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Title pageAbout the Book

Cooper, Thomas.

An Account of the Trial of Thomas Cooper, of Northumberland: On a Charge of Libel Against the President of the United States.

Philadelphia: Printed by J. Bioren, 1800.



In April 1800, Thomas Cooper, a prominent lawyer, journalist, and scientist in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, was tried in federal court in Philadelphia for libel against the President of the United States. Cooper had been indicted under the July 1798 Act "for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States" which had by then became known popularly as the Sedition Act. He faced a fine of up to $2000 and a possible two years in prison. A supporter of Jefferson, Cooper was known as an opponent of the government, especially as it applied to matters of individual liberty and the separation of powers. He had, for example, defended William Duane (1760-1835) who had been accused of defaming the United States Senate. His own more direct contact with the laws of libel came in October and November 1799 when a rival journal, The Reading Weekly Advertiser, accused Cooper of hypocrisy and unreasonableness in his comments concerning the Adams Administration. Cooper had applied two years before for a federal position as an agent of American Claims. He had been turned down and, according to the Weekly Advertiser all Cooper's subsequent resentment and opposition to government policy stemmed from that. Enraged, Cooper had written a rebuttal which, among other things noted that he had indeed made this application but long before the Adams Administration had embarked on the policies, such as hostility towards France and "the hiding behind" the Sedition Acts. He went on to describe at length his current objections to President Adams' actions. Cooper then published this in his own Sunbury and Northumberland Gazette. He had also delivered a copy of the letter to John Buyers, his rival editor, who then took that copy to William Rawle, the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia. The indictment was filed on November 2, 1799, noting among other things that Cooper was "a person of wicked and turbulent disposition." Cooper appeared and was released on bail of $1000 pending an April trial. The trial began on April 19, 1800 in the First Circuit of Philadelphia before Judge Chase. Cooper defended himself and took verbatim shorthand notes of the proceedings. All of the documents, transcripts, and supporting documents, along with Cooper's later comments, were published in pamphlet form almost immediately following the outcome of the trial.

His preface, dated May 1, and from "the Prison of Philadelphia," warned of the dangers to freedom of speech and urged the election of men who would replace these policies. Then Cooper provides a full set of documents beginning with his initial letter of application and Priestley's support, both sets of opposing press opinions, and the legal documents of the indictment. His account of the trial itself begins with his arguments at the grand jury indictment requesting unsuccessfully a subpoena for President Adams' appearance. The long opening statement of his defense at the full trial is a powerful discussion concerning party politics encroaching upon the law, the fact that the libeled party - the President - appointed the judges and district attorneys involved, and the matter of freedoms of the press and political speech freedom. As to the specific charges, he states that the President actually has the policies his "libel" had described and that others have also made such comments. At the end of the short trial, Cooper objects to the tone of Judge Chase's summing up, calling it a reprise argument of the case against him. A series of appendices follows, including government documents and statements from Adams that Cooper presents as evidence the President indeed holds the beliefs Cooper says he does. Included finally is a lengthy legal criticism of Judge Chase both in his conduct during the case and in other opinions.

Cooper's defense failed and he was convicted. He was fined $400 and served six months in prison. His detailed pamphlet is a priceless resource for the understanding of the emerging politics of the new nation and the seemingly blatant effort of the Federalists to silence their Republican opposition. About half a dozen Jeffersonians, largely journalists and, interestingly, mostly foreign born were tried under the Sedition Act. The response to these actions backfired on the Federalists, however, when the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions helped unite the Republicans and bring them to election victory in 1800. Cooper's own pamphlet played a role in these elections, too, in Pennsylvania, as he had hoped. The Alien and Sedition Acts had been mostly written to expire under any following administration, and the new Congress allowed them to do so. The political aspect of the statutes was underlined in Cooper's case when the new Republican governor of Pennsylvania, Thomas McKean appointed Thomas Cooper as a first deputy attorney general of Northumberland County and then in August 1804 as President Judge in the Fourth Judicial District of Pennsylvania. In 1825 Cooper began to petition the Senate for restitution of his fine; his family were recompensed after his death.

Researched and authored by John Osborne, Ph. D.


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