Attorney General of New York, 1848-1849
Ambrose Latting Jordan, the first New York State Attorney General elected by popular ballot under the provisions of the 1846 New York State Constitution, was born on May 5, 1789, in the village of Hillsdale, Columbia County, New York. He was raised in the Otsego County village of Cooperstown, attended the local common school and then an academy at which he studied Latin and other subjects. For a time he taught school, then commenced his legal studies in the Albany County law firm of Jacob R. Van Rensselaer, located in Claverack. Admitted to the bar in 1813, Jordan returned to Cooperstown where he formed a law partnership with Farrand Stranahan, held the office of Surrogate of Otsego County from 1815 to 1818, and District Attorney of that county from 1818 to 1820.
Jordan moved to Hudson in Columbia County in 1820 to take over the Columbia Republican newspaper. The following year, he held office as Recorder of The City of Hudson, then represented Columbia County in the New York State Assembly (1825), and in the New York State Senate (1826-1829).
In the early 1830s, Ambrose Jordan set up a law practice with his son-in-law, Edward Clark. In the late 1840s, Edward Clark represented Isaac Singer in patent lawsuits over rights to the workings of sewing machines. Subsequently, Clark and Singer formed the in the Singer Sewing Machine Co. and became hugely wealthy.
In 1837, Ambrose Jordan represented James Watson Webb when he became caught up in the James Fenimore Cooper campaign of libel suits against the editors of Whig newspapers. As recounted in an article in Benchmarks: Between August 1937 and November 1838, Cooper published two books, “Homeward Bound” and “Home as Found.” In the latter, the novelist devoted three chapters to a fictional character whose circumstances mirrored the Point controversy. The book contained a very unflattering portrait of the villagers, including a newspaper editor. Reviews were “extremely vitriolic and unrestrained” and criticized Cooper for including the real-life drama. Webb obtained a change of venue from Otsego to Montgomery County. During the first trial in the Fonda courthouse on the first indictment, in November 1841, Judge John Willard ruled that the defense could submit into evidence parts of the novels that justified the review. Both books were read to the jury in their entirety and 11-hour undertaking. Park Benjamin, another editor whom Cooper successfully sued, commented: “Can the reader … imagine a more grievous torture than … the reading of Mr. Cooper’s stupid and slanderous trash? Oh, it was too much – five jurymen are supposed to have been carried out fainting.”
Judge Willard told the jury that the question was whether Webb had confined his criticism to the work and the author or if he had attacked the character of the man. “[T]his case is one of very general importance, because your decision will establish to a certain extent, the rights both of Editors and Reviewers and of Authors,” said Judge Willard. “The liberty of the Press and the welfare of the community, require that the greatest possible latitude should be given to criticism not incompatible with the rights of Authors; but they too have rights which it is your duty to protect.”
The jury could not reach a verdict, allegedly due to a single holdout – a juror who had a friend in common with Cooper. The rest were said to have reached a not guilty verdict in five minutes. A second trial also concluded with the jury unable to reach a verdict. A third trial, in 1843, resulted in a not guilty verdict in 10 minutes.
In 1845, Jordan was the leading counsel for the defense in People v. Boughton. Dr. Boughton was one of the leaders of the Anti-Rent War and at his trial for riot, conspiracy and robbery. The first jury deadlocked and at the re-trial, in September 1845, the two leading counsel, Jordan and Attorney General John Van Buren got into a disagreement in open court that ended in blows. Justice John W. Edmonds ordered both men to “solitary confinement in the county jail for 24 hours.” Following the fracas, Attorney General Van Buren tried to resign from the case but Governor Silas Wright refused to accept the resignation and following their release from jail, both attorneys continued with the case.
In 1846, Jordan was a member of the New York State Constitutional Convention and he served as New York Attorney General from January 1, 1848 to December 31, 1849.
Note: The opinions authored by Ambrose L. Jordan while he was Attorney General can be read in Opinions of the Attorneys-General of the State of New York: From the Formation of the State Government to February, 1872: Taken from Official Records and Public Documents: with Notes and Full Index (1872).
Duane Hamilton Hurd. The History of Otsego, NY (1878)
John D. Feerick. Book Review. Ambrose L. (Aqua Fortis) Jordan, Lawyer Richard H. Levet. 44 Fordham L. Rev. 1268 (1976)
Old Montgomery County Courthouse and the James Fenimore Cooper Libel Trials Historic Courthouses and Trials – Benchmarks: Journal of the New York Unified Court System (Fall 2006)