James Fenimore Cooper Libel Trials: 1839-45

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James Fenimore Cooper Libel Trials:
1839-45

Defendants: Andrew M. Barber, Park Benjamin, Theodore S. Gold, Horace Greeley, Thomas McElrath, Elius Pellet, William Leete Stone, James Watson Webb, Thurlow Weed
Plaintiff Claim: Libel
Chief Defense Lawyers: Joshua Spencer (for Barber) Peter Clark (for Greeley); Willis Hall, R. G. Wheaton, L.S. Chaffield (for Weed); L.J. Walworth and Ambrose Jordan (for Webb); A. B. Conger, William H. Seward (for Greeley)
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: Richard Cooper
Judges: Philo Gridley, John Willard
Places: Cooperstown, Utica, Fonda, Ballston, and Albany, New York
Dates of Trials: Intermittently from February 1839 to December 1845. In addition to the actual trials, there were numerous pretrial hearings and appeals.
Decisions: Of the 18 legal suits brought by Cooper, he won 11 of them and was awarded damages totaling $3,060. One resulted in a verdict of not guilty (for Webb); one suit was settled by arbitration (but in Cooper's favor); three suits were dropped when the editors printed retractions; one was reversed on appeal; and one was set aside by an appeals court.

SIGNIFICANCE: The Cooper libel trials and related legal proceedings both darkened his own final years and placed him in a bad light with the American public. Beyond that, the issues raised by the disposition of these cases influenced the move to redefine the libel law in New York State so that suits like Cooper's would have little success in the future.

When James Fenimore Cooper set sail with his family for Europe in 1826, he was at the height of his reputation with critics and of popularity with his readers. His novels such as The Spy, The Pioneers, and The Lastofthe Mohicans were also selling so well that he could afford to travel and reside in Europe for the next several years. During that time, however, he published certain works that seemed to Americans to be unfairly critical of his homeland, so that when he arrived back in New York in 1832 he was already becoming regarded as an antidemocratic, pseudo-aristocratic scold.

The First Trespassers

The next step toward confrontation was taken when Cooper decided to settle back in the upstate New York town founded by his father, Cooperstown. In taking over the estate of his recently deceased father, Cooper discovered that the townspeople had long been accustomed to making use of a small promontory on Lake Otsego that actually belonged to his family. On July 22, 1837, Cooper placed a formal notice in the local newspaper warning the public to cease trespassing on this land, known as Three Mile Point.

That very evening, the angry villagers held a meeting at which they drew up resolutions contesting Cooper's claims to ownership of Three Mile Point. They also voted to recommend that the trustees of the library remove "all books of which Cooper is the author." In August, several upstate New York newspapers chose to report these proceedings along with comments by the editors highly critical of Cooper's position. In September Cooper commenced libel suits against three of the editors-Andrew Barber, Theodore Gold, and Elius Pelletbut during the next year no action was taken.

Instead, Cooper spent that year writing several new works including Home As Found, published in November 1838. In this novel, the leading character, Edward Effingham, appears to be a not-very-thinly disguised version of Cooper himself; in particular, one plot line deals with Effingham's disputes with his fellow villagers that exactly parallel Cooper's own. Several newspapers printed reviews that not only pilloried the novel but said some undeniably disparaging things about him. (One review printed extracts said to exhibit Cooper's "insane vanity and his foolish pretension to be high-born.")

The Legal Suits

At this point, Cooper launched what became one of the most bizarre if now forgotten series of legal battles in American literary history. He revived his earlier suits against the three editors who had commented on the Three Mile Point dispute; he started libel suits against the editors of newspapers that printed the disparaging reviews of Home As Found; he sued an editor for a negative review of another of his books, History of the Navy of the United States; he initiated still new suits when the editors reported or commented on the previous suits; and he then sued the editors when they reported on their own trials.

One by one, between February 1839 and December 1845, these suits came before grand juries, judges, trial juries, arbitrators, or appeals courts. Although on occasion Cooper spoke in court on his own behalf, he relied throughout the proceedings on his lawyer-nephew, Richard Cooper. The defendants hired their own lawyers. The trials were held in various upstate New York county courts; the appeals were held in Albany. All the juried trials were presided over by either Justice John Willard or Justice Philo Gridley, who from the outset would allow the defendants to enter little extenuating evidence. Rather, the judges consistently ruled that all the juries had to consider was whether they regarded the editors' articles as having gone beyond criticism of the author's works to become libels on Cooper the man.

