John Peter Zenger: One Man’s Struggle for Free Press, Part II

Trial of John Peter Zenger historical pageant | Courtesy of Library of Congress

When the news of the content of Zenger’s newspaper spread, Cosby was informed of the allegations being printed against him, and became outraged by these attacks. After two failed attempts to have Zenger indicted for seditious libel, Cosby ordered the town sheriff to deliver a court order requiring some of Zenger’s newspaper articles to be burned. The order read,

Whereas by an order of this Council some of John Peter Zenger’s journals, entitled The New York Weekly Journal, Nos. 7, 47, 48, 49, were ordered to be burned by the hands of the common hangman or whipper near the pillory in this city on Wednesday the 6th [1734] between the hours of 11 and 12 in the forenoon, as containing in them many things tending to sedition and faction, to bring His Majesty’s government into contempt, and to disturb the peace thereof, and containing in them likewise not only reflections upon His Excellency the Governor in particular, and the legislature in general, but also upon the most considerable persons in the most distinguished stations in this Province.1

Eleven days later, Cosby was finally able to have Zenger arrested for the charge of seditious libel. Zenger’s bail was set for eight hundred pounds, which is equivalent to $128,000 in American currency today. Cosby was hopeful the arrest would force Zenger to reveal his sources. Unfortunately for Cosby, Zenger remained silent and refused to reveal the true authors behind the articles he published. Unable to pay his bail, Zenger spent ninety days in jail until his trial date on August 4th, 1735.2

Burning of Zenger's newspaper | New York | Courtesy of The New York Digital Collections
Burning of Zenger’s newspaper | New York | Courtesy of The New York Digital Collections

Originally, Zenger was going to be represented by fellow anti-Cosby supporters, James Alexander and William Smith Sr. Although their designated legal team did not remain in place as hoped, Justice James De Lancey, an ally of Cosby, had both Alexander and Smith Sr. disbarred.3 Fortunately for Zenger, he was able to be represented by the well-known American colonial lawyer Andrew Hamilton. He was born in Scotland, and came to the United States around 1700. Hamilton settled in Virginia and later in Philadelphia, where he practiced law. In 1717, he was appointed the attorney general of Pennsylvania. Hamilton served in the provincial assembly and was speaker of the house from 1727 to 1739. He was also responsible for choosing the site and general design of the Pennsylvania State House, later known as Independence Hall. Despite Hamilton’s impressive reputation, he became known for his work on the Zenger case. Hamilton’s unique approach and main defense for the case was in proving that the publications of articles with truthful content cannot be considered libelous.4

The Trial of John Peter Zenger | New York | Courtesy of
The Trial of John Peter Zenger | New York | Courtesy of Credo

In Hamilton’s opening argument he stated, “I cannot think it proper for me to deny the Publication of a Complaint, which I think is the right of every freeborn subject to make when the matters so published can be supported with truth.”5 Hamilton went on by reiterating the difference between truth and false libel. He declared that libel must be both harmful and false. He explained to the jurors that if they found Zenger guilty of this charge, they would be implying that truth is a greater sin than lying. In a strong final statement, Hamilton argued, “[This case] is not the cause of one poor printer, of New York alone, which you are now trying. No!… It is the cause of liberty.”6 It was not long after the conclusion of the trial, that the jury returned with a not guilty verdict.7

The case against John Peter Zenger established more than just a precedent for the freedom of the press; it also proved that it is possible for people to fight against unjust rulers as well as fight for liberty. Zenger passed away forty-five years before the first amendment was ratified, instilling freedom of the press into the Constitution. Although he was not alive to witness the ratification of the Bill of Rights, he was one of the brave souls who helped begin the up hill battle that allowed Americans to receive these liberties.

