THE TRIAL OF JOHN PETER ZENGER IN 1735
By Associate James A. Williams
|This is a conceptual drawing of John Peter
Zenger since there is no known painting or drawing of this early printer. The printing press was the first of its
type set up at Cambridge, Massachusetts in the year 1638.
It may be strange, but when the first printing press was set up in America in 1638, Harvard University was only two
years old. Located at Cambridge under the watchful eyes of college authorities, it produced almanacs, sermons, a catechism,
a psalter, law books, and after another press had been added to the establishment, a Bible in one of the Indian languages.
The printing press, wherever it appeared in the world, was regarded by the government as a dangerous instrument. It
was useful to men in power as long as it could be controlled with an absolute hand. But since the product it distributed
was circulated among large numbers of people, it was always a constant threat to existing political establishments
and particularly to Royal Governors.
Thus strict censorship and licensing was the rule in the colonies as in England to the end of the 17th century. When
the Pilgrims fled to Holland during their period of persecution under the rule of King James, William Brewster, who was one
of their leaders, set up a publishing business to support himself which would never have been tolerated under the Tudors or
the Stuarts. English Kings at this time regarded the publishing enterprise as a diabolical instrument of the Lord.
Speech, Printing Rules Varied
Free speech and free printing had no legal standing anywhere in the colonies at the time of the founding of Harvard
College. And in Virginia in 1671 Sir William Berkley wrote home to his government:
"I thank God we have not free schools nor printing, and/ hope we shall not have for another hundred years.
For learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world and printing has divulged them and libels against
the Government. God keep us from both!"
However, New England rulers were somewhat more liberal than old Governor Berkley; they encouraged learning and
printing under strict supervision. Harvard gave attention to the Cambridge Press. After repeated petitionings, the
government allowed a second press to be set up in the growing town of Boston. Over the second press, the General
Court continued its censorship. Though lax at times, it was an ever present threat against freedom of expression. Although
not always successful the royal governors of Massachusetts, New York and the other colonies were specifically instructed
to restrain this kind of liberty by strict methods of licensing.
On the whole, the colonies fared pretty well with respect to printing. The early villages of Boston and Philadelphia
could boast of presses before they were even permitted in English cities like Liverpool and Birmingham.1
People in early America were always as hungry for the news as they are today. Before colonial newspapers appeared and
became comparatively common, there were various agencies in use for the dissemination of information. Letters of news
were written and circulated to merchants and men of position abroad, and by friends to each other in the colonies.
Such correspondence was frequently carried on between men who had common interests in the political and intellectual
world, and sometimes by professional letter writers located in important news centers like Boston, Philadelphia and
London. This organized circulation of newsletters had been common in Italy, Germany and England for hundreds of years and
had been a valuable tool of information by merchants and statesmen with international interests.
Boston Newspaper Launched
Actually, the first continuously published newspaper was called a newsletter. It was the BOSTON NEWSLETTER which made
its appearance in 1704, published in Boston in a town which had now grown to more than 10,000. It was founded by
Postmaster John Campbell, a canny Scot, who had also built up a small business as a bookseller. Capitalizing upon his
bookshop acquaintance and the more or less casual news reports brought in by captains of ships arriving in Boston harbor,
as well as his postriders, he had made a business of writing manuscript newsletters which he furnished to public
men, including the Governors of other colonies.
The BOSTON NEWSLETTER took on the appearance of a real newspaper when it copied the format of its contemporary
LONDON GAZETTE. However, the entire contents of one of its numbers would scarcely fill two columns of a metropolitan
Its space was almost entirely devoted to the comings and goings of ships, deaths, sermons, political appointments and
Indian depredations. Foreign news was high on its agenda and it made little difference whether or not the news was
timely. Generally the information that appeared in the pages of Campbell's paper was two months late. It had been bodily
lifted out of English papers and transferred to the columns of THE BOSTON NEWSLETTER as though they were happenings of the
||Portion of the front page of the NEW YORK WEEKLY JOURNAL which
carried the news of the indictment of John Peter Zenger, April 8, 1734.
Philadelphia was the second city in the colonies to boast of a printing press which was installed shortly after its
founding in 1683. New York followed as a third city when William Bradford, chafing under Quaker censorship, moved his press
to Manhattan in 1693. But the most significant and dramatic of all the events connected with the history of early
New York journalism was John Peter Zenger's challenge to the authority of the Crown and his triumphant vindication as
publisher of the NEW YORK WEEKLY JOURNAL which was founded by him in 1733.2
From this early growth of the newspaper in Boston, Philadelphia and finally in New York, was established for all
time Freedom of the Press in America and in England.
Zenger Enters Publishing
John Peter Zenger was the central figure in this colorful and influential historical event in which he was vindicated in
a public trial for seditious libel in 1735. The trial is the story of the American newspaper.
Zenger himself is a somewhat incomprehensible character. There are missing links to the biography of this man and no
artist has ever found him worthy of a portrait. We do not know his face. The plain matter is that half a dozen other men
were of greater consequence than he in the establishment of the free press in New York.
