Amendment I (Speech and Press)

[Volume 5, Page 147]

Document 25

United States v. Cooper

25 Fed. Cas. 631, no. 14,865 C.C.D.Pa. 1800

Chase, Circuit Justice (charging jury). Gentlemen of the jury: When men are found rash enough to commit an offence such as the traverser is charged with, it becomes the duty of the government to take care that they should not pass with impunity. It is my duty to state to you the law on which this indictment is preferred, and the substance of the accusation and defence. Thomas Cooper, the traverser, stands charged with having published a false, scandalous and malicious libel against the president of the United States, in his official character as president. There is no civilized country that I know of, that does not punish such offences; and it is necessary to the peace and welfare of this country, that these offences should meet with their proper punishment, since ours is a government founded on the opinions and confidence of the people. The representatives and the president are chosen by the people. It is a government made by themselves; and their officers are chosen by themselves; and, therefore, if any improper law is enacted, the people have it in their power to obtain the repeal of such law, or even of the constitution itself, if found defective, since provision is made for its amendment. Our government, therefore, is really republican; the people are truly represented, since all power is derived from them. It is a government of representation and responsibility. All officers of the government are liable to be displaced or removed, or their duration in office limited by elections at fixed periods. There is one department only, the judiciary, which is not subject to such removal; their offices being held "during good behaviour," and therefore they can only be removed for misbehaviour. All governments which I have ever read or heard of punish libels against themselves. If a man attempts to destroy the confidence of the people in their officers, their supreme magistrate, and their legislature, he effectually saps the foundation of the government. A republican government can only be destroyed in two ways: the introduction of luxury, or the licentiousness of the press. This latter is the more slow, but most sure and certain, means of bringing about the destruction of the government. The legislature of this country, knowing this maxim, has thought proper to pass a law to check this licentiousness of the press: by a clause in that law it is enacted. (Judge Chase here read the second section of the sedition law.) It must, therefore, be observed, gentlemen of the jury, that the intent must be plainly manifest. It is an important word in the law; for if there is no such intent to defame, &c., there is no offence created by that law. Thomas Cooper, then, stands indicted for having published a false, scandalous and malicious libel upon the president of the United States, with intent to defame the president, to bring him into contempt and disrepute, and to excite against him the hatred of the good people of the United States. This is the charge. The traverser has pleaded not guilty, and that he has not published, &c., with these views. He has also pleaded in justification (which the law provides for), that the matters asserted by him are true, and that he will give the same in evidence.

It is incumbent on the part of the prosecution to prove two facts: (1) That the traverser did publish the matters contained in the indictment. (2) That he did publish with intent to defame, &c. For the intent is as much a fact as the other, and must be proved in the same manner as other facts; and must be proved as stated in the law of congress--the mere publication is no offence; and in making up your verdict, though you consider them separately, you must take the whole tenor and import of the publication, since the offence is committed by the two coupled together.

First, then, as to the publication. The fact of writing and publishing is clearly proved; nay, in fact, it is not denied. It is proved to have taken place at Sunbury, a considerable distance from the seat of government. It appears from the evidence that the traverser went to the house of a justice of the peace with this paper, whom, of all others, he ought to have avoided; for he must know that it was the duty of the justice of the peace to deliver it immediately to those who administer the government. He did so. It was indecent to deliver such a paper to a justice of the peace, and the manner in which it was delivered was yet more outrageous--if it was done in joke, as the traverser would wish to imply, it was still very improper--but there was the same solemnity in his expression, "This is my name, and I am the author of this handbill," as if the traverser was going to part with an estate. This conduct showed that he intended to dare and defy the government, and to provoke them, and his subsequent conduct satisfies my mind that such was his disposition. For he justifies the publication in all its parts, and declares it to be founded in truth. It is proved most clearly to be his publication. It is your business to consider the intent as coupled with that, and view the whole together. You must take that publication, and compare it with the indictment. If there are doubts as to the motives of the traverser, he has removed them; for, though he states in his defence that he does not arraign the motives of the president, yet he has boldly avowed that [Volume 5, Page 148] his own motives in this publication were to censure the conduct of the president, which his conduct, as he thought, deserved. Now, gentlemen, the motives of the president, in his official capacity, are not a subject of inquiry with you. Shall we say to the president, you are not fit for the government of this country? It is no apology for a man to say, that he believes the president to be honest, but that he has done acts which prove him unworthy the confidence of the people, incapable of executing the duties of his high station, and unfit for the important office to which the people have elected him: the motives and intent of the traverser, not of the president, are the subject to be inquired into by you.

