John Peter Zenger

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John Peter Zenger
John Peter Zenger trial.jpg
Andrew Hamilton defending John Peter Zenger in court, 1734-1735
BornOctober 26, 1697
DiedJuly 28, 1746 (1746-07-29) (aged 48)
OccupationNewspaper writer
Years active1720–1746
Known forZenger Trial
Notable work The New York Weekly Journal
The trial, as imagined by an illustrator in the 1883 book Wall Street in History

John Peter Zenger (October 26, 1697 – July 28, 1746) was a German printer and journalist in New York City. Zenger printed The New York Weekly Journal. [1] He was accused of libel in 1734 by William Cosby, the royal governor of New York, but the jury acquitted Zenger, who became a symbol for freedom of the press. [2]

In 1733, Zenger began printing The New York Weekly Journal, which voiced opinions critical of the colonial governor, William Cosby. [3] On November 17, 1734, on Cosby's orders, the sheriff arrested Zenger. After a grand jury refused to indict him, the Attorney General Richard Bradley charged him with libel in August 1735. [4] Zenger's lawyers, Andrew Hamilton and William Smith, Sr., successfully argued that truth is a defense against charges of libel. [5]

Early life

Peter Zenger was born in 1697, in Rumbach, German Palatinate. Most of the details of his early life are obscure. He was a son of Nicolaus Eberhard Zenger and his wife Johanna. His father was a school teacher in Impflingen in 1701. The Zenger family had other children baptised in Rumbach in 1697 and in 1703 [6]: 1202  and in Waldfischbach in 1706. [7] The Zenger family immigrated to New York in 1710 as part of a large group of German Palatines, and Nicolaus Zenger was one of those who died before settlement. [6]: 1123  The governor of New York had agreed to provide apprenticeships for all the children of immigrants from the Palatinate, and John Peter was bound for eight years as an apprentice to William Bradford, the first printer in New York. [8] By 1720, he was taking on printing work in Maryland, though he returned to New York permanently by 1722. [6]: 1124  After a brief partnership with Bradford in 1725, Zenger set up as a commercial printer on Smith Street in New York City. [9]

On 28 May 1719, Zenger married Mary White in the First Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia. [10] On 24 August 1722, widower Zenger married Anna Catharina Maul in the Collegiate Church, New York. [11] He was the father of many children by his second wife, six of whom survived. [12]

Libel case

A page from Zenger's New-York Weekly Journal, 7 January 1733

In 1733, Zenger printed copies of newspapers in New York to voice his disagreement with the actions of the newly appointed colonial governor William Cosby. On his arrival in New York City, Cosby had plunged into a rancorous quarrel with the council of the colony over his salary. Unable to control the colony's supreme court, he removed Chief Justice Lewis Morris, replacing him with the royalist James DeLancey. Supported by members of the Popular Party, Zenger's New-York Weekly Journal continued to publish articles critical of the royal governor. Finally, Cosby issued a proclamation condemning the newspaper's " divers scandalous, virulent, false and seditious reflections." [13]

Zenger was charged with libel. James Alexander was Zenger's first counsel, but the court found him in contempt and disbarred him, removing him from the case. After more than eight months in prison, Zenger went to trial, defended by the Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton and the New York lawyer William Smith, Sr. The case was now a cause célèbre, with public interest at fever-pitch. Rebuffed repeatedly by chief justice James DeLancey during the trial, Hamilton decided to plead his client's case directly to the jury. After the lawyers for both sides finished their arguments on August 5, 1735, the jury retired only to return in ten minutes with a verdict of not guilty. [14] [15] [16]

In defending Zenger in this landmark case, Hamilton and Smith attempted to establish the precedent that a statement, even if defamatory, is not libelous if it can be proved, thus affirming freedom of the press in America; however, succeeding royal governors clamped down on freedom of the press until the American Revolution. This case is the groundwork of freedom of the press, not its legal precedent. [3] As late as 1804, the journalist Harry Croswell lost a series of prosecutions and appeals because truth was not a defense against libel, as decided by the New York Supreme Court in People v. Croswell. It was only the following year that the assembly, reacting to this verdict, passed a law that allowed truth as a defense against a charge of libel. [17]

"Cato" article

In the February 25, 1733 issue of The New York Weekly Journal [18] is an opinion piece written under the pseudonym "Cato." This was a pen-name used by British writers John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, whose essays were published as Cato's Letters (1723). Jeffery A. Smith writes that "Cato" was "The leading luminary of the 18th century libertarian press theory...Editions of Cato's Letters were published and republished for decades in Britain and were immensely popular in America." [19] This article gave its readers a preview of the same argument attorneys Hamilton and Smith presented 18 months later in the government's libel case against Zenger — that truth is an absolute defense against libel. The words are reprinted from Cato's essay "Reflections Upon Libelling":

A libel is not less the libel for being true...But this doctrine only holds true as to private and personal failings; and it is quite otherwise when the crimes of men come to affect the publick…Machiavel says, Calumny is pernicious, but accusation beneficial, to a state; and he shews instances where states have suffered or perished for not having, or for neglecting, the power to accuse great men who were criminals, or thought to be so…surely it cannot be more pernicious to calumniate even good men, than not to be able to accuse ill ones. [20]


Zenger died in New York on July 28, 1746, with his wife continuing his printing business. [8]

Legacy and honors

During World War II, the Liberty ship SS Peter Zenger was named in his honor. [21]

Zenger was a Madison, Wisconsin based underground newspaper that operated during the late 20th century.

