Nicknames for politicians can become powerful symbols in the media. Over the years we’ve come to know “Honest Abe” Lincoln, “Old Hickory” Andrew Jackson, “FDR” Franklin Roosevelt, “Give ’em Hell” Harry Truman, “Ike” Dwight Eisenhower, “Tricky Dick” Richard Nixon, “The Great Communicator” Ronald Reagan and “Slick Willie” Bill Clinton.
Today, “The Donald,” President Donald J. Trump has masterfully used this strategy to his advantage. Immediately we get a meaningful image in our minds when we hear “Creepy Joe.” “Crooked Hillary,” “Pocahontas,” “Leakin’ James” Comey, “Cheatin’ Obama,” “High Tax-High Crime Nancy” and “Low IQ Maxine” Waters.
Where did it all begin?
Long before we heard the lies and nonsense of people like Jim Acosta or Don Lemon who call themselves reporters, there was “The Zenger Case.”
Most Americans today have never heard of it. In fact only a few of the many journalists I know even know about this trial. You have to search all the way back to 1733 to understand it’s importance.
It’s significant because it is accepted by most historians as the establishment of freedom of the press in America.
After John Peter Zenger, publisher of a paper called the “New York Weekly Journal” allowed a series of articles to run in his paper criticizing the Royal Governor of New York, William S. Cosby, he was charged with libel and thrown in jail.
A well-known Philadelphia attorney named Andrew Hamilton (not Alexander Hamilton) offered to defend Zenger.
Andrew Hamilton was a close ally of Benjamin Franklin throughout the 1730s. Franklin was by now the proprietor of his own newspaper. So he had an interest in the outcome of the New York case.
At the end of the trial, Andrew gave an emotional closing that is considered by some to be that greatest argument ever made for the necessity of a free press.
Though instructed by the Judge to rule only on whether Zenger was guilty of printing the material—not whether the material was true—the jury comes back with the verdict “not guilty.”
A standing ovation of “Hurrahs” filled the courtroom. From that point on, dissenting papers across the colonies operated with little to no intervention from the government.
This paved the way to the American Revolution, with two rivaling national political factions in America for the first time: the Whigs (Patriots) and Tories (Loyalist). Both depended on the press to campaign for popular support.
Patriots like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine gained prominence after writing anti-British pamphlets. These essays were widely-circulated to garner support for war.
On top of being a bloody, physical struggle for independence, this war was in many senses, a war of information. There is a long history of punishing dissidents by European tyrants.
Because of this the “Patriots” established freedom press in the Articles of Confederation before they even established their sovereignty through winning the war via the Continental Congress.
To hold the nation together, having a free press was their highest priority. It was of the highest priority to them. As a new constitution was being drafted and being debated in the public sphere, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay famously applied the press to convince the public of the integrity of the document called The Federalist Papers.
After it was ratified, establishing a free press, again, become the highest priority, as it was the first amendment added to the new United States Constitution in our sacred the Bill of Rights.
Eventually, two new political parties emerged: the Federalist and the Democratic-Republicans.
They paid for writers, or “hired guns,” for propaganda. James Thomson Callender, of the Richmond Examiner, became rich printing slanderous articles about the President Adams. He called Adams a ”repulsive pedant,” a “gross hypocrite,” and “one of the most egregious fools upon the continent.”
Others accused Thomas Jefferson of being an atheist. Luther Baldwin was arrested at a parade the President attended when referring to a liberty pole, he wrote. “I hope it hit Adams in the arse!“
The first fist-fight in Congress, in 1798, started Mathew Lyon former journalist turned politician purposely ignored fellow representative Roger Griswold as he was trying to get his attention.
Griswold became increasingly frustrated and screamed “Scoundrel!” (A profane word for the time).
When Lyons challenged Griswold to a fight, Griswold asked him if had brought his “wooden sword” (a reference to Lyons being dismissed from duty in the Revolution.)
Outraged, Lyons spit a mouth full of chewing tobacco on Griswold. Violence overtook the room. From that point on Lyon would be known in the press as the “Spitting Lyon.”