Now we will consider this libel as published by the defendant, and observe what were his motives. You will find the traverser speaking of the president in the following words: "Even those who doubted his capacity, thought well of his intentions." This the traverser might suppose would be considered as a compliment as to the intentions of the president; but I have no doubt that it was meant to carry a sting with it which should be felt; for it was in substance saying of the president, "You may have good intentions, but I doubt your capacity." He then goes on to say: "Nor were we yet saddled with the expense of a permanent navy, nor threatened, under his (the president's) auspices, with the existence of a standing army. Our credit was not yet reduced so low as to borrow money at eight per cent. in time of peace." Now, gentlemen, if these things were true, can any one doubt what effect they would have on the public mind? If the people believed those things, what would be the consequence? What! the president of the United States saddle us with a permanent navy, encourage a standing army, and borrow money at a large premium? And are we told, too, that this is in time of peace? If you believe this to be true, what opinion can you, gentlemen, form of the president? One observation must strike you, viz.: That these charges are made not only against the president, but against yourselves who elect the house of representatives, for these acts cannot be done without first having been approved of by congress. Can a navy be built, can an army be raised, or money borrowed, without the consent of congress? The president is further charged for that "the unnecessary violence of his official expressions might justly have provoked a war." This is a very serious charge indeed. What, the president, by unnecessary violence, plunge this country into a war! and that a just war? It cannot be--I say, gentlemen, again, if you believe this, what opinion can you form of the president? Certainly the worst you can form: you would certainly consider him totally unfit for the high station which he has so honorably filled, and with such benefit to his country. The traverser states that, under the auspices of the president, "our credit is so low that we are obliged to borrow money at eight per cent. in time of peace." I cannot suppress my feelings at this gross attack upon the president. Can this be true? Can you believe it? Are we now in time of peace? Is there no war? No hostilities with France? Has she not captured our vessels and plundered us of our property to the amount of millions? Has not the intercourse been prohibited with her? Have we not armed our vessels to defend ourselves, and have we not captured several of her vessels of war? Although no formal declaration of war has been made, is it not notorious that actual hostilities have taken place? And is this, then, a time of peace? The very expense incurred, which rendered a loan necessary, was in consequence of the conduct of France. The traverser, therefore, has published an untruth, knowing it to be an untruth.

The other part of the publication is much more offensive. I do not allude to his assertions relating to the embassies to Prussia, Russia, and the Sublime Porte. They are matters of little consequence, and, therefore, I shall pass over them. The part to which I allude is that where the traverser charges the president with having influenced the judiciary department. I know of no charge which can be more injurious to the president than that of an attempt to influence a court of judicature; the judicature of the country is of the greatest consequence to the liberties and existence of a nation. If your constitution was destroyed, so long as the judiciary department remained free and uncontrolled, the liberties of the people would not be endangered. Suffer your courts of judicature to be destroyed; there is an end to your liberties. The traverser says that this interference was a stretch of authority that the monarch of Great Britain would have shrunk from; an interference without precedent, against law and against mercy. Is not this an attack, and a most serious attack on the character of the president? The traverser goes on thus: "This melancholy case of Jonathan Robbins, a native of America, forcibly impressed by the British, and delivered, with the advice of Mr. Adams, to the mock trial of a British court-martial, had not yet astonished the republican citizens of this free country,--a case too little known, but of which the people ought to be fully apprised before the election, and they shall be." Now, gentlemen, there are circumstances in this publication which greatly aggravate the offence. The traverser does not only tell you that the president interfered to influence a court of justice without precedent, against law and against mercy; but that he so interfered in order to deliver up a native American citizen to be executed by a British court-martial under a mock trial, against law and against mercy. Another circumstance is adduced to complete the picture. He tells you that this Robbins was not only an American, but a native American, forcibly impressed by the British; and yet that the president of the United States, without precedent, against law and against mercy, interfered with a court of justice, and ordered this native American to be delivered up to a mock trial by a British court-martial. I can scarcely conceive a charge can be made against the president of so much consequence, or of a more heinous nature. But, says Mr. Cooper, he has done it. I will show you the case in which he has done it. It is the case of Jonathan Robbins. It appears then that this is a charge on the president, not only false and scandalous, but evidently made with intent to injure his character, and the manner in which it is made is well calculated to operate on the passions of Americans, and I fear such has been the effect. If this charge were true, there is not a man amongst you but would hate the president. I am sure I should hate him myself if I had thought he had done this. Upon the purity and independence [Volume 5, Page 149] of the judges depend the existence of your government and the preservation of your liberties. They should be under no influence--they are only accountable to God and their own consciences--your present judges are in that situation.

