By Alejandro Grattan
The Nine Words That Changed America
Note: A married couple recently won a judgment from the White House for $80,000 stem-ming from an incident in which they had been jailed for trespass [on public land!] for attending a Bush rally while wearing T-shirts embossed with anti-Bush slogans. But this was only the most recent example of an ongoing policy, because for the past six years, the government has considered criticism of its policies to be unpatriotic if indeed not treasonous.
Given these events, it seems a good time to re-run this editorial. Some people have forgotten that America’s Founding Fathers believed that every citizen has not only the right to question his leaders, but the responsibility to do so, as well.
In 1734, in a small town outside New York City, the editor of a newspaper called The New York Weekly Journal was walking across the village square when he noticed a man who, after having been flogged, was still on public display, his arms bolted into wooden stocks. The editor, whose name was Zenger, asked the prisoner what his crime had been.
He had spoken out against the British Crown. The case had never gone to trial, yet the man had been severely punished. Outraged, the editor wrote an article about the matter—and was soon arrested himself. Left in jail for several weeks without adequate food and water, he became weak, dispirited and felt utterly abandoned by the time his case was finally scheduled for trial.
Zenger had more stalwart friends, however, than he thought, and one of them was the town’s most prominent attorney, a gentleman named Alexander, who began to work on the editor’s behalf. Another was the editor’s wife, who continued to courageously print his newspaper out of the cellar of their home. By the time the case came to trial, it had garnered the attention of most of the other American colonies.
However, the outcome seemed preordained. The judges, subservient to the Crown, had been bribed, and the jury was filled with people too uneducated to fully understand the issues. Justice, it seemed, was about to go on vacation.
The attorney, realizing his client might hang, rode hell for leather for several days to Philadelphia, where he enlisted the aid of a man named Hamilton, reputed to be the finest lawyer in all of North America. Together, the two men hurried back to New York, arriving just as the trial was ending.
Striding into the courtroom as if he owned it, Hamilton immediately launched into one of the most inspired arguments for free speech that had ever been heard. Finally, with the spectators and even the members of the jury bursting into cheers, a not-guilty verdict was hastily rendered.
Hamilton had sounded the first clarion call for the right of every citizen to voice his opinion about the government without fear of recrimi-nation or retribution—be it from the King of England all the way down to the mayor of a small village. In time, that call would make it into the Constitution of the United States of America, and today it is part of what makes the U.S. of A. the great nation that it is.
“...Congress shall not abridge the right of free speech...”
Those nine words would eventually change the course of history.