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.

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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.

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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.

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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 on John Peter Zenger

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).