There is a little circumstance which the attorney-general, in his observations to you, omitted to state, but which I think it right to recall to your recollection, as it appears with what design the traverser made this publication. In this allusion to Jonathan Robbins he expressly tells you this is "a case too little known, but of which the people ought to be fully apprised before the election, and they shall be." Here, then, the evident design of the traverser was, to arouse the people against the president so as to influence their minds against him on the next election. I think it right to explain this to you, because it proves, that the traverser was actuated by improper motives to make this charge against the president. It is a very heavy charge, and made with intent to bring the president into contempt and disrepute, and excite against him the hatred of the people of the United States. The traverser has read in evidence a report made by the president to the house of representatives, and a letter written by the secretary of state, to show that the president had advised and directed this Robbins to be given up; but subsequent facts could not excuse the traverser for what he had written before. Now, gentlemen, with regard to this delivery of Jonathan Robbins, I am clearly of opinion that the president could not refuse to deliver him up. This same Jonathan Robbins, whose real name appears to have been Nash, was charged with murder committed on board the Hermione, British ship of war. This Nash being discovered in America, the British minister made a requisition to the president that he should be delivered up. Then we must inquire whether the president was obliged to give him up? By the twenty-seventh article of the treaty with Great Britain, it is stipulated, "that either of the contracting parties will deliver up to justice all persons who, being charged with murder or forgery committed within the jurisdiction of either, shall seek an asylum within any of the countries of the other, provided this shall be done only on such evidence of criminality as, according to the laws of the place where the fugitive or person so charged shall be found, would justify his apprehension and commitment for trial, if the offence had been there committed." If the president, therefore, by this treaty, was bound to give this Nash up to justice, he was so bound by law; for the treaty is the law of the land: if so, the charge of interference to influence the decisions of a court of justice, is without foundation. The reason why this article was inserted in the treaty, is evident. Murder is a crime against the laws of God and man, and ought never to be committed with impunity. Forgery is an offence affecting all commercial countries, and should never go unpunished; and therefore every government, especially a commercial one, acts wisely in delivering fugitives guilty of such crimes to justice. Nash was charged with having committed murder on board a British ship of war. Now a dispute has arisen whether murder committed on board such a ship of war, was committed within the jurisdiction of Great Britain. I have no doubt as to the point. All vessels, whether public or private, are part of the territory and within the jurisdiction of the nation to which they belong. This is according to the law of nations. All nations have this jurisdiction, and the reason is obvious, for every country carrying on commerce, is answerable to other nations for the conduct of their subjects on the ocean. Were it not so, crimes committed on board vessels of war would go unpunished; for no other country can claim jurisdiction. This person, then, was charged with murder committed on board a British ship of war. I say it was committed within the jurisdiction of Great Britain. By the constitution, (since the treaty is the law of the land,) America was bound to give him up: but who is the person to deliver up a fugitive according to that article in the treaty? The president was the only person to take the proper steps, and to take cognizance of the business. He represents the United States in their concerns with foreign powers. This affair could not be tried before a court of law. No court of justice here has jurisdiction over the crime of murder committed on board a British ship of war. Now, as the requisition was made to the president on the part of the British government to deliver this man up, it became necessary to know whether there was sufficient evidence of his criminality pursuant to the treaty. The judge of the court of Carolina was therefore called upon to inquire into the evidence of his criminality. He was the instrument made use of by the president to ascertain that fact. His delivery was the necessary act of the president, which he was by the treaty and the law of the land, bound to perform: and had he not done so, we should have heard louder complaints from that party who are incessantly opposing and calumniating the government, that the president had grossly neglected his duty by not carrying a solemn treaty into effect. Was this, then, an interference on the part of the president with the judiciary without precedent, against law and against mercy; for doing an act which he was bound by the law of the land to carry into effect, and over which a court of justice had no jurisdiction? Surely not; neither has it merited to be treated in the manner in which the traverser has done in his publication. A defence of greater novelty I never heard before.

