Many people who have weighed his utterances these past several years have concluded Donald J. Trump’s knowledge of American history is a bit on the shallow side. His celebration of its “winners” and disdain for its “ losers” is well known, regardless of how just their cause and noble or ignoble their character. This trait has been variously attributed to a values-deficient upbringing, an education steeped in militarism, athletics, and finance (to the virtual exclusion of the humanities and social sciences), and a fleeting attention span—or all of these.
Whatever the case, the president needs to be reminded of the fate of the first political chief executive on the American continent to accuse his critics in the press of habitually and maliciously spreading lies about him. His lament was the 18th century equivalent of Mr. Trump’s mantra of “fake news,” which he has all but baked into his credulous followers’ mindset.
The president’s initial forerunner-in-denial was William Cosby, the 24th royal governor of colonial New York. Member of a minor branch of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and well down the hereditary ladder in the age of primogeniture, he had been fired as imperial overseer of the then British-occupied island of Minorca on charges of stealing a large cargo of snuff from a docked vessel and fined ₤10,000. In need of replenishing his purse and blessed with a wife who ranked high in court circles, Colonel Cosby was sent off to govern New York province. The post came with a virtual license to plunder, a practice at which he seems to have excelled.
In short order, the governor won a reputation among his colonists for being vain, grasping, intemperate, uninformed, and indifferent to his subjects’ needs and the rule of law. This low regard was spread by word of mouth in drawing rooms, taverns, coffeehouses, and churchyards since there were no recognizable news media at the time and certainly none that dared report on dubious policies or abusive practices of government officials.
This vacuum was a legacy of the oppressive dictates of Britain’s Tudor and Stuart dynasties during the 16th and 17th centuries, under which all public speech or publications critical of the reigning authorities—regardless of how truthful the charges might be—were deemed disruptive to civil order and subject to severe punishment for the crime of seditious libel. Thus, only a handful of news sheets were regularly issued in the British colonies during the early decades of the 18th century, all of them under crown officers’ harsh scrutiny, like the New York Gazette, whose publisher paid fawning obeisance to Governor Cosby in return for his designation (and payment) as royal provincial printer.
In 1733, however, a year after Cosby’s arrival, a small, clandestine group of wealthy, politically connected New Yorkers leagued to hire struggling printer John Peter Zenger to put out a weekly paper to counter the Gazette and inform the public, mostly by innuendo and mockery rather than direct assertion, of Cosby’s alleged malfeasance. Soon the New-York Weekly Journal was drawing furious blowback from the governor, who labeled as deceitful charges of misconduct that call to mind some of those directed at the present occupant of the Oval Office:
▪ Cosby sneered at a welcoming gratuity of ₤750 (worth about $140,000 today) from the New York colonial Assembly, calling the givers cheapskates, even though he needed their cooperation to govern. When the compliant lawmakers added ₤250, he pocketed it as well, aware that such gifts were in plain violation of long established crown rules.
▪ Cosby sued the venerated Dutchman Rip Van Dam, longtime senior member of the Provincial Council, for half the salary he received as acting governor between Cosby’s appointment and his arrival in New York a leisurely year later. When the New York Supreme Court’s chief justice refused to hear the case because his tribunal lacked jurisdiction, Cosby fired him and appointed a toadying scion of one of the colony’s wealthiest mercantile families.
▪ The governor hosted—and in no way interfered with—uninvited French naval officers, representatives of Britain’s arch enemy, who had come to check out the geography, tides, and fortifications of New York Harbor. It was widely rumored that Cosby’s brother-in-law had commercial dealings with French merchants and officials.
▪ The governor unilaterally tore up a treaty between the Mohawk tribe and the city of Albany, claiming it was unfair to the natives. Cosby’s foes said he acted precipitously because he was denied the lucrative fee he demanded to approve an extension of the treaty.
▪ The governor tried to rig a key election in which the chief justice he had defrocked ran for Westchester representative to the New York Assembly. Cosby’s handpicked sheriff ruled that local Quakers, allied with the antiroyalist party, couldn’t vote because they hadn’t sworn an oath—which their faith forbade—that they were qualified property owners in the district. The governor’s candidate still lost.
▪ Cosby was said to require recipients of his largess in the form of thousands of acres of land grants to set aside one-third of the grant for title transfer to the governor or his kin.
▪ The governor’s henchmen were detected traversing the colony and threatening his enemies with having title to their property deeds voided unless they made extortionate payoffs.
In its very first issue, Zenger’s Journal gave a vivid, undeniable first-hand account of how Cosby’s men had denied Quakers their voting rights in the Westchester by-election, and in ensuing months kept haranguing the governor for his abuses of power. Cosby’s ire rose, along with the paper’s circulation. Finally he addressed an open letter to New York’s mayor and city magistrates, dutifully reprinted in the Gazette, which read in part:
“You are well apprised that industry and pain are used to raise uneasiness in the public’s minds at my administration by some men who… vent all the licentious bitterness and malice their private disappointments can suggest. Surely the glorious name of liberty was never abused to worse purpose. These men have endeavored by the most false and scandalous misrepresentations of my conduct to lessen the regard that is due to my character… They have laid aside all manner of decency—they whose aim seems to be to lead weak and unsavory men into tumults and seditions to the disturbance of the public peace.”
But the Journal would not be silenced by bluster, nor even when the governor ordered his attorney general to bring Zenger before the grand jury no less than three times on charges of subversive behavior. Each time, after quoting excerpts from the paper, the crown complaint dismissed the contents with the words “false” or “falsely,” followed by “scandalous,” “seditious,” and sometimes “malicious.” The grand jurors believed otherwise and failed to indict the printer.
His hauteur badly bruised, and knowing that rigorous if unpopular laws of censorship were on his side, Cosby invoked executive fiat and had Zenger thrown in jail for nine months, awaiting trial. During that travail Zenger’s wife and the paper’s well-off backers kept it going, all the while winning sympathy for the beleaguered prisoner.
At Zenger’s one-day trial on a hot August afternoon in 1735, a jury of his fellow colonists heeded defense attorney Andrew Hamilton’s impassioned plea to disregard oppressive crown law and to “baffle the attempt of tyranny” by exercising their natural “right [and] the liberty of exposing and opposing arbitrary power in these parts of the world by speaking and writing truth.”
After a brief period of deliberation, the jury acquitted the printer to a chorus of approval from the community and disdain for the lying governor. Cosby died in disgrace the following spring. From then on the concept of a free press was embedded in the American polity and two generations later enshrined in the fundamental laws of its newly declared nation. Whoever among our modern leaders raises the charlatan’s cry of “fake news” whenever their misdeeds and misstatements are faithfully reported by the media may, like Governor Cosby, rue the day.
Indelible Ink, Richard Kluger’s account of the Zenger case, will be issued in paperback in October by W. W. Norton & Company.