John Peter Zenger

John Peter Zenger

(1697-1746)

A colonial pioneer for freedom of the press, John Peter Zenger was born in Germany and came to America with his family in 1710. As a young boy, Zenger served an apprenticeship with William Bradford, the official printer of the colony of New York. By the time he was 30, Zenger set up his own printing business, where he specialized in printing Dutch-language works.

William Cosby became the royal governor of New York in 1732. Soon, his policies and his behavior angered many prominent New Yorkers. In 1733, several important colonists sponsored Zenger in his attempt to start a colonial government. Zenger’s New-York Weekly Journal made its first appearance on November 5, 1733.

All of the written articles were anonymous, and Zenger took complete responsibility for what was published. For months, the paper strongly criticized Governor Cosby and his group of advisers. This drew the fury of the governor and his council.

On November 17, 1734, Zenger was imprisoned by order of the council. He was charged with seditious libel and held for an enormous bail—three or four times what he made from his paper in an entire year. Zenger remained in prison, and with help still managed to print the newspaper.When the matter came to trial on August 4, 1735, Zenger’s case looked bleak.

Then to everyone’s surprise, a Philadelphia attorney named Andrew Hamilton volunteered to argue Zenger’s case. Hamilton was perhaps the most famous trial lawyer in the colonies. From the beginning, Hamilton admitted that Zenger had published the paper; however, Hamilton denied that the charges made in the paper were false.

He claimed that for a libel to be proved, it must be both false and malicious. However, the judge—a Cosby appointee—ruled that the only issue in ques-tion was whether Zenger had published the words, not whether the articles were true. Hamilton knew then that his only chance to win his case was through his summation to the jury.

In a stirring speech, Hamilton maintained that the only defense against the wicked and powerful—and the only guarantee of liberty —was to speak and print the truth. Hamilton urged the jury to consider whether it was indeed libel to print statements that were in fact true.

When the jury returned, the foreman Thomas Hunt pronounced a loud verdict of “Not Guilty.” Zenger was freed.Zenger went on to become the public printer for New York, and then for New Jersey as well. His case helped establish the right to a free press in North America.