Zenger, Anna Catharina (c. 1704–1751)

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Zenger, Anna Catharina (c. 1704–1751)

American printer who ran the New-York Weekly Journal, the first woman to publish a newspaper in America, when her husband John Peter Zenger was imprisoned and tried for seditious libel in one of the most important political trials in American history. Name variations: Anne Catharine Zenger; Anna Catharina Maul; Anna Catharina Maule; Anna Catherine Maule; Anna Catharina Maulin; Anna Catherine Maulin; Anna Maul Zenger. Born Anna Catharina Maul, place unknown, around 1704; died in 1751; married John Peter Zenger (1697–1746, the printer), on September 11, 1722; children: five and one stepson.

Continued to print and publish the New-York Weekly Journal after her husband's death (1746); retired (1748), after having passed her responsibilities on to her son.

Although free white women in the 13 colonies were not legally equal to men, they often were able to exercise considerable de facto social and economic freedom in contrast to what they were permitted in Great Britain. This was particularly true in the case of widows, who often took over their husbands' businesses after their deaths. Left with families—and themselves—to support, they had little choice but to continue with enterprises that had sustained them earlier. At least 14 women have been identified as having worked as printers in America before the start of the Revolution in 1776. The first was Elizabeth Harris Glover , who was on the high seas in 1638 en route to Massachusetts when her husband died. Widowed, she became the proprietor of the first printing press to be brought to that fledgling colony. She had the press set up in Boston and took off the first imprint the following year. Two years later, she married Henry Dunster, president of Harvard College, and thereupon retired from active participation in the printing business.

Dinah Nuthead of Annapolis, Maryland, was suddenly faced with running a printing establishment, but she lacked professional qualifications for the job (she was illiterate). Surviving records indicate, however, that she was able to continue the business successfully. In her case, the actual work was most likely carried out by a journeyman printer. Other women were clearly able to achieve excellence as printers when thrust into the profession. In Virginia, Clementina Rind , who published the Virginia Gazette between 1773 and 1775, became state printer in 1774 and was deeply mourned upon her death in 1775. In South Carolina, two women left their marks on printing. From 1739, after her husband's death, until 1741, when her son Peter came of age and gradually took over the business, Elizabeth Timothy was able to both publish and edit the South Carolina Gazette. Timothy thus has the distinction of being the first woman to edit a newspaper in the United States. Upon Peter Timothy's death in 1782, his widow Anne Timothy successfully published that newspaper from a large printing establishment in Charleston until her death in 1792. Anne Timothy was also the state printer for South Carolina. A particularly dramatic life in printing was that of Margaret Draper , who printed the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston News-Letter from June 1774 through February 1776 when, being a Tory in her political sympathies, she fled Boston with the British troops evacuating the city.

A woman whose printing activities placed her directly in the center of one of the most important events in America's colonial history was Anna Catharina Zenger. She was born Anna Catharina Maul around 1704, possibly in the Netherlands or in England; her family was part of a large group of refugees from the Palatinate (Pfalz) region of Germany that had fled to the Netherlands. Queen Anne of Great Britain, pitying these people's plight, sent a fleet to Rotterdam to first provide temporary asylum in England and then sent them on to the American colonies in 1710. Anna Catharina grew up in New York City, and it was here that she met and eventually married a fellow immigrant of German origins, John Peter Zenger. John had arrived in America in 1710 as part of the same group of Palatine refugees as his wife. It is conceivable that Anna's and Peter's mothers had met during the long and arduous Atlantic crossing, or perhaps even while the group was in England (John's father had died during the voyage, and Anna's mother was already a widow at the time). John sought his fortune in Philadelphia, where he married Mary White , but she died within several years.

Soon, John returned to New York, where he and Anna were married on September 11, 1722, in Manhattan's Dutch Reformed Church. At this time, John became a journeyman to New York's only printer, William Bradford, to whom he had been indentured for a number of years after arriving in the United States. By 1725, John Peter became Bradford's partner, and the two printers embarked on a modest joint venture, a book in Dutch about the Reformed Church that did little to enrich either man or provide much in the way of income for the growing Zenger family. Soon, John and William had become competitors, John achieving modest prosperity by printing a variety of items. He created a small niche for himself by printing Dutch-language sermons and religious tracts which accounted for 8 of his 17 imprints between 1726 and 1731. During the same period, John produced 21 books, pamphlets, and broadsides. This did not compare favorably with his rival Bradford, who during this time printed 54 imprints and, even more important, printed the New-York Gazette, the city's first newspaper, which began appearing in 1725. Doubtless the most important imprint John Peter Zenger produced during these early years was Peter Venema's Arithmetica, a Dutch-language arithmetic text published in 1730, the first such work to appear in the colony.

In 1732, external events set off a chain of political events that were to shape the future of the Zengers, making them part of American history. In August 1732, William Cosby began serving as the new governor of New York colony. It quickly became clear that Cosby was an arbitrary administrator, insensitive to the citizens of New York. After several unpopular actions on his part, a powerful anti-Cosby faction emerged headed by Lewis Morris, a wealthy and influential chief justice of New York's Supreme Court, before his vocal protests against the governor led to his dismissal. A powerful opposition party now was formed, and the printer who printed its tracts was none other than John Peter Zenger. By the end of 1732, John's production of imprints was higher than that of Bradford's.

As the political intensity grew, the alliance between the anti-Cosbyites and their loyal printer John culminated in the founding of a newspaper, the New-York Weekly Journal, whose first issue appeared on November 5, 1733. Printed by John, the paper was the mouthpiece of the political faction led by Morris. Although he was the paper's averred editor and publisher as well as its printer, in reality, John Peter Zenger was limited to the role of printer, given the fact that his knowledge of the English language was faulty and sometimes careless, as was his printing at times (for example, he misdated that first issue, printing it as October 5, instead of November).