Back to Part I

  1. “Trial of John Peter Zenger for libel,” Trial Of John Peter Zenger For Libel (January 10, 2009): 80. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (21213343).
  2. Vincent Buranelli, “Peter Zenger’s Editor,” American Quarterly, 7, no. 2 (1955): 5–9.
  3.  American National Biography (from Oxford University Press), 2010, s.v. “William Cosby,” by Robert E. Cray.
  4.  Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2016, s.v. “Hamilton, Andrew.”
  5. “Trial of John Peter Zenger for libel,” Trial Of John Peter Zenger For Libel (January 10, 2009): 80. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (21213343).
  6.  “Trial of John Peter Zenger for libel,” Trial Of John Peter Zenger For Libel (January 10, 2009): 80. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (21213343).
  7. Harold L. Nelson, “Seditious Libel in Colonial America,” The American Journal of Legal History, 3, no. 2 (April 1959): 1.

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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Just as the first part this article is equally or maybe as excellently written. I loved how you emphasized the importance of what was at risk. Although Zenger was able to keep his silence but still showed how important fighting this injustice was for him. He put his freedoms on the line just for the rest of the people in the United States.

  2. The writing of this article as well as the first part is just outstanding!!! I was captivated by the first paragraph. I expected that Cosby would not be particularly happy about what was said in the papers. I also knew that he would have wanted to stop and get rid of what was said about him. I am especially impressed by the arguments Andrew Hamilton made. Yes, there should be some rules if what the person says is false but if they are telling the truth they should be able to express their feelings.

  3. I read part 1 prior to reading this section and this is written just as well if not better! I loved how you were able to stress just how much was on the line, and Zenger still managed to keep his silence, it really emphasized how important fighting for injustice was for him. You did very well regarding detail, it showed just how much research was put into this. I look forward to reading more of your work, and thank you for sharing this information!

  4. Interesting article. Zenger is a man derserving of respect. Zenger put is freedoms on the line to protect the freedoms of the men that he publish. Zenger went to jail for ninty days before his trail, can you imagine how distress he was? Overall I thought this article was well done. The pacing of the article was great and the details within in were even better. Good Job!

  5. Maalik Stansbury

    Cool. The way of proving and showing how one values the freedom press, with a type of exception is pretty cool. Thats amazing how he had to fight for his right to print what he wants to print. Great job with presenting the information in a intricate fashion.

  6. I recently went to the movies to see the movie “Loving” about the Loving vs Virginia case which later made the prohibition of marriage based on race unconstitutional. I always find it fascinating that such great milestones in the American Constitution, and in this case, the Bill of Rights can start from one person. Interracial marriages was deemed to be ok with the efforts of one couple. This is somewhat the same situation in which one man challenged an unjust law that took away his freedom of speech and freedom of the press and was able to inherently give all of us, as US citizens, this right even though he was not able to see it for himself.

  7. Jezel Luna

    Throughout both of these articles you kept me very entertained to read more. I felt so apologetic for Zenger. I have so much respect for him and his beliefs. What a shame that he was not able to see the first amendment established, considering he was one of “brave souls” who contributed to pushing for these liberties. Very well researched article, I loved how you really went into detail for both parts.

  8. Yesenia Cardenas

    Both articles were absolutely amazing! They kept the readers attention and wanting more. I have much respect for Zenger in the loyalty he had towards the men who he published in the articles. It took a lot a great amount of loyalty to stay in jail for the ninety days until his trial. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be in jail during that time but I’m sure it wasn’t pleasant.

  9. Rachel White

    Your first paragraph was very well written and gained the reader’s attention quickly, especially with its relevancy with social media platforms, magazines by the registers, and let’s not forget our presidential election! Both parts of your article contained great detail and explained the story very well. You did a great job tying everything together in the end as well to not only be about freedom of speech, but the freedom for Americans to fight to injustices bestowed upon them. It makes me saddened that he was not alive for the addition of freedom of speech into the constitution, but we do owe him a thank you for not submitting to those of higher power with money and for sticking it out and holding his ground. It’s hard to think what our country would be like now without his help.

  10. Celina Resendez

    I really have respect for Zenger. His life was basically on the line, but he kept his lips sealed for the real men behind the articles he published. It takes a lot for someone to do a task such as this, but he really stepped up and knew what the right thing to do was. He was lucky to have found Hamilton to get his case overturned. Again, great article! Thank you for sharing this information with us!

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