Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Now Trump has proclaimed America’s institutional press “enemy of the American people,” using that Bolshevik term that Lenin had used. He ought to say it in Russian, vrag naroda, so that his boss Vladimir can hear him clearly.
But freedom of the press is as American as apple pie. It predates even the founding of the Republic. Indeed, Mar-a-Lago’s war on the media reminds me of the first major test case of press freedom in the Thirteen Colonies, that of John Peter Zenger.
Like Donald’s grandfather Friedrich, Zenger was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States at a young age. Friedrich was 16; John Peter was 13 in 1710 when his family arrived in New York. The government of the colony of New York, in a time more welcoming to immigrants, arranged apprenticeships for all the immigrant children. So it was that teenaged Zenger found himself apprenticed to William Bradford, the first of New York’s printers. Eventually Zenger followed Bradford’s footsteps and became a printer in his own right.
In 1732, King George II appointed a new governor for New York and New Jersey. The appointee, an Anglo-Irish nobleman named William Cosby, had gambled his way through Italy as a young man before becoming an officer in the British army in Spain and in Ireland. In 1718, as a colonel, Cosby was assigned to Minorca, Spain, and acted as its governor.
But Cosby’s career prior to the American colonies was marred by a petty and insatiable appetite for money. In this he was not unlike the supposed billionaire and current claimant to the White House, the stiffer of contractors, the man who lines his own pockets by charging the Secret Service for renting rooms in his own building. Cosby’s undistinguished tenure in Minorca was mostly notable for his attempt to illegally seize a Portuguese ship and appropriate its cargo for himself.
The thirst for wealth would not diminish when Cosby arrived in New York. Indeed, he had taken the post in expectation of improving his family’s financial circumstances. Upon arrival, he immediately went about trying to get as much money for himself as possible. Cosby went so far as to sue the acting governor, who had discharged the duties of his office before he could arrive from Britain, over the issue of his salary.
The following year, Zenger began printing The New York Weekly Journal, a paper highly critical of Cosby’s money-grubbing. So Cosby sued him for libel, landing him in jail for eight months before the case went to trial. This even though Zenger didn’t write or edit articles in the paper, but merely brought it to press. Ironically, his defense lawyers, who as lawyers were after all more literate men than the former apprentice, had much more to do with the content of the paper than Zenger ever did.
These same lawyers successfully argued for the principle that nowadays every student of U.S. law learns in law school, that truth is an absolute defense against a charge of libel or defamation. If Cosby really tried to line his own pockets, then saying that he did could not be illegal. If Trump really colluded with Russian intelligence, then saying so must be permitted.
The principle did not hold for the remainder of the colonial era. But the Zenger case became a belated rallying cry during the Revolutionary War, after which American states reestablished the doctrine that truth was an absolute defense for the institutional press, or really anyone, against charges by men like Cosby and Trump who simply didn’t like unflattering truth being told and would invoke the authority of the government to stop it.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."