John Peter Zenger Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2476 words.)