Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2476
Article abstract: Zenger printed attacks on Governor William Cosby of the colony of New York in the New York Weekly Journal, for which he was indicted for libel. His celebrated trial became a landmark in establishing a free press in America.
John Peter Zenger was born in Germany in 1697. His father died leaving his wife Johanna and three children to fend for themselves. Early in the eighteenth century, Queen Anne of England allowed Germans who were victims of the aggressive wars of Louis XIV to emigrate to America. Johanna Zenger took advantage of the opportunity and brought her children to New York in 1710. John Peter was only thirteen at the time and was indentured to William Bradford, New York’s only printer. Bradford’s school produced many colonial printers, including his own son, Andrew, who later competed in the publishing business with Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia. Young Zenger worked for Bradford for eight years.
At the age of twenty-one, Zenger was given his freedom and began wandering through the Colonies looking for a place to set up a permanent printing establishment as a master printer. He met and married Mary White on July 28, 1719, and settled for a brief time in Chestertown, Kent County, Maryland. While in Maryland, he became a citizen and was given a contract to publish that colony’s laws, proceedings, and minutes. His wife died soon after the birth of a son, and Zenger returned to New York, where he met and married Anna Catherine Maul on August 24, 1722.
Zenger joined his former master, William Bradford, for a brief time in 1725 and published one book. He later opened his own print shop on Smith Street near Maiden Lane in 1726 and printed pamphlets, mainly sermons in German. Those who were dissatisfied with the Church or State and wanted to say so came to Zenger, and for six years he supplemented his staple output of religious tracts with critical pamphlets and open letters. In 1730, he published Arithmetica, the first arithmetic book printed in North America.
Zenger was an indifferent printer with a poor knowledge of the English language. His spelling, syntax, and grammar were unreliable. Although he wrote a few articles, he was not an editor but a printer who published the writings of others in order to earn a living. There is no contemporary portrait or artist’s sketch of Zenger. In the Federal Hall Memorial on the corner of Wall and Nassau streets in New York City, there is a likeness based on the anthropological data regarding Palatine Germans of his era.
In 1733, John Peter Zenger wrote an article in which he criticized the royal governor of New York, William Cosby, for the manner in which he had supported William Foster for the post of assemblyman in White Plains. Cosby knew that the Quakers supported the rival candidate, Lewis Morris, and he refused to let them vote when they would not violate their consciences and take an oath declaring property ownership a voting qualification in the colony. Zenger’s manuscript was returned by the publisher of The New York Weekly Gazette marked “unfit for our columns.”
Since Bradford’s The New York Weekly Gazette was the only newspaper published between Philadelphia and Boston, and as Bradford was known to be the official printer of the New York governor, council, and assembly, Zenger became identified with the opposition party and began printing a rival newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal, in his print shop on Broad Street. The new paper was published every Monday and contained four pages of crooked type with an unattractive format. It was America’s first independent newspaper.
James Alexander was the leader of the opposition and wrote or edited most of the copy of Zenger’s paper under the pseudonym “Cato.” He had the largest law library in the colony. A Scot who had joined in the rebellion against George I to put James, the Old Pretender, on the throne, Alexander defined and defended a free press. He was a charter member, along with fellow printer Benjamin Franklin, of the American Philosophical Society. Others who wrote for the New York Weekly Journal included Morris, whom Cosby had opposed as assemblyman, William Smith, a Yale graduate and founder of Princeton College, and the scientist Cadwallader Colden.
Zenger’s paper claimed on its masthead to print foreign news, literary essays, poetry, and small amounts of advertising, but the first issue of the New York Weekly Journal contained a savage attack on the policies of Governor Cosby. Bradford countered by putting Francis Harrison in charge of The New York Weekly Gazette’s editorial policy, and a stream of eulogies of the royal administration poured in torrents in an attempt to discredit the New York Weekly Journal.
