Story of John Peter Zenger and the Freedom of the Press in America

In October of 1710, a thirteen-year-old German immigrant named John Peter Zenger apprenticed himself to printer William Bradford in New York. Although Zenger’s occupation as a printer would ultimately throw his life into turmoil, that turmoil would define what it meant to have freedom of the press.

After an eight year apprenticeship, a failed attempt to set up shop in Chestertown, Maryland, and the death of his first wife, Zenger found himself back in New York. He remarried and became a journeyman printer for his old master. The two eventually became partners, but their different personalities clashed, and Zenger left to set up his own shop in 1726.

zenger Trouble arrived six years later in the form of Colonel William Cosby. Dishonest, pompous, and badly educated, he had nonetheless married well. His place in English aristocracy alone had gained him the appointment as Governor of New York.

The appointment got off to a bad start. Cosby demanded that the interim governor, Rip Van Dam, give Cosby half of the salary Van Dam had earned during his brief time in office. Van Dam refused, and Cosby took him to court. In an effort to secure the outcome he desired, Cosby declared that the court would progress through equity jurisdiction, ensuring that the popular Van Dam would be tried without a jury. A disgusted Chief Justice Lewis Morris dismissed the case in April of 1733. Cosby, infuriated, dismissed Chief Justice Morris, and the city split into the Court Party and the Popular Party.

Knowing the reason that the Popular Party was called ‘popular,’ Cosby attempted to rig the Westchester election of October, 1733 in favor of his own Court Party. The attempt, though it failed, did nothing to help Cosby’s failing reputation. On November 1, 1733, John Peter Zenger – determined that the governor’s misconduct should not go unnoticed – published the first edition of The Weekly Journal: the voice of the Popular Party.

The Journal forced Cosby to back away from the Van Dam case, then continued flinging accusations at the governor and his cronies, bringing every injustice committed into the public eye. “A Governor turns rogue, does a thousand things for which a small rogue would have deserved a halter,” said an article in the January 21, 1734 edition of the Journal, “and because it is difficult if not impracticable to obtain relief against him; therefore it is prudent to keep in with him and join in the roguery ….”

At last, Cosby had enough. Zenger was arrested on November 17, 1734 for seditious libel. When he finally came into court in April of 1735, Zenger was defended by brilliant lawyers James Alexander and William Smith. But Cosby would have none of this. Both men were almost immediately excluded from the bar, and John Chambers was appointed to act as Zenger’s lawyer. Zenger entered a plea of not guilty, and the date of the trial was set for August 4, 1735.

Zenger’s friends were not idle. His wife Anna Catherine, a determined Dutch woman, took over the paper and the print shop almost as soon as her husband was arrested. Chambers was a borderline supporter of the Court Party, but he proved his usefulness as a lawyer in July. When the governor-controlled court attempted to rig the jury, Chambers demanded that the forty-eight men be chosen at random from the voter’s book, as usual. James Alexander’s wife went quietly to Philadelphia to find Zenger another lawyer to assist Chambers, and Judge Morris wrote an article on the duties and privileges of the members of a jury that was published in the Journal the week before the trial.

On August 4th, at nine o’ clock, the famous Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger began. To Zenger’s surprise, James Alexander appeared in the courtroom. His wife had been successful, and they brought Zenger another lawyer: the experienced and talented Andrew Hamilton.

The duel of words between Prosecuting Attorney General Richard Bradley and Andrew Hamilton lasted for hours. Bradley argued that for the respect of public officials to be maintained, anything said or printed against them must be named and charged as libel. But the statements Zenger had printed were true, Hamilton countered. And if the crimes were true, and if the complaints were justified, then how could protests against injustice and criminal action be libel?

“[Everyone] who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you,” Hamilton told the jury, “as men who have baffled the attempt of tyranny and by an impartial and uncorrupt verdict have laid a noble foundation for securing … that to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right: the liberty of exposing and opposing arbitrary power, by speaking and writing truth!” It took a mere ten minutes for the jury to find Zenger not guilty. The press would be free.

free speech trialThe case of John Peter Zenger was a landmark. Gouverneur Morris, the grandson of Judge Morris and the man who wrote the final draft of the Constitution of the United States, called the Zenger case “the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.” It formed the foundation for the freedom of speech rights found in the First Amendment and has served as a precedent for over two centuries as a case in which the people of a nation may check a rouge government by simply printing the truth about it.

For those who do not think history matters much, consider this: The trial of John Peter Zenger is an important reason why you can enjoy free speech on the Internet. Especially those in the U.S. and other nations where freedom of speech has been instituted as the rule of law. We are free to read, write and speak our opinions about the government and others in positions of power. Before John Peter Zenger, ‘libel’ was considered any written of spoken opinion that made the government and/or the ‘king’ look bad. There was no "speaking truth to power". Many in the world still do not enjoy this right. Those who do are those who were and are close to ‘ground zero’ where this historical event took place. History is not ‘yesterday’, history is what created our ‘today’.

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