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History is the narration of the past, and not all valuable history is true. When William Smith, Jr. first wrote his much-admired and widely distributed History of the Province of New-York, in 1756, he ended his narration twenty-four years before his own time, with the arrival of Governor William Cosby in New York on August 1, 1732. In justification of his abrupt termination at this particular point, Smith wrote:

The history of our publick transactions, from this period, to the present time, is full of important and entertaining events, which I leave others to relate. A very near relation to the authour had so great a concern in the publick controversies with Colonel Cosby, that the history of those times will be better received from a more disinterested pen. To suppress truth on the one hand, or exaggerate it, on the other, are both inexcusable faults, and perhaps it would be difficult for me to avoid those extremes.

In his twenty-ninth year, already an important and rising member of the New York Bar, Smith was unwilling to describe the role played by his father, still living and soon – in 1760 – to refuse the Chief Justiceship of the Province, in the political turmoil of the Cosby Administration. To modern readers, trained to view those times through the lens of a single famous event, William Smith, Jr. begged off from telling the story of the Zenger Case.


Law | Law and Politics | Legal History


This article originally appeared in 94 Colum. L. Rev. 1524 (1994). Reprinted by permission.