I must insist at the same Time, that what my Client is charged with, is not a Libel ; and I observed just now, that Mr. Attorney in defining a Libel, made use of the words scandalous, seditious and, and tend to disquiet the People ; but (whether with Design or not I will not say) he omitted the Word false
Atty Andrew Hamilton at the trial of John Peter Zenger 1734
Gandalf: Always remember Frodo, the Ring is trying to get back to its master. It wants to be found.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring 2001
I’ve been indulging myself lately at work reading a recently acquired copy of d Albert Bushnell Harts spectacular History: American History Told by Contemporaries Vol 2 1689-1783.
The book is from 1901 and is not likely in use anywhere these days which is a shame as not only great reading due to a plethora of interesting entries (for example a piece by John Adams circa 1775 explaining why New England is superior because of its institutions, hegemony and laws concerning morality [item 24] followed immediately [item 25] by Gabriel Thomas in 1699 calling Pennsylvania the poor man’s paradise for exactly the opposite reasons) but it’s more importantly full of 1st hand source material for those actually interested in history as it is or was rather than as they would wish it to be…which come to think of it is likely what it’s not in use anywhere these days.
Well yesterday I came across the passage quoted above (Entry 72 Page 192) from 1738 where John Peter Zenger relates the story of his prosecution where it was charged he “did falsly, seditiously and scandalously print and publish, and cause to be printed a, a certain false, malicious, seditious, scandalous Libel” (all spelling and style in original) and what struck me about it was how pertinent it was to the current business of Twitter and others censoring folks for daring to say that absent extremely rare abnormalities men are men and women are women regardless of how much surgery, if any, one has to convince oneself otherwise.
I’m particularly drawn to a part of this speech by Attorney Hamilton to the jury:
And were you to find a Verdict against my Client, you must take upon you to say, the Papers referred to in the Information, and which we acknowledge we printed and published , are false scandalous and seditious ; but of this I can have no Apprehension. You are Citizens of New-York; you are really what the Law supposes you to be, honest and lawful Men and, according to my Brief, the Facts which we offer to prove were not committed in a corner; they are notoriously known to be true; and therefore in your Justice lies our Safety. And as we are denied the Liberty of giving Evidence, to prove the Truth of what we have published, I will be Leave to lay it down as a standing rule in such Cases, That the suppressing of Evidence ought always to be taken for the strongest Evidence; and I hope it will have that Weight with you…
…it is true in Times past it was a Crime to speak Truth, and in that terrible Court of the Star-Chamber, many worthy and brave Men suffered for so doing.
This is significant because while we might use the words “Star Chamber” as a phrase this was an actual court that was barely if at all in living memory tales of it would have been told and repeated by the fathers and grandfathers of those hearing his words.
To them arbitrary punishment for speaking truth aloud was not an abstract it was one of the realities that drove them to the shores of America, after all the Habeas corpus act was less than a century old. But we in America do not have the experience of these things and having banished the Albert Bushnell Harts of the exhaustive references and use of 1st hand sources in history school and replaced it with the Howard Zinns of the who needs references in History anyways? school of teaching it’s unlikely that people realize the beast they are unleashing when they extol a lie and suppress fact and truth and will, like Meghan Murphy, not figure it out until the modern Star Chamber comes for them.
The real lesson here is that the human race is full of Gov William Cosbys and Chief justice James DeLanceies looking to punish those who might speak truths that they find uncomfortable and always has been. It’s only by our founding fathers recognizing these facts and building a system to checks these abuses that this has not be a plague on our house for centuries. If we do not stand up and fight back and Hamilton and Zenger did we will be doomed to the fate that the jury saved him from.
And if we fail to make the fight out of fear then we will deserve the opprobrium that the jury of history will rightly bestow upon us for doing so.