The quote in the title is by Andrew Hamilton, Philadelphia lawyer and uncle of Alexander Hamilton.
Every now and again, I unplug and crack open one of my aged Grollier’s Encyclopedias, circa 1954, and learn something new (to me, anyway). I refuse to part with these books, as I’ve loved them since I was a child and discovered them on my father’s book shelf. They were magical then, and even more so now, when I recognize more of the people, places and things–and grasp their meaning and significance. Today I was poking around my basement and spotted the Grollier’s books. I opened A Treasury of the World’s Great Speeches and —-SHAZAM—-found oratorical gold:
It is natural, it is a privilege, I will go farther, it is a right, which all free men claim, that they are entitled to complain when they are hurt. They have a right publicly to remonstrate against the abuses of power in the strongest terms, to put their neighbors upon their guard against the craft or open violence of men in authority, and to assert with courage the sense they have of the blessings of liberty, the value they put upon it, and their resolution at all hazards to preserve it as one of the greatest blessings heaven can bestow….
The loss of liberty, to a generous mind, is worse than death. And yet we know that there have been those in all ages who for the sake of preferment, or some imaginary honor, have freely lent a helping hand to oppress, nay to destroy, their country. This brings to mind that saying of the immortal Brutus, when he looked upon the creatures of Caesar, who were very great men, but by no means good men: “You Romans,” said Brutus, “if yet I may call you so, consider what you are doing; remember that you are assisting Caesar to forge those very chains which one day he will make you yourselves wear.” This is what every man who values freedom ought to consider. He should act by judgment and not by affection or self-interest; for where those prevail, no ties of either country or kindred are regarded; as upon the other hand, the man who loves his country prefers its liberty to all other considerations, well knowing that without liberty life is a misery….
Power may justly be compared to a great river. While kept within its due bounds it is both beautiful and useful. But when it overflows its banks, it is then too impetuous to be stemmed; it bears down all before it, and brings destruction and desolation wherever it comes. If, then, this is the nature of power, let us at least do our duty, and like wise men who value freedom use our utmost care to support liberty, the only bulwark against lawless power, which in all ages has sacrificed to its wild lust and boundless ambition the blood of the best men that ever lived….
I hope to be pardoned, Sir, for my zeal upon this occasion. It is an old ans wise caution that “when our neighbor’s house is on fire, we ought to take care of our own.” For though, blessed by God, I live in a government where liberty is well understood and freely enjoyed, yet experience has shown us all (I am sure it has to me) that a bad precedent in one government is soon set up for an authority in another; and therefore I cannot but think it mine and very honest man’s duty that, while we pay all due obedience to men in authority we ought at the same time to be upon our guard against power wherever we apprehend that it may affect ourselves or our fellow subjects.
You see that I labor under the weight of many years, and am bowed down with great infirmities of body. Yet, old and weak as I am, I should think it my duty, if required, to go to the utmost part of the land where my services could be of any use in assisting to quench the flame of prosecutions upon informations, set on foot by the government to deprive a people of the right of remonstrating and complaining, too, of the arbitrary attempts of men in power….
But to conclude: The question before the Court and you, Gentlemen of the jury, is not of small or private concern. It is not the cause of one poor printer, nor of New York alone, which you are now trying. No! It may in its consequence affect every free man that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty. And I make no doubt but your upright conduct this day will not only entitle you to the love and esteem of your fellow citizens, but every man who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you as men who have baffled the attempt of tyranny, and by an impartial and uncorrupt verdict have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our posterity, and our neighbors, that to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right to liberty of both exposing and opposing arbitrary power (in these parts of the world at least) by speaking and writing truth.
The above passage is from Andrew Hamilton’s impassioned defense of printer/publisher John Peter Zenger on August 4, 1735. Yes, 1735–a full 40 years before Lexington and Concord and the American Revolution. Zenger was on trial for seditious libel for publishing a newspaper called the New York Weekly Journal (NYWJ) that was critical of the Governor of New York. His paper arose as a response to a newspaper called the New York Gazette, which was a mouthpiece for the Governor (today, we have something similar called Fox News). After first trying to stop Zenger by seizing and burning copies of the NYWJ, the Governor next arrested and imprisoned Zenger for seditious libel and set a ridiculously high bail.
Although Governor Cosby seemingly stacked the deck against Zenger by hand-picking the judges, the power of Hamilton’s oration compelled the jury to see justice done, and Zenger was found not guilty. The verdict didn’t change the libel law then. But you can see Andrew Hamilton’s fingerprint on the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. His oratorical triumph in 1735 paved the way for a free press.
George William Curtis, a famous orator and publicist, spoke of Hamilton’s court victory in an address before the New York State Press Association in 1881:
. . .when the Zenger jury cried ‘Not Guilty’, and Andrew Hamilton left the courtroom, like an aureole around his reverend head shone the freedom of the American press. The thunder of the cannon, the music of the bells, the joyous feasting, and the fervidly grateful address of the city, saluted not the orator only, but American liberty which had caught a fresh breath of life from his burning lips.
I will think of Zenger and Hamilton every time I see a headline that reads “Surrender Monkees” or hear the President say “if you’re not with us you’re against us.” The foolish notions of our wannabe “Unitary Executive” and bleating of his blatantly pro-power propagandists squander Hamilton’s gift and ignore his truths. They don’t love liberty and they don’t know what it means to be an American or a patriot.
Reading Hamilton’s words filled me with hope. Our founders were great man with lofty ideals, and the living document that is the U.S. Constitution is their legacy to us. As much as George W. Bush and his wholly-rotten administration try to take our liberty; spy on us; murder,enslave and torture others in our name; and destroy the rule of law, we must continue to resist–in any way we can according to the laws of this country. We must follow the example of John Peter Zenger and Andrew Hamilton, who stood against the tyrannical Governor Cosby.
*I found much of Hamilton’s defense of Zenger on Doug Linder’s Zenger Trial page. I copied the text of Andrew Hamilton’s words but none of Linder’s, which are copyrighted.