John Peter Zenger was a German immigrant, a native of the Rhenish Palatinate, where he was born in 1697. His family
brought him to America in 1710 and in that same year he was apprenticed to William Bradford, the only printer then at work
in New York and publisher of the NEW YORK GAZETTE. Bradford was one of the top printers in his trade in the colonies
and previously had published the AMERICAN WEEKLY MERCURY in Philadelphia. Zenger's indentures with Bradford were for
eight years. Sixteen years later he had set himself as a rival to the printer with whom he was first indentured and vied
with Bradford for a share in this form of the city's business.
During this time, the popular party in New York had been in an almost constant struggle with tyrannical royal Governors.
One of the worst of these rulers was the avaricious and highly tempered William Cosby whose expensive tastes plunged him into
a bitter dispute with the Council of the colony. The quarrel became so sharply divided that Cosby, finding that he could
not control the Supreme Court, fired its Chief Justice and substituted a young member of the Royal Party whom he could
more easily handle.
As William Bradford had been assigned the support of the Royal Party, Zenger as his only rival in the printing business,
was given the support of the deposed Chief Justice's party and created an opposition paper called the NEW YORK WEEKLY
JOURNAL. Members of each side chose the columns of these newspapers as platforms for their publicly printed debates.
The newspaper was a small four-page sheet, rather poorly printed. Zenger himself did not write well himself, but some of
his friends did. They used the columns of the paper to support what ensued to be a very bitter debate. The fight in
which Zenger and his supporters were engaged was very serious. Writers of the court paper rallied to
Bradford's support and those in Zenger's paper supported the cause of the deposed Chief Justice. There was much
sniping, articles loaded with materials from English periodicals. Zenger's writers drew principally upon Cato's
Letters advancing the ideas of liberty and representative government.
|This pamphlet related details of the trial against John Peter
Zenger, who was acquitted.
Although these attacks upon Governor Cosby were lost irretrievably behind a veil of anonymity in letters to the editor
signed Cato and Thomas Standby, the letters themselves were charges that gave cause to the Governor's deficiency in matters
of governance. They called him everything from idiot to a Nero and a Governor who turns rogue does a thousand things for
which a small rogue would have deserved a halter!
Cosby and his party did not bear the weekly assaults of the JOURNAL with equanimity. The new Chief Justice, in his charge
to the grand jury in 1734 called attention to Seditious Libels which with utmost Virulency have endeavored to asperse
his Excellency and vilify his Administration and have gained some credit among the common People ... And with this,
Governor Cosby's Council issued an order for Zenger's arrest and he was thrown into jail. While he was locked up, Zenger
missed one issue of his JOURNAL and the next number contained the notice of his public incarceration.
For the next nine months, he was refused reasonable bail and edited his paper thro' the Hole of the Door of the Prison.
At this time, the paper contained fewer articles by Zenger but more of Cato's letters.
Zenger's attorneys, believing their client could not get a fair trial with the new Chief Justice on the bench,
boldly attacked the validity of the Chief Justice's commission. With this, they were summarily disbarred from practice and
an adherent of the court party was named to defend Zenger.
On August 4, 1735, John Peter Zenger came to trial. Hopeless because his cause seemed doomed, the whole city was excited
and the court room was packed with common people who supported the cause of the printer. The judges entered, impressive
in their red robes and great wigs. But attracting more attention than the judges themselves was a Philadelphia lawyer who
came to defend the Palitinate immigrant. Zenger's influential friends had induced Andrew Hamilton, one of the most
famous lawyers in the colonies, to brave New York authorities and defend the prisoner. Hamilton, white haired and nearly
80 years of age, was a Philadelphian. Earlier, he was credited for drawings that had resulted in the construction
of Independence Hall, the building of which he supervised.
Andrew Hamilton appeared not only because of court friends of Zenger, but because of his studies of certain articles
which appeared in the Journal which asserted that the liberties and property of the people of New York were in danger
from their government. And that the governor had tampered with the rights of trial by jury.
Hamilton Surprises Court
|Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton defended Zenger in his trial
Hamilton began by making an admission which, in the minds of the court, gave away his whole case. He admitted that Zenger
had printed and published the paper in question. When the Attorney General recovered from his surprise at this admission
of fact, he indicated to the court that the jury must find a verdict for the King; for supposing libels were true, they are
not the less libelous for that; nay, indeed, the law says their being true is an aggravation of the crime.
This position was unquestionably in line with the decision which made up the common law in England. However, Hamilton
was quick to take up a larger view and to insist the words themselves must be libelous, that is, false, scandalous
and seditions or else we are not guilty. This was argued briefly, but the Chief Justice soon interrupted with the
curt statement: You cannot be admitted, Mr. Hamilton, to give the truth of a libel in evidence. A further attempt to argue
the admissibility of evidence, whether an alleged libel is true or not, was again interrupted by the brusque declaration
of the Chief Justice. You are not permitted to argue against the opinion of the Court.
