Duh! is a weekly column that gives circuitous answers to obvious questions. If you dig it, you can find 100 more of these essays in the Geeks Who Drink book, Duh!.
Situated a mere five miles from the Bronx’s Pelham Bay, Mount Vernon is as close as you can get to New York City without being in New York City.1 It was also an important stop on the route to free speech in America!
In 1733, Vernonians elected one Lewis Morris to be their state congressman. That’s the same Lewis Morris who had up until recently been New York’s Chief Justice, before he was fired in a fit of pique by the new-ish Crown-appointed tin-pot dictator, Governor William Cosby (no relation). Why did Cosby fire him? Mostly for calling him all those things we just called him.
Anyway, the election confirmed that Morris was much more popular than Cosby in that neck of the woods. In fact, Cosby had tried to rig the election by disenfranchising Morris-leaning Quakers, but Morris won even on that tilted playing field. So naturally the Morrisites were feeling their oats, and immediately recruited a German-born religious-tract publisher named John Peter Zenger to start the colony’s second newspaper, The New York Weekly Journal, for the express purpose of publishing more sick burns.2
Cosby let that shit slide for all of two months, before having Zenger arrested on charges of seditious libel… because at the time, “libel” meant any anti-government publication done “without lawful excuse or justification,” whether it was true or not.3 Empires, right?
Committing to the bit, the governor hauled Zenger straight up before the Supreme Court, meaning that his trial would be presided over by loyalist Chief Justice James Delancey … yes, the very guy Cosby had appointed to replace Mean Mr. Morris. Delancey played the henchman role to a tee, promptly disbarring Zenger’s lawyers and assigning him a Cosby-aligned public defender. The ex-lawyers responded to that by roping in America’s most successful and famous attorney, Andrew Hamilton – who was literally in the middle of overseeing the construction of a large building on Chestnut Street in his native Philadelphia that would come to be known as the Independence Hall. Whew!
Hamilton told the grand jury in Crown v. Zenger that they must acquit his client for “the best cause… the cause of liberty.” An unbowed Justice Delancey ordered the grand jury to convict Zenger if they merely believed Zenger had printed the disses, which the defense of course was not even denying. The jury deliberated for about 10 minutes before telling Delancey to get bent – and two generations later, Lewis’s grandson Gouverneur Morris wrote the Preamble to Constitution of the United Freakin’ States.
Two hundred and seventeen years after their Cosby snub, Mount Vernon gave us Denzel Washington. And 47 years after that, Denzel gave us the following immortal lines:
- Didn’t know you liked to get wet, dog.
- I’m the zig-zag man. Who the fuck are you?
- You wanna walk your baby nuts around the block, you won’t make it to the corner.
He won an Oscar for that!
- So close, in fact, that an 1894 ballot initiative gave them the option of becoming part of what would soon become The Bronx. The voters declined, citing the imminent danger of becoming associated – even by marriage – with Ben Affleck.
- This is not where we get the word “zingers,” but dammit, it should be.
- Not surprisingly, the Journal itself disagreed: “Whoever calls publick and necessary Truths Libels, does apprise us of his own Character, and Arms us with Caution against his Designs.” That’s a ZengerTM!