Zenger, John Peter

views updated Jun 08 2018

Zenger, John Peter



July 28, 1746

New York, New York

Printer and journalist, pioneer of freedom of the press

" . . . They answered by Thomas Bunt, their Foreman, Not Guilty. Upon which there were three Huzzas in the hall which was crowded with people, and the next day I was discharged from my imprisonment."

From the account of John Peter Zenger's trial.

John Peter Zenger was a German-born printer and journalist who published the New-York Weekly Journal. The newspaper was a political forum for colonists who opposed the policies of New York governor William Cosby. Although Zenger did not write the articles he published, he was responsible for their content. Charged with libel (making a false statement that exposes another person to public contempt) in 1734, he was arrested and held in jail for ten months. After he finally went to trial his lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, won an acquittal (not-guilty verdict) that established the first victory for freedom of the press (the right of newspapers to print truthful information) in the American colonies.

Apprenticed to prominent printer

John Peter Zenger was born in Germany in 1697. At age thirteen he sailed to the New York colony with his parents, brother, and sister. His father (whose name is not known) died during the voyage, leaving Zenger's mother, Johanna, to care for the family. In 1711 Zenger went to work as an apprentice (one who learns an art or trade in exchange for doing work) with printing pioneer William Bradford (see box). When Zenger completed his apprenticeship in 1719 he married Mary White, who died a short time later. In 1720 he relocated to Chestertown, Maryland, where he was granted the authority to print the session laws (laws passed during official meetings) of the Maryland Assembly (legislative body). Within two years Zenger had returned to New York. In 1722 he married Anna Catherine Maulin, and the next year he became a freeman (one who has full rights of a citizen) of the city. After a brief partnership with Bradford, Zenger started his own business in 1726. Over the next seven years he printed mainly political and religious pamphlets, which were written in the Dutch language. In 1730 he printed Arithmetica by Peter Venema, the first arithmetic text published in New York.

William Bradford

In 1711 John Peter Zenger went to work as an apprentice for American printing pioneer William Bradford (1663–1752; not to be confused with William Bradford, founder of Plymouth, Massachusetts). Bradford began his career in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he started the first printing press as well as the first paper mill in the American colonies. Bradford was also the defendant in the first court case involving freedom of the press in the United States. In the early 1690s he was arrested for printing a pamphlet that was critical of the Quaker government in the Pennsylvania colony. Bradford was put on trial but no verdict was reached. The not-guilty verdict in the Zenger trial in 1735 is therefore considered the first significant victory for freedom of the press in America.

Prints controversial newspaper

The turning point in Zenger's life occurred in 1733, when he was appointed editor of the New-York Weekly Journal, a new political paper. Earlier, Cosby had angered New York residents by dismissing Lewis Morris as chief justice (principal judge of the colonial court) and replacing him with James De Lancey, a Cosby ally. The Journal was started by lawyers, merchants, and other citizens who thought Cosby had misused his powers as governor. New York was a royal colony—that is, it was controlled by the British monarchy, which appointed the governor. (Founded by Dutch proprietor Peter Stuyvesant [see entry] in 1645, New York was taken over by the English in 1664.) Staging a revolt, they organized the newspaper as a forum for their opinions. Upon taking the position with the Journal, Zenger found himself in opposition to his former mentor, Bradford, who published the progovernment New York Gazette, the first newspaper in New York.

Charged with libel

The first issue of the Journal appeared on November 5, 1733. Since Zenger had not fully mastered the English language, he did not write any major articles. Most of the pieces, which accused Cosby of governing without the will of the people, were probably written by the backers of the newspaper. Yet Zenger as publisher was responsible for every word. After the Journal had been running for nearly a year, the New York council (law-making body) decided to punish Zenger. They ordered the burning of four especially offensive issues of the Journal. Court officials refused to carry out the order, however, and the sheriff's African slave finally burned the papers. Zenger was arrested within a few days and his bail (payment for freedom from imprisonment before a trial) was set at four hundred pounds (a sum of British money), plus two hundred pounds in bail insurance. He could not raise the funds, so he was sent to prison. For several days he was held in isolation, then he spent almost ten months behind bars. During this time Anna Zenger published the newspaper each week, smuggling her husband's instructions out of the prison.

Andrew Hamilton

Andrew Hamilton (1676?–1741) was a prominent colonial American lawyer. Born in Scotland, he emigrated to Maryland, where he practiced law. He then moved to Pennsylvania, becoming attorney general in 1717. Hamilton was brought into the Zenger libel case in New York after all of Zenger's lawyers were disbarred by the administration of Governor William Cosby. As publisher of the antigovernment newspaper New-York Weekly Journal, Zenger had been jailed and charged with printing false statements about Cosby. Hamilton presented a brilliant defense of Zenger, winning a not-guilty verdict from the jury and thus establishing truth as a defense against charges of libel.