This was the historic moment at which Hamilton made a gesture which was to be highly significant in the long struggle
for the freedom of the press. Bowing to the judge, he said: I thank your honor. Then he turned sharply away from the bench
and addressed himself to the jury: Then gentlemen of the jury, he said, it is to you we must now appeal. And putting all
the strength of his great personality, all his cleverness as an advocate, and all his historical and legal learning into
his speech, Hamilton delivered one of the most powerful courtroom addresses of early American history. He appealed to the
jury as their own witnesses of the truth of Zenger's statements. He denounced lawless power and appealed to the love of
liberty as the only defense against such tyranny on the part of reckless rulers:
"Power may justly be compared to a great river which, while kept within its due bounds is both beautiful
and useful; but when it overflows its banks, it is then too impetuous to be stemmed, it bears down on all before it and
brings destruction and desolation wherever it comes. If this then is the nature of power, let us at least do our duty and
like wise men use our utmost care to support liberty, the only bulwark against lawless power.
"As you see, I labor under the weight of many years, and am borne down with great infirmities of body; yet old and weak
as I am, I should think it my duty, if required, to go to the utmost part of the land where my service could be of any use
in assisting to quench the flame of prosecutions upon informations set on foot by the Government to deprive a People of
the right of remonstrating and complaint of the arbitrary attempts of men in power
... The question before the court and you gentlemen of the jury is not of small nor private concern; it is not the cause of
the 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 liberty both of exposing
and opposing arbitrary power by speaking and writing the Truth."
After Hamilton sat down, the Chief Justice delivered a brief and confused charge to the jury, which retired and
returned shortly with a verdict of not guilty. At the not guilty verdict, there were shoutings of delight in the hall
outside the courtroom and the disgruntled Chief Justice, in response to this demonstration of liberty, threatened to
send all of the celebrants off to jail.
Hamilton Widely Commended
That night, Hamilton was feted at a celebration at the Black Horse Inn. Zenger was not present, for he was not released
from jail until the next day, but we can be sure he was present the following day when the victorious Hamilton set sail
for Philadelphia amid unbelievable public fanfare. Later, the board of aldermen sent Hamilton the keys of the city enclosed
in a golden box.
This triumph of liberty in New York made a great stir in all of the colonies and in England as well. A Londoner whose
letter is printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette observed that nothing published in that city during his recollection had
received the attention and applause accorded the pamphlet containing an account of the Zenger trial.3
Governor Cosby died the year after the great trial and the political fight died down. The JOURNAL, which had
heretofore given little attention to general news, now showed unusual skill in the selected arrangement of foreign reports.
In the eleven years following the trial and Zenger's death, the paper improved and he demonstrated editorial skill that he
had not shown before.
Trial Has Far-reaching Effects
But the trial of John Peter Zenger proved to be one of the most spectacular events in American history. It involved
powerful personalities, factional intrigue, a newspaper war and a magnificent courtroom scene. It laid the groundwork for
the rise in public opinion as a factor in American life, actually a prelude to the rise in feeling among Americans about
their own identity that ended in the Revolutionary War.
Popular sentiment became a real power in the Colonies. Governors became more reluctant to coerce opposition. Grand
juries were emboldened to make freer decisions when called on to indict editors. And the New York Weekly Journal set
the classic example of marshalling the citizenry to support a single point of view in politics.
The participation of ordinary men and women in political discussions, debates and quarrels caused a rise toward the level
of true democracy. The Journal proved the close connection between political freedom and freedom of the press half a
century before Jefferson laid down his famous axiom on the subject, and a century before de Tocqueville perceived that
modern democracy cannot exist without the forum of the newspapers.
On the constitutional side, the Zenger case helped snap the leading strings that bound the American Colonies to the
mother country. Once the authority of the king had been challenged, then Hamilton's appeal from British precedent to
Colonial experience became the accepted view. His efforts in behalf of liberty for New York paved the way for liberty
in America. The rebels of 1770 drew from his legal premise and drafted their political conclusions that resulted in
their struggle for independence.
The men of the American Revolution were well aware of their indebtedness. Gouvernor Morris spoke for them all when
he delivered his famous judgement that The trial of Zenger in 1735 was the morning star of that liberty which
subsequently revolutionized America.4
A Past Governor of the Illinois Society, Associate Williams is now serving a fourth term as
Historian General. He was instrumental in re-activating that Society several years ago. He also is a Past Historian General
of the Sons of the American Revolution, and is now Chairman of the organization's Museum Board since it was created in 1983.
An expert in museum technology and presentation, he was founder of the Wilmette, Illinois Historical Society, Chairman of the
Wilmette Historical Commission and founder of the Wilmette Historical Museum. He is a frequent lecturer on a wide variety
of topics ranging from the decorative arts to the Revolutionary War Era.
1. Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism, Macmillan Co. 1962.
2. NEW YORK WEEKLY JOURNAL. See History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, Brigham, Vol. 1, p.699,
New York Historical Society collection. Publication American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass. 1947.
3. See photo of pamphlet.
4. See The Trial of Peter Zenger by Vincent Buranelli, New York University Press, 1957 with forward by H. V. Kaltenborn.
Bulletin - Spring 1993