Seditious Libel Involving Alexander Hamilton
On November 6, 1799, the leading New York Republican newspaper, the Argus, published an extract from a letter that had previously been printed in the Boston newspaper the Constitutional Telegraph. It insinuated that General Alexander Hamilton had tried to suppress a Republican newspaper, the Aurora, by attempting to purchase it with money received secretly from an emissary of the British king. Immediately, Hamilton wrote to New York Attorney General Josiah Hoffman insisting that David Frothingham, printer of the Argus, be prosecuted. On November 21, 1779, Frothingham was indicted on a charge of common law criminal libel.
The case was heard before Supreme Court Justice Jacob Radcliff, Recorder Richard Harrison and Mayor David Mathews on November 25, 1799. Attorney General Hoffman was counsel for the prosecution and Brockholst Livingston represented the defendant. Under the law in effect at that time, anyone who published a writing, a printing, or even a picture that exposed another to “hatred, contempt or ridicule” was guilty of the offense of seditious libel. The truth of the published statement was irrelevant.
Brockholst Livingston, arguing for the defense, maintained that Mrs. Greenleaf, the owner of the paper, was the person who should have been prosecuted for the libel and not her journeyman, Frothingham. Livingston also asserted that the statement was not libelous.
Mr. Hoffman replied that every journeyman and apprentice in the printing-office was liable to a prosecution and that Frothingham, as foreman of the office, was especially so. Mr. Livingston responded that this doctrine oppressed both the freedom of the press and the rights of labor.
Justice Radcliff instructed the jury that, according to that law, the jury should decide whether the article was calculated to expose General Hamilton to the hatred and contempt of his fellow-citizens; and if it was, whether the defendant had published it.
The jury returned a guilty verdict but recommended Frothingham to the mercy of the court. He was fined $100, and sentenced to four months in prison.
Ron Chernow. Alexander Hamilton (2004)
Julius Goebel, ed. The Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton (1964)
John Elihu Hall. The American law journal and miscellaneous repertory, Volume 3.