The journal was known as “Zenger’s paper,” since the only name it bore was that of the printer. Other writers used pseudonyms such as “Cato,” “Philo-Patriae,” and “Thomas Standby.” Behind these names, they dared to call Governor Cosby everything from “an idiot” to “a Nero.” Zenger also distributed song sheets of hastily written ballads that criticized the royal officials “who chop and change for those that serve their turn.”
Governor Cosby was an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who craved place and pension. He had experienced trouble before coming to America over his misrule as governor of Minorca. Before the Crown removed him from that post, he was forced to reimburse those whom he had victimized. Perhaps George II thought that he had learned his lesson and therefore appointed him governor of New York, but he proved even more dictatorial and scheming in his new position. The attacks on Cosby in Zenger’s paper were political independence with a vengeance. Cosby was accused of misusing his office as governor in voting as a member of the council, demanding to see all bills from the assembly before the council saw them and adjourning the assembly in his own name rather than in that of the king. Zenger’s journal asserted that it ought to be the ambition of all honest magistrates to have their deeds openly examined and publicly scanned and that freedom of speech is the symptom as well as the effect of good government.
Alexander was believed to be the author of the most telling articles against Governor Cosby, but he was not arrested, because it would have been difficult to prove his authorship. Instead, the court party went after Zenger, who was not shrouded in anonymity: The New York Weekly Journal was his newspaper, and only his name appeared in it correctly. The court party observed that, while the true authors of the articles were tenacious about their own liberty, they neglected that of their own printer.
Governor Cosby tried to have Zenger indicted by a grand jury but was unsuccessful. He then ordered four issues of the New York Weekly Journal burned by the public hangman. The citizens of New York boycotted the event and even the public hangman refused to appear. Only Harrison and his slave were on hand for the burning in front of the New York Court House, and the slave was ordered to put the torch to the condemned documents.
Governor Cosby further tried to silence Zenger by sending a hatchet man who threatened Zenger with physical harm. Zenger thereafter took to wearing a sword, an act which was often held up to ridicule in Bradford’s paper.
On Wednesday, November 17, 1734, Governor Cosby issued a warrant for Zenger’s arrest on the charge of “seditious libel.” Popular feeling was exacerbated by the fact that the governor’s vindictive wrath fell not on his powerful enemies but on an insignificant German immigrant who made a meager living by plying his trade as a printer. He was put in custody in a cell on the third floor of City Hall and was allowed no pen, ink, or paper. His only contact with the outside world was through a hole in the door. By this means, he communicated with his wife, always in the presence of a deputy sheriff, and she saw to it that the New York Weekly Journal was published on time each Monday. Only one issue, that of November 22, 1734, was missed. Anna Catherine Zenger followed the practice of her husband and did not attempt to write articles but continued to receive material from the anonymous writers, who now had even greater cause to attack the royal administration. Never once did Anna print a complaint that her husband was suffering because of someone else.
Zenger’s bail was set at four hundred pounds, an excessive amount even for a wealthy person. The German printer was poor and claimed under oath that, if his debts were paid, he was worth only forty pounds plus the value of the tools of his trade and his wearing apparel. Zenger’s friends were unable to raise the amount for bail, and he was forced to remain in his prison cell for nine months, awaiting trial. Perhaps they felt his extended incarceration pointed up all the more the great injustices of the royal administration.
Governor Cosby’s effort to shut down the New York Weekly Journal boomeranged. Local sentiment turned against the government, and the circulation of the journal increased as the political controversy intensified. Colonists realized that the loss of liberty in general might follow the loss of the liberty of the press. Citizens interested in protecting freedoms in America offered their services to Zenger, including Andrew Hamilton, an eighty-year-old Philadelphia lawyer who had once served as the speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly and was the architect of Independence Hall. Hamilton, though quite infirm, made his way secretly to New York in time for Zenger’s trial.