Take this publication in all its parts, and it is the boldest attempt I have known to poison the minds of the people. He asserts that Mr. Adams has countenanced a navy, that he has brought forward measures for raising a standing army in the country. The traverser is certainly a scholar, and has shown himself a man of learning, and has read much on the subject of armies. But to assert, as he has done, that we have a standing army in this country, betrays the most egregious ignorance, or the most wilful intentions to deceive the public. We have two descriptions of armies in this country--we have an army which is generally called the Western army, enlisted for five years only--can this be a standing army? Who raises them? Congress. Who pays them? The people. We have also another army, called the provisional army, which is enlisted during the existence of the war with France--neither of these can, with any propriety, be called a standing army. In fact, we cannot have a standing army in this country, the constitution having expressly declared that no appropriation shall be made for [Volume 5, Page 150] the support of an army longer than two years. Therefore, as congress may appropriate money for the support of the army annually, and are obliged to do it only for two years, there can be no standing army in this country until the constitution is first destroyed. There is no subject on which the people of America feel more alarm, than the establishment of a standing army. Once persuade them that the government is attempting to promote such a measure, and you destroy their confidence in the government. Therefore, to say, that under the auspices of the president, we were saddled with a standing army, was directly calculated to bring him into contempt with the people, and excite their hatred against him.

It is too much to press this point on the traverser. But he deserves it. This publication is evidently intended to mislead the ignorant, and inflame their minds against the president, and to influence their votes on the next election. The traverser says, he has proved that the president has advocated a standing army--how has he proved it? There is no standing army; I have before stated, the army is only raised for five years, and during the existing differences--he tells you, Mr. Adams is a friend to the establishment of a navy; I wonder who is not a friend to a navy which is to protect the commerce and power of this country. The traverser has, to prove these points, read to you many extracts from the addresses and answers to the president. He has selected a number of passages, which, he asserts, prove the approbation of the president to the creation of a navy, and forming a standing army. But we are to recollect gentlemen, that when in consequence of the unjust proceedings of France, the great mass of the people thought proper to address the president, expressing in those addresses, sentiments of attachment and confidence in the president, and their determination to resist the oppression of the French government, the president replied to them, in answers which generally were the echo of their sentiments, and in fact, his expressions were as general as the nature of the addresses would permit--therefore, the traverser ought to have blamed the addressers, and not the president. The Marine Society of Boston, as old seamen, address the president in favour of a navy. The president in reply, thinks a navy is the proper defence of the country.

I believe, gentlemen, in the first part of my charge, I made remarks on the assertions of the traverser, that the president had borrowed money at eight per cent. in time of peace. Therefore, it will not be necessary to enlarge on that point. You will please to notice, gentlemen, that the traverser in his defence must prove every charge he has made to be true; he must prove it to the marrow. If he asserts three things, and proves but one, he fails; if he proves but two, he fails in his defence, for he must prove the whole of his assertions to be true. If he were to prove, that the president had done everything charged against him in the first paragraph of the publication--though he should prove to your satisfaction, that the president had interfered to influence the decisions of a court of justice, that he had delivered up Jonathan Robbins without precedent, against law and against mercy, this would not be sufficient, unless he proved at the same time, that Jonathan Robbins was a native American, and had been forcibly impressed, and compelled to serve on board a British ship of war. If he fails, therefore, gentlemen, in this proof, you must then consider whether his intention in making these charges against the president were malicious or not. It is not necessary for me to go more minutely into an investigation of the defence. You must judge for yourselves--you must find the publication, and judge of the intent with which that publication was made, whether it was malice or not? If you believe that he has published it without malice, or an intent to defame the president of the United States, you must acquit him. If he has proved the truth of the facts asserted by him, you must find him not guilty.

After the jury had returned with a verdict of guilty:

Chase, Circuit Justice. Mr. Cooper, as the jury have found you guilty, we wish to hear any circumstances you have to offer in point of the mitigation of the fine the court may think proper to impose on you, and also in extenuation of your punishment. We should therefore wish to know your situation in life, in regard to your circumstances. It will be proper for you to consider of this. As you are under recognizance, you will attend the court some time the latter end of the week. (The court appointed Wednesday.)

Proceedings on Wednesday, April 30, 1800.

Chase, Circuit Justice. Mr. Cooper, have you anything to offer to the court previous to passing sentence?

Mr. Cooper. The court have desired me to offer anything relating to my circumstances in mitigation of the fine, or any observation that occurs to me in extenuation of the offence. I have thought it my duty (not for the purpose of deprecating any punishment which the court may deem it proper to inflict, but) to prevent any accidental or apparent harshness of punishment on part of the court, for want of that information which it is in my power to give. For this reason, therefore, and that the court may not be misled, I think it right to say, that my property in this country is moderate. That some resources I had in England, commercial failures there have lately cut off: that I depend principally on my practice: that practice, imprisonment will annihilate. Be it so. I have been accustomed to make sacrifices to opinion, and I can make this. As to circumstances in extenuation, not being conscious that I have set down aught in malice, I have nothing to extenuate.