See also


  • Copeland, David. "The Zenger Trial." Media Studies Journal 14#2 (2000): 2-7.
  • Covert, Cathy. "‘Passion Is Ye Prevailing Motive’: The Feud Behind the Zenger Case." Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly (1973) 50#1 pp: 3-10.
  • Eldridge, Larry D. "Before Zenger: Truth and Seditious Speech in Colonial America, 1607-1700." American Journal of Legal History (1995): 337-358. in JSTOR
  • Lawson, John Davidson (1914). American state trials. Vol. XVI. St. Louis : Thomas Law Books.
  • Levy, Leonard W. (January 1960). "Did the Zenger Case Really Matter? Freedom of the Press in Colonial New York". The William and Mary Quarterly. Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. 17 (1): 35–50. JSTOR  1943478.
  • Levy, Leonard Williams, ed. Freedom of the press from Zenger to Jefferson: early American libertarian theories (Irvington Publishers, 1966)
  • Olsen, Alison (2000). "The Zenger Case Revisited: Satire, Sedition and Political Debate in Eighteenth Century America". Early American Literature. University of Maryland. 35 (3): 223–245. doi: 10.1353/eal.2000.0009. S2CID  153329184.
  • Pasley, Jeffrey L. (2003). "The tyranny of printers" : newspaper politics in the early American republic. Charlottesville ; London : University Press of Virginia. ISBN  978-0-8139-21891.

Further reading

  • Levy, Leonard W. (January 1960). "Did the Zenger Case Really Matter? Freedom of the Press in Colonial New York". The William and Mary Quarterly. Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. 17 (1): 35–60. JSTOR  1943478.

Primary sources


  1. ^ "7c. The Trial of John Peter Zenger". US History. Retrieved 24 October 2012.
  2. ^ Olsen, 2000, pp. 223-245
  3. ^ a b "Peter Zenger and Freedom of the Press". Early America. Retrieved 24 October 2012.
  4. ^ "Zenger Trial". History Empire. Retrieved 18 November 2012.
  5. ^ Horton, Scott (28 February 2011). "The Obstinate Dr. Heicklen". Harper's Magazine.
  6. ^ a b c Jones, Henry Z Jr. (1985). The Palatine Families of New York 1710. Universal City, CA. ISBN  9780961388829.
  7. ^ Jones, Henry Z Jr. (1991). More Palatine Families. Universal City CA. p. 381. ISBN  9780897253949.
  8. ^ a b Keene, Ann T. (2013). "John Peter Zenger". Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present. German Historical Institute.
  9. ^ "The New York Weekly Journal and the Arrest of John Peter Zenger". Federal Hall. National Park Service.
  10. ^ Presbyterian Historical Society; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Church Registers; Book Title: Church Register 1701-1746; Accession Number: V MI46 P477rr v.1.
  11. ^ The Archives of the Reformed Church in America; New Brunswick, New Jersey; Collegiate Church, Ecclesiastical Records, Baptisms, Members, Marriages, 1639-1774.
  12. ^ Keene, A. (2013, February 12). John Peter Zenger. Retrieved March 05, 2018
  13. ^ Hudson, Frederic. (1873) Journalism in the United States, from 1690-1872. Forgotten Books. p. 82.
  14. ^ Pasley, 2003, pp. 30-31
  15. ^ Levy, 1960, p. 43
  16. ^ Lawson, 1914, p. viii
  17. ^ Levy, 1960, p. 38
  18. ^ Although this issue of Zenger's newspaper is dated 1733, the actual year was 1734. At the time, Britain and the colonies used a calendar system wherein January, February and part of March retained the preceding year's date. This system was eliminated in the 1750s.
  19. ^ Smith, Jeffery (1990). Printers and Press Freedom: The Ideology of Early American Journalism. Oxford University Press. p. 25. ISBN  9780195362367.
  20. ^ Gordon, Thomas (10 June 1721). "Reflections Upon Libelling". Classical Liberals. Retrieved 30 September 2016.
  21. ^ Williams, Greg H. (25 July 2014). The Liberty Ships of World War II: A Record of the 2,710 Vessels and Their Builders, Operators and Namesakes, with a History of the Jeremiah O'Brien. McFarland. ISBN  978-1476617541. Retrieved 7 December 2017.

External links