James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Stevens Thomson Mason, 23 April 1800

From Stevens Thomson Mason

Phila April 23d. 1800

Dear Sir

The presedential election bill of the Senate labours in the house of Reps. A motion to postpone it till next Session was on Friday last lost 52 to 48 many who voted agt the postponement declare themselves opposed to the bill and that they will not vote for it in any thing like its present form. It is now in the hands of a select committee and a new project is I am told agreed on. I have not learnt what it is, tho’ it is said not materially to vary in principle from the present one.

The most vigorous and undisguised efforts are making to crush the republican presses, and stifle enquiry as it may respect the ensuing election of P & V Pt. Holt the Editor of the Bee at New London in Cont is condemned to imprisonment for 3 months & a fine of $2001 a Printer in N York has been fined & imprisoned I know not for what.2 Hazewell3 a printer in Vermont is indicted & will no doubt be convicted for reprinting from another paper a copy of McHenry’s letter to Genl Darke,4 which letter was actually published by McHenry himself in Fenno’s paper.

Thos. Cooper of Northumberland was tried and convicted on Saturday last for a libel on the Presdt.5 A more oppressiv⟨e⟩ and disgusting proceeding I never saw. Chase in his charge to the Jury (in a speech of an hour) shewed all the zeal of a well fee’d Lawyer and the rancour of a vindictive and implacable enemy. Cooper is to receive his sentence this day. I am Dr Sir with great regard Yours

Stes. Thon. Mason

RC (DLC: Rives Collection, Madison Papers). Docketed by JM.

1Charles Holt (1772–1852) established the New London, Connecticut, Bee in 1797 and edited it until its demise in 1802. In September 1799 Holt was charged under the Sedition Act for printing a letter severely critical of the U.S. Army and its recruiting policy. On 12 Apr. 1800 the court found him guilty of attempting to bring the government into contempt and disrepute (Smith, Freedom’s Fetters, pp. 373–84).

2This was probably David Frothingham, a journeyman printer for the N.Y. Argus. The newspaper, published by Ann Greenleaf, widow of Thomas Greenleaf, was under attack by the government for its criticism of the administration. Frothingham was tried under state law on 21 Nov. 1799 for reprinting a letter that allegedly libeled Alexander Hamilton. Found guilty, he was fined $100 and sentenced to four months in prison (ibid., pp. 403–14).

3Anthony Haswell (1756–1816) published the Vt. Gazette in Bennington. On 7 Oct. 1799 Haswell was indicted under the Sedition Act for printing “false malicious wicked and seditious libel.” Brought to trial in May 1800, Haswell was sentenced to two months in prison and a fine of $200 (ibid., pp. 359–73; see also Haswell to JM, 30 Mar. 1801, PJM-SS description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (1st ser., vols. 1–10, Chicago, 1962–77, vols. 11–17, Charlottesville, Va., 1977–90). description ends , 1:58 and nn.).

4Secretary of War James McHenry’s letter of 18 Dec. 1798 to Gen. William Darke (1736–1801), the commandant of the Virginia militia, was first published in the Philadelphia Gazette of the U.S., 27 Feb. 1799. Darke had previously offered to the government the services of a volunteer company. In his reply, McHenry stated that “in the present crisis of our affairs, and state of party in the country, it was, and is deemed important not to accept of companies composed of disaffected persons who may from improper motives, be desirous to intrude themselves into the army, under the pretence of patriotic associations.” Therefore, the administration required certificates of political purity “setting forth the principles of the associates, those of the officers elect, especially,” from “prominent and known characters … [of] weight and respectability in the community” (Dauer, The Adams Federalists, pp. 216–17).

5Thomas Cooper, serving for a time in the spring and summer of 1799 as editor of the Pennsylvania Sunbury and Northumberland Gazette, had vigorously attacked the Adams administration in a number of editorials that were later reprinted in Republican newspapers and in pamphlet form. These essays provoked rejoinders, which in turn led Cooper to a harsher attack on Adams himself in the form of a handbill written on 2 Nov. 1799. Cooper was arrested on 9 Apr. 1800 for seditious libel on the basis of the handbill, but it was generally recognized that his outspoken and energetic effort on behalf of the Republican party was the primary reason for his prosecution. Brought to trial and convicted, Cooper was sentenced to six months in prison and a $400 fine (Smith, Freedom’s Fetters, pp. 307–33; see also Jefferson to JM, 25 Mar. 1800, and n. 1).

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