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Historians on America by Doug Linder, Carl F. Kaestle, et al - HTML preview

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“If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.”


Historians have used many lenses to analyze how historical change comes about. Thomas Carlyle, the 19th-century British writer, famously defined history as “at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked there,” and he saw heroic individuals as the drivers of change. In the 20th century, the French school of historians known as the Annales (for the journal where they published) reacted against Carlyle and other traditional historians who had presented history as largely a chronicle of wars and political events. In their quest for the roots of historical change, the Annales historians focused on the everyday lives of ordinary people in centuries long past.

Other recent historians have examined technology as a driving force or analyzed the effects of climate, natural resources, and environmental devastation. Under “theories of history,” the online encyclopedia Wikipedia currently provides 121 listings.

In this book, we use a different lens – what might be called the tipping-point theory of history, a term borrowed from a recent best-seller in the United States written by the journalist Malcolm Gladwell.

“The ‘Tipping Point’… comes from the world of epidemiology,” writes Gladwell. “It’s the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It’s the boiling point. It’s the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot straight upwards.” Gladwell adds, “One of the things I explore in the book is that ideas can be contagious in exactly the same way that a virus is.”

Our premise in this book is that by analyzing a few tipping-point events, one can come to a better understanding of not only how the United States became the country it is today but of the values woven into this nation’s fabric. From the viewpoint of the present, it is easy to forget that, just 200 years ago, the United States was a fledgling democracy, the recently liberated colony of a world power, with a backwoods economy based on agriculture and exploitation of its natural resources. It’s also easy to forget that the institutions, ideas, laws, and values that govern the United States in the present were the creations of individual human beings in a specific set of circumstances.

We asked 11 historians, each an expert in his field, to consider a development that led to the creation of an idea or an institution that is central to America today. Most of the time, our authors find that a heroic individual plays a distinct role: George Washington’s decision to retire from the first presidency after two terms guaranteed that the new nation would not have a king. The 1954 Supreme Court decision that led to racial integration of American schools is hard to imagine without Earl Warren as chief justice. The Marshall Plan, which helped bring relief to a devastated Europe after World War II, is certainly well named.

Yet it is also possible to see less personalized and less dramatic transformative events – laws passed by Congress, court decisions, the development of public schools – as examples of the tipping-point theory in action. They occur at times when an accretion of ideas, social movements, economic interests, and other forces have attained a critical mass. When looked at closely, many sudden transformations do not turn out to be sudden.

We do not mean to suggest that historical tipping points occur only in America, of course. By telling these American stories, we hope to provide ways for readers to view history, societies, and institutions in a new light of understanding.






by Doug Linder
















Andrew Hamilton, represented in this oil, helped establish freedom of the press in colonial America, by defending publisher John Peter Zenger against a charge of libel.




The Villainous Colonial Governor tion to his administration among some of the most powerful people in the colony. Rip Van Dam, Lewis Mor-

ris, and an energetic attorney named James Alexander

The man generally perceived to be the villain of the organized what came to be known as the Popular Party, a Zenger affair, William Cosby, arrived in New York on

political organization that would constitute a serious chal-

August 7, 1731, to assume his post as governor for New

lenge to Cosby’s ability to govern.

York Province, having been appointed by the Crown.

Cosby attempted to maintain his grip on power by

Cosby quickly developed a reputation as “a rogue gov-

employing Francis Harison – a man called by historians

ernor.” It is almost impossible to find a positive adjec-

Cosby’s “flatterer-in-chief” and “hatchetman”– to be

tive among the many used by historians to describe the

censor and effective editor of the only established New

new governor: “spiteful,” “greedy,” “jealous,” “quick-

York newspaper, the New York Gazette. Harison de-

tempered,” “dull,” “unlettered,” and “haughty” are a

fended Cosby both in prose and strained verse, such as


this poem that appeared in the Gazette’s January 7, 1734,

Within a year after arriving on American shores,


Cosby embroiled himself in a controversy that would

eventually lead to Zenger’s trial. Cosby

Zenger’s trial came when

Cosby the mild, the happy, good and great,

picked his first fight with Rip Van Dam, the

New York was still a British

The strongest guard of our little state;

