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James Fenimore Cooper Libel Trials: 1839-45

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 court—it took 11 hours—and 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 inhu—Hallo 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 ungen—There 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.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882James Fenimore Cooper Libel Trials: 1839-45 - The First Trespassers, The Legal Suits, Sideshows And Footnotes, Settling Up, Suggestions For Further Reading