Treasures of the National Archives

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the nation’s record keeper. Although this federal archive houses the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence, it also holds millions of records of ordinary citizens. As a graduate student in Archives and Public History, I want to do nothing more than spend hours absorbed in documents, seeking fantastic stories of lives past, at the National Archives in New York City, located at 1 Bowling Green.

One story I came across at the National Archives in NYC a few months ago (with a little help from their archivist Trina) really jumped out at me – the story of 18th-century New York businesswoman Ann Greenleaf.

The docket containing Ann Greenleaf’s file.

Although there is not much information available about Ann Greenleaf, we know a bit about her husband, Thomas Greenleaf. Thomas was known for his strong opinions against George Washington and the Federalist Party. In 1787, he established his own printing business in New York City, which included two newspapers: New York’s first daily newspaper, called Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser or sometimes The Argus, and a bi-weekly newspaper, Greenleaf’s New York Journal and Patriotic Register. Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser quickly became leading Democratic-Republican daily newspaper.

Bitter partisan warfare has a long history in American politics. By the late 1790s, Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were in open warfare over a variety of ideological and practical issues, sparking vitriolic and divisive debates. In New York City, one politically active woman stood at the center of a major legal controversy.

Thomas Greenleaf was a longtime opponent of the Federalists. His obituary, published in Boston’s Independent Chronicle on September 24, 1798, described him as “unawed by persecution or prosecution,” both of which he apparently experienced frequently.

When Thomas died suddenly of yellow fever in 1798, his widow Ann Greenleaf took over his printing business. Although not much is known about her, we do know that Mrs. Greenleaf’s political views were as strongly anti-Federalist as her husband’s. Like her husband, Ann continued the practice of using newspapers as a political tool to crusade against the John Adams presidential administration and the Federalists. Like her husband, Ann became a target of the Federalist government.

On July 14, 1798, Congress passed the Sedition Act. In short, this act prohibited public opposition to the government. It was specifically aimed at Democratic-Republican newspapers, and it gave the federal government the power to punish though a fine or imprisonment those who “write, print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government.

Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, backed by the Sedition Act, began monitoring Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser for “audacious calumnies against the government.” On February 9, 1799, Ann Greenleaf printed in Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser an article stating her political opposition against the recent Alien and Sedition Acts. In this article, Ann explicitly called the Alien and Sedition Acts “tyrannical and unconstitutional.” Again, on August 31, 1799, Ann Greenleaf printed another article in Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser further criticizing the federal government and asserting the rights of the press.

A bit from the court record, which calls Ann a “wicked Malicious and seditious Person”

These two articles published in Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser were exactly the sort of seditious sentiments that Secretary of State Pickering wanted to make an example of. In 1799, Ann Greenleaf was indicted for sedition in a court in New York. The court charged Mrs. Greenleaf with “wickedly and Maliciously” defaming the government in a deliberate effort to stir up sedition among the public. The full transcript of the indictment against Ann Greenleaf is in the collection of the National Archives in New York City.

Ann Greenleaf’s sedition trial was set for April 1800. However, Ann cunningly avoided her trial by selling the entire newspaper business before 1800. Once Ann Greenleaf no longer owned these papers, she no longer constituted a threat. On the urging of New York District Attorney Richard Harison and with the reluctant support of Pickering, President Adams agreed to drop the prosecution against Ann Greenleaf. She was never formally tried for sedition.

Ann’s story is so fantastic because she was an 18th-century businesswoman, because she was indicted for complaining about the exact (ridiculous!) law under which she was prosecuted, and because she got off. If you want to really dig deep into this story, I have uploaded the Ann Greenleaf court docket, and a transcription of the records, to Google Drive.

Ann’s is just one story of many that you can find in a few hours at the National Archives in NYC. Next time you have a few hours in New York, take some time to dig around their documents and find some treasures on your own!

From the archive,

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