71-year-old highly respected senior member

colony. Below: an account of the Let malcontents in crabbed language write, case printed in London in 1765.

of the New York provincial council. Cosby

And the D...h H...s belch, tho’ they cannot bite.

demanded that Van Dam turn over half of the

He unconcerned will let the wretches roar,

salary he had earned while serving as acting

And govern just, as others did before.

governor of New York during the year be-

tween Cosby’s appointment and his arrival in

Besieged by poetry, prose, and the threat of

the colony. The hard-headed Van Dam agreed

oppression, James Alexander, often described

– providing that Cosby also would agree to

as the “mastermind” of the opposition,

split with him half of the perquisites he earned

decided to take an unprecedented step by

during the same time period. By Van Dam’s

founding America’s first independent political

calculations, Cosby would actually owe him

newspaper. Alexander approached John Peter

money – over £4,000.

Zenger who, along with William Bradford, the

Governor Cosby responded in August 1732

Gazette’s printer, was one of only two print-

by filing suit for his share of Van Dam’s salary.

ers in the colony, with the idea of publishing

Knowing that he had no chance of prevailing

a weekly newspaper to be called the New

in his case if the decision were left to a jury,

York Weekly Journal. Zenger, who had made a

Cosby designated the provincial Supreme Court to sit

modest living the past six years printing mainly religious

as a “Court of Exchequer” (without a jury) to hear his

tracts, agreed. In a letter to an old friend, Alexander re-

suit. Van Dam refused to roll over, and had his lawyers

vealed the Journal’s mission: “Inclosed is also the first of

challenge the legality of Cosby’s attempt to bypass the

a newspaper designed to be continued weekly, chiefly to

colony’s established jury system. The decision on the

expose him [Cosby] and those ridiculous flatteries with

legality of Cosby’s meddling with the court system fell to

which Mr. Harison loads our other newspaper. ...”

the three members of the Supreme Court he was med-

On November 5, 1733, Zenger published the first

dling with, which voted 2 to 1 to uphold Cosby’s action.

issue of the Weekly Journal. The issue included

Despite winning in the Supreme Court, Cosby ex-

a detailed account of the victory the previous week of

pressed irritation that the vote for his plan was not unani-

Lewis Morris as Popular Party candidate for assembly-

mous. He wrote a letter to the dissenting judge, Chief

man from Westchester. Morris won the election despite

Justice Lewis Morris, demanding that he explain his vote.

the best efforts of Cosby to rig the election against him

Morris did so, but to Cosby’s great displeasure, his expla-

by having the sheriff disqualify Quaker voters (expected

nation appeared not in a private letter to the governor,

to be heavily pro-Morris) on the ground that the Quakers

but in a pamphlet printed by John Peter Zenger. Cosby

only “affirmed” rather than swore the oath required at

retaliated by removing Morris as chief justice, and replac-

the time of all voters. The election story, almost certain-

ing him with a staunch royalist, James DeLancey.

ly written by Alexander, included this description of the

Cosby’s firing of Morris intensified the growing opposi-

sheriff’s intervention:



A posthumous depiction of the Zenger trial by illustrator David Lithgow. Little does the mincing Justice DeLancey, upper right, know he is soon to be overruled by a jury of free men.

No doubt to the surprise and disappointment of

[T]he sheriff was deaf to all that could be alleged on

Cosby, Morris won the election even without

that [the Quaker] side; and notwithstanding that he

the Quakers’ votes. The Journal story recounted how

was told by both the late Chief Justice and James Al-

Morris’s election was celebrated with “a general fire of

exander, one of His Majesty’s Council and counsellor-

guns” from a merchant vessel and “loud acclamations

at-law, and by one William Smith, counsellor-at-law,

of the people as he walked the streets, conducted to the

that such a procedure [disqualifying the Quakers for

Black Horse Tavern, where a handsome entertainment

affirming rather than swearing] was contrary to law

was prepared for him.”

