First Comic Fuels Political Feud

First Comic Fuels Political Feud

On this day in 1802, The Wasp, considered to be the first comic book, was published.

Through the years, comics have often concealed political allegory and rhetoric, and thus it is not surprising that the very first “comic” was a small sheet attacking then US President Thomas Jefferson. In fact, it was so incendiary that it caused a court case—The People of the State of New York v. Harry Croswell—that proved critical to the development of the United States defamation law.

Although The Wasp was published under the pseudonym “Robert Rusticoat,” it was actually the work of one Harry Croswell. He had grown up in the village of Catskill, New York, but in 1801 he moved across the Hudson River to the thriving city of Hudson. He was only 22 at the time. He supported the Federalist Party of John Adams, who was then still serving as the second President of America. The party was focused on a fiscally sound, nationalistic government, and was supported by newspapers such as The Balance and Columbian Repository, which Croswell started writing for.

Also in 1801, a journalist with very different political sympathies arrived in Hudson to make his fortune: Charles Holt, a Democratic-Republican from Connecticut. Holt was an opponent of Adams and a supporter of Thomas Jefferson, and he started his own paper called The Bee to counteract the bias of The Balance.

Croswell was outraged, so he convinced the editor of The Balance to allow him to start another small paper specifically to launch stinging attacks on The Bee; he called it The Wasp. However, rather than releasing it under his own name, he disguised his identity under the alias Robert Rusticoat. Because of The Wasp‘s use of satirical illustrations, it is now considered to be the first comic (although admittedly in a very different form from contemporary comics like Sin City or Watchmen).

On 4 March 1801, Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as the third President, transferring power from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans, and from The Wasp to The Bee. In 1804 a criminal libel case was brought against Harry Croswell, as he was accused of slandering public officials including Jefferson. However his defence, Anthony Hamilton, successfully argued that he was only reporting the truth, and that truthful statements should never be considered defamatory, even if they concerned the President of the United States. In the end, Croswell was never sentenced, and in 1805 the New York Legislature wrote Hamilton’s argument into law. The Wasp‘s final sting.


Credit: © GL Archive / Alamy
Caption: The world’s first comic attacked US President Thomas Jefferson, and caused a court case.