1 minute read

James Fenimore Cooper Libel Trials: 1839-45

The First Trespassers, The Legal Suits, Sideshows And Footnotes, Settling Up, Suggestions For Further Reading

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 Mohicanswere 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.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882