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John Peter Zenger

John Peter Zenger

John Peter Zenger (1697-1746), American printer, was selected to print a weekly newspaper by a faction of influential men opposed to a governor of New York. Zenger was charged with libel and acquitted. The case has forever associated his name with the cause of freedom of speech and of the press in America.

John Peter Zenger was born in a part of the Rhine country of Germany called the Palatinate. This area was a prime source of emigration to America because the country had been impoverished by a succession of wars and the extravagance of the local rulers. In 1710, 3,000 Palatinate refugees were sent by Queen Anne of England in order to establish the production of naval stores in New York. In return for seven years of labor, the emigrants were promised grants of land. Bad fortune began when a fourth of their number died during a disastrous voyage; the scheme led to bitter experiences even for those who survived. Among the dead was the father of 13-year-old John Peter Zenger, whose mother arrived in the New World with three children to care for.

Apprentice Years

In 1711 Zenger was apprenticed for 8 years to William Bradford, one of the pioneers of American printing. When he completed his apprenticeship, Zenger moved to Chestertown, Md., to make his own living. Though he was named to print the session laws of the legislature, he apparently did not prosper there and in 1722 returned to New York. For a short time he entered a partnership with Bradford, then in 1726 again started his own business. Much of what he printed was in Dutch; little was important, except for the first arithmetic printed in New York. He was neither thriving nor influential. His first wife had died, and in 1722 he had married again.

The colony of New York was faction-ridden. A brief period of internal peace ended with the arrival in 1732 of the new governor, William Cosby, who wished to use the post to enhance his own fortunes. Cosby's high-handedness and greed conflicted with the self-esteem and greed of other New Yorkers. When, in the middle of a rather squalid financial case, Cosby summarily removed the chief justice, Lewis Morris, Morris assembled a faction of powerful men whose economic goals were being thwarted by the governor. The Morris group gained considerable popular support in the city of New York. There followed a period of intense party warfare. The government controlled the only newspaper, the Gazette, which happened to be printed by Zenger's old master, William Bradford.

New York Political Squabbles

The Morris faction, needing a newspaper for its barbs against the government, selected Zenger as their printer. On Nov. 5, 1733, the first issue of the New-York Weekly Journal appeared. It was not printed well, and Zenger's command of English was poor. But most of the writing was done by the Morris group, particularly by the brilliant James Alexander. The paper soon attracted a popular following with its sharp criticism of the government. Besides articles on Cosby's policies, there were poems making fun of the governor. Since the opposition faction had to be concerned about freedom of speech, Alexander's essays took a much more advanced position on this issue than would be common in America for many years. Bradford's Gazette, on the other hand, took the more usual position that governments depended on the unflagging loyalty of their subjects.

Zenger Case

As publisher, Zenger was by law responsible for what appeared in the Journal. Cosby decided the paper must be suppressed, though early efforts were unsuccessful. On Nov. 17, 1734, Zenger was arrested for printing seditious and libelous material. In another of the government's high-handed actions, Alexander and another lawyer, who were to defend Zenger, were swiftly disbarred. But Alexander obtained the services of Andrew Hamilton, a prominent Philadelphian who had no reason to fear New York intrigues.

Hamilton made an eloquent and dramatic presentation to the jury. He argued for an enlarged role for the jury, as opposed to the judges, in libel cases. He also insisted that the truth of the charges was crucial in deciding whether or not what had been said was unlawful. Both of these arguments contradicted established legal practice. Customarily, judges instructed juries as to the law, and harsh attacks on the government were seditious even if they were true. But Hamilton carried the day. Zenger, who had been in jail for nearly ten months, was freed.

Zenger's paper had continued to appear during his imprisonment. His wife was acknowledged as the printer, as she would be again after his death in 1746. In prison Zenger had been a useful martyr for the Morris forces. With the political compromises that followed the trial, he received a good deal of patronage printing. Throughout, he had managed to remain obscure. But the trial that bore his name became synonymous with freedom of the press.

Significance of the Case

Actually the case had little effect on freedom for printers afterward. It was a fluke in colonial law. It did not limit the power of legislatures to suppress printers. Not until the end of the 18th century would there be many consistent advocates of freedom of expression.

In a way, the Zenger case was an isolated episode in the political infighting of one colony. In other ways, it did foreshadow future developments in the freedoms of Americans. Alexander used the case to give voice to some of the most advanced thoughts about liberty that an educated man of his time could encounter. And the decision of the jury, ignoring the demands of English law, revealed the way in which new situations in America might transform old beliefs and old loyalties.

Further Reading

A good introduction to the case which made Zenger famous was written by his contemporary James Alexander, A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger (1736). It was reprinted with a helpful introduction by the editor Stanley Nider Katz (1963). Also important for understanding the Zenger case is Leonard W. Levy, Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History (1960). Levy straightens out much of the confusion surrounding the meaning of the case. Biographies of Zenger are Livingston Rutherford, John Peter Zenger (1904), and Irving G. Cheslaw, John Peter Zenger and "The New-York Weekly Journal" (1952). □

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Zenger, John Peter

ZENGER, JOHN PETER

In August of 1735 John Peter Zenger, a printer for the New York Weekly Journal, was prosecuted for seditious libel. Although Zenger may have been technically guilty of the crime as it was then defined by english law, a jury made up of twelve Americans acquitted the defendant in one of the earliest acts of colonial resistance to British authority during the eighteenth century.