Freedom of press established

Zenger was brought to trial for criminal libel in April 1735. His attorneys immediately challenged the appointment of the politically powerful Chief Justice De Lancey, who was obviously loyal to Cosby, to preside over the trial. The Cosby administration then disbarred (expelled from the legal profession) Zenger's attorneys and the case was delayed until August. By this time Zenger was being represented by Andrew Hamilton, a Philadelphia attorney and the most prominent lawyer in the American colonies. Presenting the case for the New York

The trial of John Peter Zenger

In 1736 Andrew Hamilton wrote a word-for-word account of the trial (under Zenger's name) in which he was accused of publishing libelous statements against the governor of New York, William Cosby. The following excerpts from Zenger's report represent the views of the major figures in the trial: New York attorney general Richard Bradley argued the government's case against Zenger; Andrew Hamilton was the lawyer who successfully defended Zenger; and Chief Justice James De Lancey, the presiding judge and a Cosby ally, attempted to prevent jury members from reaching their own verdict.

Attorney General Bradley: . . . The case before the Court is, whether Mr. Zenger is guilty of libelling [making false statements about] his Excellency the Governor of New-York, and indeed the whole Administration of the Government. Mr. Hamilton has confessed the printing and publishing, and I think nothing is plainer, than that the words in the information are scandalous, and tend to sedition [inciting resistance to lawful authority] and to disquiet the minds of the people of this province. And if such papers are not libels, I think it may be said, there can be no such thing as a libel.

Mr. Hamilton: . . . the question before the court and you, gentlemen of the jury, is not of small nor private concern, it is not the cause of a poor printer, nor of New-York alone, which you are now trying; No! It may in its consequence, affect every freeman that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty; and I make no doubt but your upright conduct, this day, will not only entitle you to the love and esteem of your fellow-citizens; but every man, who prefers freedom to a life of slavery, will bless and honour you, as men who have baffled the attempt of tyranny [oppressive power]; and by an impartial and uncorrupt verdict, have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our posterity [all future generations], and our neighbours, that to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right—the liberty—both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power (in these parts of the world, at least) by speaking and writing truth. . . .

Mr. Chief Justice: Gentlemen of the jury. The great pains Mr. Hamilton has taken, to show how little regard juries are to pay to the opinion of the judges; and his insisting so much upon the conduct of some judges in trials of this kind; is done, no doubt, with a design that you should take but very little notice of what I may say upon this occasion. I shall therefore only observe to you that, as the facts or words in the information are confessed: the only thing that can come in question before you is, whether the words, as set forth in the information, make a libel. And that is a matter of law, no doubt, and which you may leave to the court. . . .

Zenger : The Jury withdrew, and in a small time returned, and being asked by the clerk, whether they were agreed of their verdict, and whether John Peter Zenger was guilty of printing and publishing libels in the information mentioned? They answered by Thomas Bunt, their Foreman, Not Guilty. Upon which there were three Huzzas [shouts of acclaim] in the hall which was crowded with people, and the next day I was discharged from my imprisonment.

Reprinted in: Colbert, David, ed. Eyewitness to America.

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government was Richard Bradley, the attorney general (chief government law officer). In opening arguments at trial Hamilton pleaded that jury members were capable of deciding whether Zenger had printed truths or falsehoods, without guidance from presiding judge De Lancey. De Lancey denied this request, saying a judge is was more qualified to interpret the laws. Nevertheless, Hamilton proceeded to address his arguments directly to the jury.

When the time came to render the verdict, the jury ignored De Lancey's instructions. They concluded that Zenger's articles were based on fact, therefore finding him not guilty. The decision was cheered by spectators in the courtroom and later hailed by the general public. The verdict, which established the truth as a defense against libel charges, is considered the first significant victory for freedom of the press in America. The following year Zenger wrote a word-for-word account of the trial, which was published as A Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger (1736). His report was subsequently issued in several editions and generated considerable interest in the American colonies and in Britain.

In 1737 Zenger was appointed public printer for New York, and the next year he was awarded the same position in New Jersey. Although he had risen in his profession, he and his family continued to live in poverty. Zenger died in 1746, leaving his wife and six children. Anna Zenger published the Journal until December 1748. John Zenger, one of Zenger's sons from his first marriage, then managed the newspaper until it ceased publication in 1751.

For further research

Colbert, David, ed. Eyewitness to America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997, pp. 41–44.

Krensky, Stephen. The Printer's Apprentice. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers, 1996.

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

John Peter Zenger

views updated May 14 2018

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). □

Zenger, John Peter

views updated May 23 2018


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.


Libel and Slander; Sedition.

Zenger, John Peter

views updated Jun 27 2018

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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