The Trial of John Peter Zenger
How American colonists won freedom of the press
John Peter Zenger was arrested on a Sunday in November 1734, on charges of libel.
The warrant for his arrest read, in part:
"… his Journals or News Papers… having in them many Things, tending to raise Factions and Tumults, among the People of this Province, inflaming their Minds with Contempt of His Majesty's Government, and greatly disturbing the Peace thereof…"
Zenger, a poor German immigrant with a large family to support, had taken work publishing columns and letters in a brand-new paper, “The New York Weekly Journal”. The paper that pre-existed it was run by a man who wouldn’t publish anything critical of the colonial government. Zenger’s paper quickly became a popular outlet for people tired of the actions of the government, particularly the newest governor of New York, William Cosby.
And people had a lot of complaints about Cosby. The first thing he did on arriving at his new post was to start a fight about the size of his salary. He gained favor with the General Assembly by refusing to call for new elections. He seized the lands of some of the colonists he governed. He made promises he never intended to keep, and acted with impunity.
After Zenger’s arrest on charges of libel, he was not allowed to communicate with anyone for several days. The following Monday’s edition of the “Journal” never ran. After his first hearing, things changed slightly for the better. The next edition of Zenger’s paper published, and had a message from him, that read in part:
“…I have since that time [of the hearing] the Liberty of Speaking through the Hole of the Door, to my Wife and Servants by which I doubt not yo’l think me sufficiently Excused for not sending my last weeks Journall, and I hope for the future Liberty of Speaking to my servants thro’ the Hole of the Door of the Prison, to entertain you with my weokly Journall as formerly. And am your obliged Humble Servant.”
Zenger’s bail had been set at 400 pounds sterling. In 2022 dollars, that’s about $110,000. The judge, who had been installed by the governor, also required Zenger to have two sureties, or guarantors of the bail. Zenger likely didn’t have a tenth of that sum, and people don’t leap out of walls to support those incarcerated by corrupt governments. He was going to be staying in jail for a while.
In fact, he remained there until Jan. 5 of the next year. It was then he went before a jury with hopes of being released, but was instead charged with more crimes and returned to his imprisonment.
In April, Zenger’s attorneys James Alexander and William Smith made a motion before the court to seek legal relief. Not being able to match the wit of the two lawyers, the Chief Justice replied, “…you have brought it to that Point, That either, We must go from the Bench or you from the Barr: Therefore We exclude you and Mr. Alexander from the Barr.”
The judges summarily disbarred the two attorneys, with little recourse, from their entire practice in court. They were out of business. The two petitioned to be restored, but in the meanwhile, Zenger’s trial moved forward. His new, court-appointed lawyer entered a plea of not guilty, but was careful not to repeat Alexander and Smith’s arguments. He had been befriended by the governor previously and didn’t want to lose his career as Alexander and Smith had.
Alexander and Smith weren’t done with the case, though. For their own sake and Zenger’s, they looked for other attorneys to take up the case on their behalf, and found Andrew Hamilton.
Hamilton, later referred to as “the day-star of the American Revolution” was almost sixty years old in a time when the average life expectancy was in the mid-thirties. He took up the case on a pro bono basis and traveled to New York from Philadelphia.
He would argue that truth is a defense against charges of libel.
To be continued…