The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> Printers and Printing Establishments
John Peter Zenger

subject of the first ever "freedom of the press" trial in America

John Peter Zenger was born in the Palatinate region of what is now Germany in 1697. His family emigrated to America in 1710, and John was apprenticed to William Bradford, then the only printer in New York. After eight years with Bradford, Zenger moved to Chestertown, Maryland, where he opened his own print shop. Zenger failed to prosper in Maryland, so he moved back to New York in 1722 and entered into a partnership with Bradford. In 1726 he became the second printer in New York when he again opened his own shop. He spent the next six years in relative obscurity, printing primarily religious tracts and open letters, most of them in Dutch. In 1730 he brought out the first arithmetic textbook printed in New York.

The Case That Made Zenger Famous

On August 1, 1732, William Cosby arrived in New York to assume his position as Governor. For a brief period after his arrival, Cosby shared his position with outgoing Governor Rip Van Dam, and in the fall of 1732 Cosby demanded that Van Dam split part of his salary with him. When Van Dam refused, Cosby sued, and lost. Rather than accept the loss of his lawsuit, Cosby tried to use his office to get what he wanted. In December of 1732, Cosby created a new Court of Equity, which he expected to rule in his favor against Van Dam. In April of 1733, the New York Supreme Court heard arguments on the issue of whether Cosby had the authority to create a new court. In hopes of getting a favorable decision, Cosby removed Chief Justice Lewis Morris (who just happened to have been the sole vote against him in the original Van Dam case) and replaced him with James Delancey (an ardent supporter of Cosby).

On November 5, 1733, Zenger printed and released the first issue of the New York Weekly Journal, a paper funded by James Alexander, an outspoken opponent of Cosby. Despite bad printing and Zenger's poor command of the English language, the paper quickly attracted a popular following with its sharp criticism of the government, and for its poems making fun of Cosby. On January 28, 1734, the Journal accused Cosby of threatening the "liberties and properties" of the people. In response, Cosby had an editorial printed in the New York Gazette (which happened to be printed by Zenger's old boss) that accused the Journal of having printed "an aggravated libel." The Journal responded in September 1734 with two weekly issues accusing Cosby of violating the rules of his office.

By now Cosby had had enough, and in October 1734 he had Delancey put the issue of the "libels" before a grand jury, with the intention of having the author(s) of the articles tried before a criminal court. The grand jury refused to indict, however, due to a lack of evidence concerning the true identity of the author(s). A dissatisfied Cosby then ordered copies of the Journal be "burned by the hands of the common hangman or whipper near the pillory in this city." When magistrates refused to carry out the order, Cosby had the burning carried out by the editor of the Gazette.

Governor Cosby has copies of the Journal burned
Governor Cosby has copies of the Journal burned

Unable to take action against the men writing the editorials against him, Cosby decided to take action against the publisher of the editorials, Zenger. On November 2, 1734, Cosby ordered that a bench warrant be issued for the arrest of John Peter Zenger, on charges that he had published "libelous and seditious" articles against the government (an actual crime in those days). Zenger was arrested on November 17, and, thanks to orders from Cosby, was forced to spend the next nine months in jail because he couldn't pay the exorbitantly high bail.

Jury selection for Zenger's trial began on July 29, 1735, and the trial was held on August 4, 1735. According to the legal principles in effect at the time, all that was necessary for a guilty verdict was that the prosecution prove that the articles in question were printed by the accused -- the truth or falseness of the articles themselves was irrelevant. Fortunately for Zenger, however, he was defended by one of the best trial lawyers of the day, Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia. Hamilton acknowledged that Zenger did indeed publish the articles in question, but argued that the jury should return a "not guilty" verdict since the statements published were true and, therefore, not "libelous." The jury agreed with Hamilton, and did indeed return with a "not guilty" verdict after a very short deliberation.

Andrew Hamilton pleads his case before the jury
Andrew Hamilton pleads his case before the jury

Zenger received much patronage printing as a result of his trial, and served briefly as public printer for the colonies of New York (1737) and New Jersey (1738). The trial itself, however, did little to change the law, since the printing of "libelous and/or seditious" articles remained a crime in the United States until the early 19th century. John Peter Zenger died in New York on July 28, 1746.


Famous American Trials

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Printers and Printing Establishments

This page was last updated on 08/04/2018.