Chase, Circuit Justice. I have heard what you have to say. I am sorry you did not think proper to make an affidavit in regard to your circumstances; you are a perfect stranger to the court, to me at least. I do not know you personally--I know nothing of you, more than having lately heard your name mentioned in some publication. Every person knows the political disputes which have existed amongst us. It is notorious that there are two parties in the country; you have stated this yourself. You have taken one side--we do not pretend to say, that you have not a right to express your sentiments, only taking care not to injure the characters of those to whom you are opposed. [Volume 5, Page 151] Your circumstances ought to have been disclosed, on affidavit, that the court might have judged as to the amount of the offence; nor did we want to hurt you, by this open disclosure.

Mr. Cooper. I have nothing to disclose that I am ashamed of.

Chase, Circuit Justice. If we were to indulge our own ideas, there is room to suspect that in cases of this kind, where one party is against the government, gentlemen who write for that party would be indemnified against any pecuniary loss; and that the party would pay any fine which might be imposed on the person convicted. You must know, I suppose, before you made any publication of this kind, whether you were to be supported by a party or not, and whether you would not be indemnified against any pecuniary loss. If the fine were only to fall on yourself, I would consider your circumstances; but, if I could believe you were supported by a party inimical to the government, and that they were to pay the fine, not you, I would go to the utmost extent of the power of the court. I understand you have a family, but you have not thought proper to state that to the court. From what I can gather from you, it appears that you depend on your profession for support; we do not wish to impose so rigorous a fine as to be beyond a person's abilities to support, but the government must be secured against these malicious attacks. You say that you are not conscious of having acted from malicious motives. It may be so; saying so, we must believe you; but, the jury have found otherwise. You are a gentleman of the profession, of such capacity and knowledge, as to have it more in your power to mislead the ignorant. I do not want to oppress, but I will restrain, as far as I can, all such licentious attacks on the government of the country.

Mr. Cooper. I have been asked by the court whether, in case of a fine being imposed upon me, I shall be supported by a party. Sir, I solemnly aver, that throughout my life, here and elsewhere, among all the political questions in which I have been concerned, I have never so far demeaned myself as to be a party writer. I never was in the pay or under the support of any party; there is no party in this, or any other country, that can offer me a temptation to prostitute my pen. If there are any persons here who are acquainted with what I have published, they must feel and be satisfied that I have had higher and better motives, than a party could suggest. I have written, to the best of my ability, what I seriously thought would conduce to the general good of mankind. The exertions of my talents, such as they are, have been unbought, and so they shall continue; they have indeed been paid for, but they have been paid for by myself, and by myself only, and sometimes dearly. The public is my debtor, and what I have paid or suffered for them, if my duty should again call upon me to write or to act, I shall again most readily submit to. I do not pretend to have no party opinions, to have no predilection for particular descriptions of men or of measures; but I do not act upon minor considerations; I belong here, as in my former country, to the great party of mankind. With regard to any offers which may have been made to me, to enable me to discharge the fine which may be imposed, I will state candidly to the court what has passed, for I wish not to conceal the truth; I have had no previous communication or promise whatever. I have since had no specific promises of money or anything else. I wrote from my own suggestions. But, many of my friends have, in the expectation of a verdict against me, come forward with general offers of pecuniary assistance; these offers I have, hitherto, neither accepted nor rejected. If the court should impose a fine beyond my ability to pay, I shall accept them without hesitation; but if the fine be within my circumstances to discharge, I shall pay it myself. But the insinuations of the court are ill founded, and if you, sir, from misapprehension or misinformation have been tempted to make them, your mistake should be corrected.

Peters, District Judge. I think we have nothing to do with parties; we are only to consider the subject before us. I wish you had thought proper to make an affidavit of your property. I have nothing to do, sitting here, to inquire whether a party in whose favour you may be, or you, are to pay the fine. I shall only consider your circumstances, and impose a fine which I think adequate; we ought to avoid any oppression. It appears that you depend chiefly upon your profession for support. Imprisonment for any time would tend to increase the fine, as your family would be deprived of your professional abilities to maintain them.

Chase, Circuit Justice. We will take time to consider this. Mr. Cooper, you may attend here again.

Thursday, Mr. Cooper attended, and the court sentenced him to pay a fine of four hundred dollars; to be imprisoned for six months, and, at the end of that period, to find surety for his good behaviour, himself in a thousand, and two sureties in five hundred dollars each.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 5, Amendment I (Speech and Press), Document 25
The University of Chicago Press