Andrew Hamilton perceived that it was more than John Peter Zenger on trial. The English law identified any published criticism of a public official as libel and proof of authorship was all that was needed for a conviction. Since those who wrote the articles for the New York Weekly Journal were shrouded in anonymity, the law held the one who printed the attacks guilty of libel. Hamilton appealed to the writings of John Milton, Jonathan Swift, John Locke, Daniel Defoe, Richard Steele, and Joseph Addison in presenting his case. He argued that mere printing and publishing did not constitute a crime, and that the prosecution must prove that what was printed was false, scandalous, and seditious. Hamilton put the prosecution on the defense. Unless they were willing to expose Governor Cosby to careful scrutiny in the trial, they had no case. Truth became its own best defense. Throughout the trial, Zenger refused to divulge the identity of the men whose words he printed.
The jury took only ten minutes to reach a verdict. When Thomas Hunt, a mariner and foreman of the jury, announced “not guilty” the spectators cheered loudly. The judge threatened to hold them in contempt, but the supporters of Zenger refused to be silenced. Zenger, however, was all but lost in the jubilation as Andrew Hamilton was hailed the conqueror. Forty prominent New Yorkers gave a dinner in his honor at the Black Horse Tavern. Zenger was not present, not because the revelers chose to ignore him, but because the city government refused to release him until he paid for eight months of his maintenance. His friends raised the amount due the next day. Hamilton left for Philadelphia the day of Zenger’s release amid a cannon salute and with a Freedom of the City certificate “enclosed in a suitably inscribed box.”
Zenger returned to his print shop, where, with the assistance of James Alexander, he published A Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger in 1736. The pamphlet was reprinted often in England and America, and Zenger’s name became synonymous with freedom of the press. The new governor of New York, John Montgomerie, engaged him to publish six copies of The Charter of the City of New-York (1735), for which he was paid seven pounds. The charter designated New York a free city with power to sue and be sued in court.
In 1737, the New York Assembly made Zenger its printer, and the following year New Jersey did the same. Despite the fact that he was a hard worker, he lost both of these appointments through his indifference toward and ignorance of the English language.
Zenger was more of a symbol than a motivating force in the movement toward the establishment of a free press in America. Gouverneur Morris declared in the year of the declaration of American independence, however, that “the trial of Zenger in 1735 was the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.” The Zenger trial was referred to repeatedly during the drafting of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Not until 1792 did Parliament respond to the popular movement toward a free press with its passage of the Fox Libel Act, which denied that proof of publication constituted libel.
Zenger continued to publish the New York Weekly Journal until his death at the age of forty-nine in 1746. He left a widow and six children who continued publication of the newspaper, mainly under the direction of his eldest son and namesake. The paper folded on March 18, 1751, after falling on hard times. Repeated appeals for paying subscriptions had few responses. A new generation of readers did not remember the great service that the New York Weekly Journal’s founder had rendered to a free press.
Alexander, James. A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger, Printer of the “New York Weekly Journal.” Edited by Stanley Nider Katz. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. An excellent introduction by Stanley Katz which puts the trial in its historical perspective and emphasizes the political nature of Hamilton’s defense.
Barnett, Lincoln. “The Case of John Peter Zenger.” American Heritage 23 (December, 1971): 33-41. Barnett retells the familiar story of Zenger’s trial but with an eye toward the contemporary criticisms of the press.
Buranelli, Vincent. The Trial of Peter Zenger. New York: New York University Press, 1957. Buranelli explores the misrule of Governor William Cosby in detail, including his fiasco on Minorca and manipulation of elections in New York.
Katz, Stanley N. Newcastle’s New York: Anglo-American Politics, 1732-1753. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968. Katz examines three administrations of governors, including that of Cosby. A good account of England’s colonial machinery, which gave rise to the complaints published in Zenger’s newspaper.
Wroth, Lawrence. The Colonial Printer. 2d rev. ed. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1964. This study, first published in 1931, gives an excellent account of the history of printing in the Colonies. The chapter on “Journeymen and Apprentices” will give the reader a grasp of the roles Zenger played in becoming an established printer.