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

By Norman L. Rosenberg | Go to book overview

Chapter Five ∣
The Law of Libel and Early Nineteenth-Century Political Culture

The triumph of Jeffersonism did not end controversy over the law of libel. During the War of 1812, it is true, the administration of James Madison sought no sedition act, a decision that reflected Jeffersonian awareness of how enactment of a controversial libel law, during a very divisive war, might assist the resurgence of Federalism. Experiments with national prosecutions for seditious libel, except for several abortive efforts, would not be revived until World War I.

Yet libel law remained an important political and legal issue in the early national era. The celebrated 1805 impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, for example, involved not only questions about the nature of the impeachment power and the role of an independent judiciary, but issues relating to the law of libel and free expression. Several of the charges against Chase rested upon differing views of defamation law and upon partisan disputes over how the arch-Federalist judge had conducted some of the trials under the Sedition Act.1 More important, the rise of the Jeffersonians, a political coalition that had closely identified itself with opposition to the Sedition Act, did not mean an end to political libel cases. Without any spectacular national libel prosecutions, there were no constitutional conflagrations similar to the one over the Sedition Act, but the bitter political conflicts of the early nineteenth century sparked a number of legal brushfires over defamation law.


The Law of Libel and Partisan Politics

The partisan passions of the late 1790s persisted into the first decade of the new century. Federalist leaders refused to concede that citizens had rejected their policies or candidates; lying Republican scribblers, Federalist chieftains reassured one another, had poisoned public opinion and fooled voters into rejecting the best men. If Federalists changed their tactics, they could reverse the defeats of 1800. Consequently, Federalists worked to create a string of partisan newspapers, especially in New England, that could effectively challenge the vigorous Jeffersonian presses.

The invigorated Federalist presses contributed to what the historian FrankLuther Mott

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