Forty Two Years Before the Declaration, and Fifty Three Before the Constitution
This is another episode of this anthology series which picked up stories from history and dramatized them. Again I never saw this one, so I regret not being able to discuss it in depth. But looking at the cast, including Thomas Mitchell and Reginald Denny), I suspect it may have been better than average. And the subject matter certainly is significant enough for me to give it a "6".
When we learn about the history of the nation, after a brief discussion of the discovery of the North American areas that formed the the modern U.S.A. we are swept into a brief discussion regarding the settlements of the continent by Britain, France, Spain, Holland, and Sweden (Delaware and southern New Jersey). The eventual confrontation of Britain and France for control of the Ohio Valley, and the events leading to the French and Indian War follow, and Britain's victory over France...leading to the growing conflict with the colonies that end with the Revolution and the establishment of the United States. Little really goes beyond that (maybe a look at the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, because they are so well known). That there were serious pre-1763 confrontations between the colonists and Britain are overlooked by most of us: New England deposed Governor Sir Edmund Andros in 1689; Nathaniel Bacon led an open revolt against Governor Sir William Berkeley of Virginia in 1675-76 - one biographer called him the "torchbearer" of the Revolution; and the luckless Jacob Leisler took over New York's Government in 1689, ran it for two years with public support while waiting for Britain to send a new governor, made the mistake of suggesting to the other colonies of "unifying for common defense against foreign danger" - he meant the French - and ended up being hanged for treason with his son-in-law. Specialists discuss these events. Most of us find them confusing and dull.*
(*I should add that in recent decades, African-Americans have taken a keen interest in the hidden history of their ancestors as slaves and freedmen in colonial America. The recent opening of the African Burial Ground in New York City is a result of this interest. So is the re-evaluation of the so-called Slave Arson plot against New York City in 1741, which ended in many executions for probably nothing at all.)
But one event stood out even in public school when we learned about American colonial history. This was the trial of John Peter Zenger, a printer and newspaper editor, for sedition in 1734. Zenger, an immigrant from the Palatine in middle Europe, settled in New York City and published the New York Weekly Journal. At the time the colony was under Governor William Cosby. Colonial governors were usually picked by nepotism or by favorites at court. The governors were not all bad, but some were out for as much gain as possible. Apparently Cosby was like this, and had been making alliances with a group of local New York land owners against their rivals. The rivals were stripped of offices they usually handled. Their leader, Mr. Lewis Morris, led them to back Zenger's newspaper. Zenger started printing unflattering and unpleasant stories about Cosby and his allies, and what they were doing. Cosby finally had the city authorities arrest Zenger for seditious libel.
The case is famous for what happened. By himself Zenger would probably have gone under. But instead, his backers contacted Andrew Hamilton, the best known barrister in the colonies of that day (call him the "Johnny Cochran" of 1734). Although usually practicing in Philadelphia, Hamilton showed up in New York City and defended Zenger. They won the case and smashed Cosby's attempt to silence the press. Cosby never attempted the attack on the press again and was dead within two years. The result was that freedom of the press actually was established in the colonies (though it would be endangered several times) decades before the Revolution or the Bill of Rights officially put it down as a liberty.
Mitchell played Hamilton in this program, and Denny was the corrupt Cosby. I note that Zenger was played by Barney Phillips. For actually dramatizing the story at all I congratulate this series.
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