equalled virtues of a WASHINGTON;" could not escape this "conspiracy of vice against virtue. . . ."1

Two years later, in 1799, Hamilton successfully urged the attorney general of New York, Josiah Ogden Hoffman, to prosecute Greenleaf's New Daily Advertiser for repeating rumors that Hamilton had tried to suppress William Duane's Aurora. Expanding upon the analysis of the "Reynolds Pamphlet,"

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