Philadelphia: 1758. Single sheet measuring 12 ½ x 7 ½ inches, some tears with loss at lower edge, very good condition. From the collection of Edward D. Ingraham, Esq., and printed in facsimile in Jay Smith and John Watson’s American Historical and Literary Curiosities; Fac-similes of Original Documents Pertaining to the Revolution (New York, George Putnam, 1852). Notes on verso read “The King vs. John Key / Thos. Overand is qualified to give evidence to the Grand Jury [two illegible signatures]. Reinforced in center, with a note in pencil saying “Indictment Feb. Sessions 1758 (covered up by this strip of paper)”. Very Good. Item #List2020
A scarce record of a seditious libel case in colonial Pennsylvania, this indictment accuses the Philadelphia blacksmith John Key of uttering the words “Damn King George” in the company of others. Seditious libel laws arrived in America with the first British colonists, and the most famous example of a trial on the subject was the John Peter Zenger case of 1735. The concept would live on in modified form after the revolution in the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 and would live on in varied form until New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the 1964 Supreme Court ruling that deemed the 1798 act unconstitutional. This document was borrowed from the collection of Edward D. Ingraham, the attorney from Philadelphia, and used in a Smith and Watson’s American Historical and Literary Curiosities; Fac-similes of Original Documents Pertaining to the Revolution. We find no other examples in auction records of legal cases relating to seditious libel in colonial America, making this a rare and interesting document in the history of free speech and relating as well to the sentiments that led to revolution.
Full text follows.
City of Philad'a to wit
The Grand Inquest for our Sovereign Lord the King for the City of Philad' upon their Oath & affirmation respectively do present That John Key, late of Philad'a, Blacksmith, being a pernicious & seditious man, designing & intending the people of this province of Pennsylvania to hatred & dislike of the person of our Sovereign Lord George the Second by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France & Ireland, King Defender of the Faith &c. to excite and induce the fifteenth day of December in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred & fifty seven at the City of Philad'a & within the jurisdiction of this Court, in the presence and hearing of divers liege subjects of the sd. Lord the King, with whom the sd. John Key then & there had conversation of & concerning the sd. Lord the now King, wickedly, maliciously & seditiously did speak, publish, utter & declare these English words following, to wit, Damn King George, to the great scandal & contempt of the sd. Lord the now King & his Laws, to the evil & pernicious example of all others in such cases offending, & also against the peace of our said Sovereign Lord the now King, his Crown and Dignity, &c.
Edw'd Shippen, Atty p. [..?..]
pleads not guilty.