and a violent attempt upon the liberties of the people,

Subsequent issues of the Journal, in addition to

he still persisted in refusing the said Quakers to vote. ...

editorializing about other dubious actions of the gover-




nor, contained ringing defenses of the right to publish,

November 18. It would be the only issue missed in its

authored by Alexander, such as this argument offered in

publishing history. The next week, with the help of

the second issue:

Zenger’s wife, Anna, the Journal resumed publication

The loss of liberty in general would soon follow the sup-

with an issue that included this “apology”:

pression of the liberty of the press; for it is an essential

As you last week were disappointed of my Journal , I

branch of liberty, so perhaps it is the best preservative

think it incumbent on me to publish my apology, which

of the whole. Even a restraint of the press would have

is this. On the Lord’s Day, the seventeenth, I was ar-

a fatal influence. No nation ancient or modern has ever

rested, taken and imprisoned in the common jail of this

lost the liberty of freely speaking, writing or publishing

City by virtue of a warrant from the Governor, the hon-

their sentiments, but forthwith lost their liberty in gen-

orable Francis Harison, and others in the Council (of

eral and became slaves.

which, God willing, you will have a copy); whereupon

Cosby put up with the Journal’s

I was put under such restraint that

Illustration depicting the burning of Zenger’s Weekly Journal

attacks for two months before con-

on Wall Street, November 6, 1734, on orders of New York I had not the liberty of pen, ink or cluding that it must be shut down.

governor William Cosby. The stockade in the foreground, paper, or to see or speak with people, The first effort to silence the Journal where two hands and a head of a standing man could be until my complaint to the honorable occurred in January 1734 when

shackled, reminds of the laws of that period.

Chief Justice at my appearing be-

Chief Justice DeLancey asked a

fore him upon my habeas corpus

grand jury to return indictments

on the Wednesday following. He

based on the law of “seditious

discountenanced that proceeding,

libel,” a law that allowed criminal

and therefore I have had since that

punishment of those whose state-

time the liberty of speaking thro’ the

ments impugned the authority and

hole of the door to my wife and ser-

reputation of the government or

vants. By which I doubt not you

religion, regardless of the truth of

will think me sufficiently excused

the statements.

for not sending my last week’s

The grand jury, however, re-

Journal, and hope for the future,

fused to return the requested

by the liberty of speaking to my ser-

indictments. DeLancey tried again

vants thro’ the hole of the door of

when another grand jury met in

my prison, to entertain you with

October. He presented the grand

my weekly Journal as formerly.

jurors with broadsides and “scan-

The enormous (in those

dalous” verse from Zenger’s Jour-

days) bail of £800 set for

nal, but the jurors, claiming that the

Zenger turned into an impor-

authorship of the allegedly libelous

tant tactical advantage for the

material could not be determined,

imprisoned printer. As a re-

again decided not to indict.

sult of his stream of “letters”

Cosby responded to these frus-

from prison, an outpouring of

trations by proclaiming a reward of

public sympathy for his cause

£50 for the discovery of the authors


of the libels and by issuing an order

that Zenger’s newspapers be publicly burned by “the

common hangman.” Then, in an effort to get around the

The Seditious Libel Trial

grand jury’s refusal to indict, Cosby ordered his attorney

general, Richard Bradley, to file “an information” be-

fore Justice DeLancey and Frederick Philipse, another

James Alexander, who – as the author of the opinions

justice. Based on the information, the justices issued a

that so offended Cosby – probably should have been

bench warrant for the arrest of John Peter Zenger. On

in the prisoner’s dock instead of Zenger, undertook with

November 17, 1734, the sheriff arrested Zenger and took

fellow lawyer William Smith the task of preparing the

him to New York’s Old City Jail, where he would stay for

printer’s defense. Both Alexander and Smith found

the next eight months.