Sideshows and Footnotes

In the course of the various trials and legal actions, there were all kinds of incidents that would seem absurd if they weren't so unsettling. One of the most extraordinary episodes involved the trials of James Watson Webb for his review of Home As Found. In the first trial, Justice Willard allowed the entire novel (along with its companion work, Homeward Bound) to be read aloud in the courtit took 11 hoursand it is reported that "Mr. Cooper absented himself from the courtroom during the reading." When that trial ended with a hung jury, Webb was brought to trial for a second time (again, a hung jury) and then a third time (this time found not guilty), but Justice Willard would not allow the novel to be read aloud at either of the latter two trials. The flavor of court trials in this era is conveyed in the following exchange:

Mr. Jordan [Webb's lawyer]: Of course I have no other alternative than to submit and except to this ruling of your honor. I would now ask, with all due deference to the court, why it has now been decided differently from its decision in 1841.

Judge Willard [agitated and pale]: This argument must cease here. You have my decision, the Books are ruled out, and if unjustly, you have your remedy by going to the Supreme Court.

Mr. Jordan: At great expense and trouble, which amounts to a denial of justice; but I bow to the mandate of the court. Of course I am at liberty to read to the Jury the extracts from [Home As Bound] and published in [Webb's newspaper] containing the review.

Judge Willard: Certainly.

Twice certain editors proposed to start "defense funds" to which all interested parties would contribute to cover the expenses of those to be sued. (Nothing seems to have come of this.) To collect from one of his libelers, Andrew Barber, Cooper got a sheriff to go to Barber's home and force him to open a chest to come up with the money. When William Stone died before paying Cooper the full sum due, Cooper actually tried to get his widow to pay it. (Cooper seems to have eventually given up this pursuit.) Cooper continually wrote letters to newspaper after newspaper, always trying to argue the justice of his cause and the falsity of claims against him, but the more he wrote, the more obsessive and cranky he sounded. Supporters of Cooper, however, insisted that much of the motivation for the attacks was political, launched by Whig Party sympathizers opposed to Cooper and his Democratic Party allies (and some scholars have since supported this charge).

In any case, the various editors never ceased their attacks. Throughout the years, and even in the trials, they sarcastically referred to Cooper as "the handsome Mr. Effingham" or "the amiable Mr. Effingham." These epithets from the novel were intended both to ridicule Cooper's vanity and to enforce their claim that, since he had gone public with his own case against the people of Cooperstown, he had to expect attacks on himself. They also argued that many of Cooper's works in fact libeled his fellow Americans.

Early on, Horace Greeley, the noted editor of the New, York Tribune, aligned himself and his paper on the side of the editors. After being sued for libel and losing, he wrote a mocking article in his paper that included an account of how Cooper had refused to accept the excuse of Thurlow Weed that he could not get to court because his wife and daughter were seriously ill. After a delay, Cooper demanded a judgment and was awarded damages of $400. Of Cooper's behavior, Greeley said that "however it may have sounded to others, it did seem to us rather inhuHallo there! We had like to put our foot right into it again." and then went on to say, "It seemed to us, considering the present relations of the parties, most ungenThere we go again!" But Greeley's attempts at humor were not appreciated by Cooper, who instantly sued him once more for libel, citing these two obvious uncompleted words. This case never came to trial.

Settling Up

With the final decision in December 1845 of a New York State Superior Court that Greeley could not be brought to trial for Greeley's words of innuendo, both sides backed off. Each side could claim victory of sorts. Cooper had won most of his suits, and the $3,060 in settlements was worth a great deal in an age when laborers earned about $500 a year. Cooper had returned to writing novels and regained some of his critical reputation, but he never fully recovered his status in the eyes of his fellow Americans. The editors, meanwhile, had gained a wide public for their opinions of Cooper and his works and had made him look at least quarrelsome. Perhaps the major impact of these suits was the influence they had on the developments of libel law in New York and to some extent in the country as a whole, by establishing the right of libel defendants to present evidence supporting their claims as to the truth of their statements.

John S. Bowman

Suggestions for Further Reading

Adams, Charles H. The Guardian of the Law": Authority and Identity in James Fenimore Cooper. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1999.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Edited by James F.Beard.Volomes 3 and 4 (of 6 volumes). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960-68.

Outland, Ethel R. "The 'Effingham' Libels on Cooper: A Documentary History of the Libel Suits of James Fenimore Cooper" University of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, no. 28 (1929).

Waples, Dorothy. The Whig Myth of James Fenimore Cooper. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1938.