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The Trial of
John Peter Zenger


Where and when did the Zenger case take place?
The story begins in New York City on August 2, 1732, when a new British governor arrives to rule the colony. The American colonies, including New York, are under the control of Great Britain and its king, George II.


View of the City of New York from the southwest, 1736
(Library of Congress)

Who was involved?
WILLIAM COSBY, the greedy and arrogant British governor who antagonizes many colonists. 

LEWIS MORRIS & RIP VAN DAM, colonial politicians who quarrel with Cosby about his governance of New York.

JAMES ALEXANDER, politician and lawyer who joins Morris and Van Dam in opposing Cosby. He becomes editor and chief writer of the New-York Weekly Journal, a newspaper designed to expose the governor’s corrupt actions. 

JOHN PETER ZENGER, printer who publishes the New-York Weekly Journal. Governor Cosby has Zenger arrested and imprisoned for printing “false, malicious, seditious, and scandalous” libels that undermine the governor’s authority.

ANDREW HAMILTON, Philadelphia lawyer hired by the opponents of Governor Cosby to represent Zenger in court on the day of his famous trial.

What events led to Zenger’s arrest?
After one turbulent year as New York’s governor, William Cosby strips the popular Supreme Court Chief Justice Lewis Morris of his position because of a legal disagreement. In response, Morris and his political friends begin a campaign to force the governor back to England. 

The group decides to stir up public anger against Cosby by distributing a weekly newspaper, The New-York Weekly Journal. They ask printer John Peter Zenger to publish the newspaper. James Alexander becomes editor and chief writer. The first issue appears November 5, 1733, and the newspaper soon becomes a hit with New York colonists.

Each week, the Journal highlights Governor Cosby’s misdeeds and abuse of power. Neither James Alexander nor other writers sign their real names to the essays and editorials that criticize Cosby. They know that they could be charged with seditious libel for attacking the governor and his administration in print.

Within weeks, Governor Cosby and his allies try to silence the Journal by using the courts. Since the newspaper’s writers have hidden their identities, Cosby focuses on the only person whose name appears in every issue—the printer Zenger. Two grand juries of New York citizens refuse to cooperate with Cosby, however. They will not charge Zenger with seditious libel. 

Finally, a year after the Journal ‘s first issue hit the streets of New York, Governor Cosby convinces the Provincial Council to order the public burning of the newspaper in front of City Hall. John Peter Zenger is arrested on the Provincial Council’s orders eleven days later—November 17, 1734.


The Burning of the New-York Weekly Journal
November 6, 1734
(© North Wind Picture Archives)

How long was Zenger in jail?
For nearly nine months, the printer is imprisoned in a drafty third-floor jail cell in New York’s City Hall. His two lawyers, James Alexander and William Smith, are unable to get him released. In April the two are disbarred by Cosby ally, Chief Justice James De Lancey, and are forbidden from representing Zenger at his trial.

Despite this, Cosby fails to end the Journal’s publication. Throughout Zenger’s imprisonment, the Journal appears every week, printed by Zenger’s assistant and family. Editor Alexander and the other writers continue their relentless attacks on the governor.

What happened at the printer’s trial?
On August 4, 1735, John Peter Zenger is brought to trial. In a surprise move, his supporters hire a brilliant lawyer from Philadelphia to defend him. Andrew Hamilton argues in court that Zenger should not be found guilty of seditious libel because the Journal’s criticisms of Cosby’s government were true. He tells the jury that a free press is the only thing that can protect colonists from corrupt governors.


The Trial of John Peter Zenger, August 4, 1735
(© North Wind Picture Archives)

Hamilton’s speech is spellbinding:
“The question before the Court and you gentlemen of the jury...is not the cause of a poor printer, nor of New York alone...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.”

The twelve colonial jurors agree. They find John Peter Zenger NOT GUILTY. Zenger goes free.

Why is Zenger’s trial important?
After the jury’s verdict, British governors were reluctant to charge American printers with seditious libel. They realized that colonial juries would likely refuse to convict anyone for publishing criticisms of royal officials. Because of this, the colonial press became more open and free. During the years leading up to the American Revolution, printers published attacks on British authority as well as calls for independence.

The Zenger trial influenced the attitudes of future generations of colonial Americans. After independence from Great Britain was won, the first United States Congress included guarantees of a free press in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

It is fitting that the Bill of Rights was adopted by Congress in the same building where Zenger had been jailed and tried more than fifty years before.


Federal Hall National Memorial, New York City, 2005.
Built on the site of both the Zenger trial of 1735 and
the adoption of the Bill of Rights in 1789.
(© Alden Ford)

Find out more!

John Peter Zenger’s Trial

  • Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800
    Original colonial documents concerning Zenger case
  • Early American Newspapers, Series I: 1690-1876
    All issues of New-York Weekly Journal
    (Both are available in library databases from Readex Digital Collections, American Antiquarian Society and NewsBank)
  • Finkelman, Paul, ed. A Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger. Union, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2000. 
    Editor adds legal discussion about the Zenger case.            
               
  • Katz, Stanley Nider, ed. A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1972. 
    Editor discusses trial’s impact on press freedom.

Freedom of the Press

  • First Amendment Center www.firstamendmentcenter.org
    Provides information for students and lesson plans for teachers about the First Amendment, including freedom of the press.
  • The U.S. Constitution Online www.usconstitution.net
    Contains information and links for students of all ages about the Constitution and its history.
  • Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania http://www.nps.gov/inde/
    Visit the place where the Founding Fathers debated and approved the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitutution. 
  • National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    www.constitutioncenter.org
    Learn about the writing of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Founders.       
              
  • The National Archives, Washington, D.C.   http://www.archives.gov
    Get an up-close view of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Read more about these “Charters of Freedom” at the web site.

  • Newseum, Washington, D.C. http://www.newseum.org
    Experience interactive exhibits and programs about journalism and the media.
 

18th century printing shop (Library of Congress)

Printing Colonial Newspapers

  • Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia www.history.org 
    At the printing office, watch experts demonstrate the same methods used by John Peter Zenger.               

  • Meltzer, Milton. The Printing Press. New York: Benchmark Books, 2003.
  • Pasley, Jeffrey L. The Tyranny of Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.



   

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