themselves disbarred, however, in April 1735 by Chief

The Weekly Journal was not published the next day,

Justice DeLancey after they audaciously objected on the



grounds of bias to the two-man court Cosby had hand-

for that. Nay, indeed the law says their being true is an

picked to try Zenger’s case. Alexander recruited 60-year-

aggravation of the crime.” Bradley proceeded to offer

old Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, perhaps the ablest

a detailed and generally accurate account of the state of

and most eloquent attorney in the colonies, to argue

law on seditious libel of the time, supporting his conclu-

Zenger’s case. Hamilton relied heavily on Alexander’s

sion that the fact that libel may be true is no defense.

behind-the-scenes work, including a detailed brief of the

Andrew Hamilton rose to argue that the law ought not

argument that he prepared.

to be interpreted to prohibit “the just complaints of a

Jury selection began on July 29, 1735, and once again

number of men who suffer under a bad administration.”

Cosby attempted to influence events by having his

He suggested that the Zenger case was of transcendent

henchman, Francis Harison, produce a roll of potential


jurors that included 48 nonfreeholders. (Nonfreehold-

From what Mr. Attorney has just now said, to wit,

ers were persons holding estates at the will or sufferance

that this prosecution was directed by the Governor and

of the governor, who thus had considerable incentive to

the Council, and from the extraordinary appearance

produce a verdict that would please him.) The jury roll

of people of all conditions, which I observe in Court

also included former magistrates and persons in Cosby’s

upon this occasion, I have reason to think that those

employ. This departure from normal

in the administration have by this prosecution

procedures was too much even for Cosby’s

something more in view, and that the people

handpicked judges who, sitting behind an

believe they have a good deal more at stake,

ornate bench in their scarlet robes and huge


than I apprehended. Therefore, as it is become

white wigs, rejected the ruse. Twelve jurors

my duty to be both plain and particular in

were quickly selected.

had almost no this cause, I beg leave to bespeak the patience

law to support his

The trial opened on August 4 on the

of the Court.

main floor of New York’s City Hall with

Hamilton argued that the libel law of

Attorney General Bradley’s reading of the

position that the England ought not to be the libel law of

information filed against Zenger. Bradley

New York:

told jurors that Zenger, “being a seditious

truth should be a In England so great a regard and reverence is

person and a frequent printer and publisher

had to the judges that if any man strikes an-

of false news and seditious libels,” had

defense to the

other in Westminster Hall while the judges are

“wickedly and maliciously” devised to “tra-

charge of libel.

sitting, he shall lose his right hand and forfeit

duce, scandalize, and vilify” Governor Cosby

his land and goods for so doing. Although

and his ministers. Bradley said, “Libeling

the judges here claim all the powers and au-

has always been discouraged as a thing that

thorities within this government that a Court

tends to create differences among men, ill

of King’s Bench has in England, yet I believe

blood among the people, and oftentimes great bloodshed

Mr. Attorney will scarcely say that such a punishment

between the party libeling and the party libeled.”

could be legally inflicted on a man for committing such

After a brief statement from defense co-counsel John

an offense in the presence of the judges sitting in any

Chambers, Andrew Hamilton rose to announce that his

court within the Province of New York. The reason is

client – sitting in an enclosed box in the courtroom–

obvious. A quarrel or riot in New York can not possi-

would not contest having printed and published the

bly be attended with those dangerous consequences that

allegedly libelous materials contained in the Weekly

it might in Westminster Hall; nor, I hope, will it be al-

Journal and that “therefore I shall save Mr. Attorney the

leged that any misbehavior to a governor in The Plan-

trouble of examining his witnesses to that point.”

tations will, or ought to be, judged of or punished as a

Following Hamilton’s surprise announcement, the

like undutifulness would be to our sovereign. From all

prosecution’s three witnesses (Zenger’s journeyman

of which, I hope Mr. Attorney will not think it proper

associate and two of his sons), summoned to prove that

to apply his law cases, to support the cause of his gov-

Zenger had published the offending expression, were

ernor, which have only been judged where the king’s

sent home. There followed a prolonged silence. Fi-

safety or honor was concerned. ... Numberless are the

nally, Bradley spoke: “As Mr. Hamilton has confessed