Zenger printed the allegedly seditious articles following a legal dispute between two public officials, William Cosby and Rip Van Dam. Cosby was appointed governor of New York in 1731, but did not officially take office until 1732. During the interim, Van Dam, the current governor, continued to discharge his official responsibilities, and collect a salary. Cosby, believing that he was entitled to the salary collected by Van Dam during this period, sued the lame duck governor for restitution. When the New York Supreme Court decided in favor of Van Dam, Cosby removed Chief Justice Lewis Morris and replaced him with James DeLancey, a judge who was friendlier to the new governor.

On November 1, 1733, the first issue of the New York Weekly Journal appeared. The Journal was financially supported by Morris, edited by Van Dam's attorney, and printed by Zenger, a German immigrant with little education. In a series of articles, the Journal accused Cosby of conspiring to persecute the inhabitants of New York and tainting their judicial system. Since Cosby had altered the composition of the state supreme court by replacing a political adversary with a political ally, the articles printed in the Journal possessed a kernel of truth.

In January of 1734 Cosby attempted to imprison Zenger for seditious libel, but DeLancey failed to convince a grand jury to indict him. Ten months later a second grand jury declined to indict Zenger, prompting the governor's council to command the destruction of all offensive Journal articles. When a third grand jury refused to issue an indictment against Zenger, Cosby ordered his attorney general to charge Zenger with seditious libel by "information," an alternative legal procedure by which criminal proceedings may be instituted against a defendant.

The information accused Zenger of having printed several false, scandalous, and defamatory articles that tended to bring the governor into disrepute. The case was tried before the New York Supreme Court and Chief Justice DeLancey. Zenger's lawyers, Alexander and william smith, challenged the jurisdiction of the court to hear the dispute, and questioned DeLancey's impartiality. In response, DeLancey disbarred both attorneys. Subsequently, Andrew Hamilton, one of the most noted advocates in the colonies, agreed to represent Zenger for the trial's duration.

The nub of Hamilton's defense rested upon the veracity of the articles printed in the Journal. Acknowledging that truth was not a defense to seditious libel under the common law of England, Hamilton suggested that Americans enjoyed greater freedom than citizens of Great Britain, including the right to print truthful criticisms of the government and its officials. A published allegation of official misconduct, Hamilton argued, does not amount to libel unless proven false by the government.

DeLancey instructed the jurors to consider only the factual question of whether Zenger had printed or published the articles in issue. The court said it would decide the legal question of whether they were libelous. However, Hamilton had earlier intimated that the jurors enjoyed the prerogative to ignore the judge's instructions, and render a verdict according to their collective conscience and the interests of justice. Contemporary observers reported that the jurors took only a "small time" before returning a verdict of "not guilty."

Zenger's trial served as a fountainhead for two different principles of American law. First, the Zenger trial represents the first case in America in which truth was asserted as a defense to an action for libel. Although Americans were denied this defense under the common law of many jurisdictions during the two centuries that followed the Zenger trial, truth is now a constitutionally protected defense under the first amendment. In new york times co. v. sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S. Ct. 710, 11 L. Ed. 2d 686 (1964), the U.S. Supreme Court cited the Zenger trial as one of the building blocks in this area of libel law.

Second, the Zenger trial represents one of the first cases in which jury nullification was exercised in America. During the 1990s state and federal courts continue to recognize the right of juries to disregard the law and acquit certain defendants in order to prevent oppression by the government or to otherwise promote the interests of justice. This prerogative, which stems from the jury's role as the conscience of the community, is not formally acknowledged in a number of jurisdictions. However, in those jurisdictions that do recognize it, at least one court has pointed out that "[t]he roots of jury nullification in this country reach back to 1735 and the prosecution of Peter Zenger for seditious libel" U.S. v. Datcher, 830 F.Supp. 411 (M.D. Tenn. 1993).

further readings

Alexander, James. 2001. A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger: Printer of the New York Weekly Journal. Birmingham, Ala.: Palladium.

Glendon., William R. 1996. "The Trial of John Peter Zenger." New York State Bar Journal 68 (December).

Putnam, William Lowell. 1997. John Peter Zenger and the Fundamental Freedom. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.

cross-references

Libel and Slander; Sedition.

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Zenger, John Peter

John Peter Zenger (zĕng´ər), 1697–1746, American journalist, b. Germany. He emigrated to America in 1710 and was trained as a printer by William Bradford (1663–1752). Zenger began publication of the New York Weekly Journal in 1733, an opposition paper to Bradford's New York Gazette and to the policies of Gov. William Cosby. Zenger's newspaper, backed by several prominent lawyers and merchants, truculently attacked the administration. Although most of the articles were written by Zenger's backers, Zenger was legally responsible and was arrested on libel charges and imprisoned (1734). In the celebrated trial that followed (1735) Zenger was defended by Andrew Hamilton, who established truth as a defense in cases of libel. The trial, which resulted in the publisher's acquittal, helped to establish freedom of the press in America. Zenger later became public printer for the colonies of New York (1737) and New Jersey (1738).

See biography by L. Rutherford (1904, repr. 1970); V. Buranelli, ed., The Trial of Peter Zenger (1957, repr. 1985).

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Zenger, John Peter

Zenger, John Peter (1697–1746) US printer and journalist, b. Germany. Editor of the New York Weekly Journal (1733), he attacked Governor William Cosby and was jailed for libel in 1734. He was later tried by a jury and acquitted. His case established truth as a defence for libel and made Zenger a symbol of the freedom of the press. He was public printer of New York (1737) and New Jersey (1738).

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