Effectively, the editor of the New-York Weekly Journal was James Alexander, a lawyer and member of the provincial council. For its birth, the paper printed a variety of materials, from philosophical statements on personal and political freedom to specific criticisms of Cosby and his circle of allies. In November 1734, Cosby's anger took concrete form when the provincial council ordered four issues of the New-York Weekly Journal to be burned in public for having printed "seditious" information publicly. Little more than a week after the burnings took place, on November 17, 1734, John Peter Zenger was imprisoned on a charge of seditious libel.

Unable to meet his bail, John would spend the next eight and one-half months in jail. Throughout this period, the New-York Weekly Journal continued to be printed and published by Anna Catharina Zenger. What was the nature of her role in keeping the New-York Weekly Journal alive during her husband's imprisonment and trial? That question has intrigued historians. There can be no doubt that she played an important part. Anna Catharina regularly appeared outside his cell, with her printshop helpers in tow, which enabled him, in his words, to give her instructions "thro' the Hole of the Door of the Prison." Thus informed, she would go back to the shop and supervise the publication of the paper.

Anna's calm during the crisis was genuine and is not disputed by any authority. What remains controversial is the full extent of her editorial involvement in the writing of the paper. One author, Kent Cooper, argued in his 1946 quasibiographical novel Anna Zenger, Mother of Freedom, that during her husband's imprisonment, she not only printed the paper, but was its active editor, even writing most of the articles that appeared on its pages. This notion has been rejected by Vincent Buranelli and other writers, who have concluded that both before and after John's arrest, the articles which appeared in the New-York Weekly Journal were from the pens of educated individuals. These would have been those American-born political figures, trained in the law and well read in both the classics and contemporary political theory and polemics, who used the paper as their mouthpiece in the struggle against governor Cosby. Of this group, the most important was doubtless James Alexander, a lawyer and member of the provincial council.

Even though Alexander had been disbarred by the tyrannical Cosby in order to prevent him from representing John in court, he was nevertheless able to play a key role in the successful resolution of the crisis. Alexander recruited as a defense attorney his friend Andrew Hamilton, an eminent Philadelphia barrister. Hamilton's impassioned address to the jury in August 1735 asserted the right of juries to determine matters of law as well as of fact, arguing that the truth of an utterance could be upheld as a defense against a charge of libel. Although both of Alexander's assertions were contrary to the common law that then prevailed, his eloquence appears to have deeply impressed the jury for it only took them a few minutes' deliberation to return a verdict of innocent. Hamilton was hailed as a popular hero, and John Peter Zenger as a symbol of a free press as a bulwark against tyrannical government. The case, which attracted much attention both in the colonies and Great Britain, actually changed little in the law in the short run, but its symbolic importance for freedom of the press was immense and lasting.

Upon his release from jail, John returned to his printing and Anna went back to raising the couple's six children. To repay his suffering, in 1737 he was made public printer to the colony of New York, the next year receiving a similar appointment in New Jersey. Eventually, however, John would lose both contracts, due at least in part to his continuing ignorance of the English language and carelessness with the craft. John was in fact never an astute businessman, and the Zenger family always appeared to be in one financial strait or another. John died on July 28, 1746. As administrator of her husband's estate (he died not leaving a valid will), and fortunately with some past experiences as a printer, Anna assumed the responsibilities of the business. Her name first appeared on the fourth page of the New-York Weekly Journal on September 1, 1746. In that issue also appeared the customary notice of intent as well as a mournful plea for support of the enterprise:

… intending to continue Publishing the Paper, [she] hopes that the Gentlemen who have been the Deceased's kind Benefactors will still Continue to be such in encouraging the said Paper as before. They may still be supplied with all sorts of Blanks of any Kind, and all sorts of Printing Work done reasonable and in the best manner at said Printing-Office in Stone Street.

In her paper, Anna Zenger used various colonial sources both printed and oral, via New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, to report news of military and naval conflicts and trade negotiations, the arrivals and departures of vessels, the fate of ships captured by privateers, as well as the always-desired gossip regarding political intrigue. What few advertisements there were customarily appeared on the last column of the last page. These notices turned Zenger's business into something resembling a community meeting ground. Most ads were along the lines of the following, alerting thirsty New Yorkers to the availability of "Choice Madeira Wine to be sold by the Widow Scott, by the Pipe, Hogshead, Quarter-Cask, and Five Gallons."

In addition to turning out an edition of the newspaper once a week, Anna Zenger produced a number of other imprints, including a yearly almanac by "John Nathan, Philomath." At her shop located on Stone Street, she also printed a number of other practical handbooks and political pamphlets. To supplement her income, Zenger sold books and stationery. During the years 1746 through 1748, she held the distinction of being the only woman bookseller in New York City. At her place of business one could purchase almanacs in "High Dutch" published by Philadelphian Christopher Sauer, and very likely other almanacs, such as Poor Richard's Almanac, written by a considerably more illustrious Philadelphian than Sauer, Benjamin Franklin.

Sometime between November 21 and December 12, 1748, Anna relinquished control of her printing establishment to her stepson John Zenger, Jr. She moved to a rural area near New York, but was not yet ready for full retirement, as she chose to own a small book store. The same year that she died, 1751, also saw the death of John Zenger, Jr. None of her surviving sons chose to be printers and publishers, having entered other professions. Upon the death of mother and son, the Zenger printing enterprise ceased, and one James Parker bought the press and types.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia