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Dr. William Wroten

Delmarva Heritage Series

* Freedom of the Press - Trial of Peter Zenger

Salisbury Times - August 25, 1958

In development of the American mind one of the most significant facts has been that early in American history the press was relatively free. During the colonial period the sentiment for freedom of the press was growing and in some of the colonies the principle was being accepted. The famous case of John Peter Zenger was one of the greatest milestones on the path of freedom

which is such a major characteristic of the American newspaper. It should be of interest to the people of the Delmarva Peninsula that the two principals in this noteworthy trial were inhabitants of the Shore-John Peter Zenger, the accused, and Andrew Hamilton, his attorney.

John Peter Zenger, the first martyr in the struggle for free press in America, was born in Germany. At the age of 13, in 1710, he migrated to America. His father died on ship, leaving a widow, John Peter, a younger brother, and a sister. In 1711, John Peter was apprenticed for eight years to the first printer in New York, William Bradford. At the end of his indenture/apprenticeship, Zenger married Mary White and settled in Chestertown, MD. Here he became a naturalized citizen and in 1720, he petitioned the General Assembly to be allowed to print the session laws. The petition was granted, but it was debatable whether he ever printed them. One source claims that he did, but more reliable sources say that no trace of these session laws can be found.

His stay in Chestertown, however, was not long for his wife soon did and he returned to New York where he married Anna Catherina Maulin, also a native German. Zenger was the father of six children, one by his first wife and five by his second.


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Zenger, now a freeman of the city, in 1725 formed a partnership with his ex-master, Bradford, but the following year set up in business for himself. The books which he published during this period, mostly in Dutch, were polemical tracts and English and Dutch sermons. In 1730 he printed Peter Venema's Arithmetica, the first arithmetic book in the New York Colony.

In the early 1730's, Gov. William Cosby made several major changes in the administration of the colony which brought about a powerful protest from all classes of people. In 1733 the leaders of this revolt backed Zenger as the publisher and editor of the New York Weekly Journal, an anti-administration paper, as opposed to William Bradford's New York Gazette, organ of the government.

Judging from the style of the first articles to appear in Zenger's newspaper, they must have been written by his better educated backers of the legal profession. Although Zenger never gained a good command of the English language, his own articles show "a courageous and polemical spirit."


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No matter who the author, Zenger as the publisher was legally responsible and in 1734, action was taken by the government for his punishment. Issues of his paper containing criticism of the governor and his council was ordered burned. Shortly thereafter Zenger was arrested, and as his bail was set high, he was forced to remain in jail. Zenger remained in jail nearly 10 months and during that time the paper was published each week by his wife, who received her instructions "through the Hole of the Door of the Prison." Zenger was finally brought to trial in April, 1735, but at the time his counselors were barred for attacking the validity of the judges. When he came up for trial again in August, 1735, the famous Andrew Hamilton was on hand to plead his case.

Very little is known of the early life of Andrew Hamilton, the later eminent Philadelphia lawyer, It is believed he came to Accomack County, Virginia, sometime late in the 17th century. In Accomack County he taught and acted as a steward of an estate. In 1706 he married Anne Brown Presson, the widow of the estate's owner. It is said that Hamilton's wife assisted him valuable connections in Maryland. Be that as it may, two years after his marriage he purchased an estate of 6,000 acres on the Chester River in Maryland. He lived in Kent County for some years, built up a legal practice, and represented Kent County in the General Assembly. Hamilton's public career really had its beginning when he was a member of the Assembly, and while there in 1715, he served on a committee which framed a code for the province which remained the law, with little change, for the rest of the colonial period.


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After his return from a visit to England in 1712 - 1713, he began to establish a law practice in Philadelphia as well. In 1717 he was appointed attorney-general of Pennsylvania. From 1724 to 1726, he was once again in England, this time representing the interests of the Penn family. On his return to America, the proprietors (Penns) granted him an estate of 153 acres in what is now the very heart of Philadelphia. From this time on he held many important offices in Pennsylvania. One source states, "His independence, versatility, and self-confidence are illustrated by his connection with the erection of the Pennsylvania State House, afterward known as Independence Hall. Its site and main architectural features are due to him." But his main title to fame is the successful defense of John Peter Zenger against the charge of seditious libel.

When Zenger's first lawyers were disbarred, he was left practically defenseless as the rest of the lawyers in New York were either of the Governor's group or else too intimidated to be helpful. Unbeknown, however, the leaders of the revolt had invited Andrew Hamilton to undertake the defense of Zenger and the issue of the press's freedom.

The aged Hamilton admitted that Zenger was the author of the articles, which under the common law of criminal libel of that day was just the same as saying Zenger was guilty as charged. But Hamilton went beyond this and pleaded for the right of the jury to inquire into the truth or falsity of the libel, and when the court said this could not be done Hamilton appealed to the jury itself. His argument centered around the doctrine in common law that "truth is a defense against libel." Part of this speech, which has been called the "greatest oratorical triumph won in the colonies prior to the speech of James Otis against writs of assistance," is given below.

"The question before the Court and you Gentlemen of the jury, is not of small nor private Concern, it is not the Cause of the poor Printer, nor of New York alone which you are now trying. No! It may in its consequence affect every Freeman that lives under a British Government on the mainland of America. It is the best Cause. It is the Cause of Liberty. And I make no Doubt but your upright conduct this day will only entitle you to the Love and esteem of your Fellow-Citizens, but every Man who prefers Freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you as Men who have baffled the Attempt of Tyranny, and by an impartial and uncorrupt verdict, have laid a noble foundation for security to ourselves, our posterity, and our Neighbors, That to which Nature and the Laws of our Country have given us a Right -- the Liberty both of exposing and opposing arbitrary Power (in these Parts of the World, at least) by speaking and writing Truth."

The jury's unanimous verdict of "Not Guilty" was well received by the people. Even in England it created quite a stir, four editions of the London reprint of the speech were required in less than four months. Although it was not until 55 years later in 1792 that England followed this liberal line in her libel laws, and not until 1805 that New York enacted a libel law admitting truth as a defense, the result of Zenger's trial established the freedom of the press in the colonies and it settled the right of juries to find a general verdict in libel cases.

Not long afterwards, in 1741, Andrew Hamilton died and is buried in the Christ Church graveyard, Philadelphia. Zenger, after the trial, printed a complete verbatim account of the trial --A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger. As a reward for his services, Zenger was made the public printer for New York in 1737 and also for New Jersey in 1738. He was soon dismissed from both positions, however, because of his poor English and ignorance of idioms.


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Although one might say that Zenger died in poverty in 1746, his wife carried on the paper until December, 1748, when it was taken over by John Zenger, a son of his first marriage, who continued it until 1751, when the life of this famous newspaper came to an end.

The American press and the American people owe a great debt to Zenger and Hamilton, and the jurors who heard the case, for helping to establish a barrier against arbitrary power. The seeds of liberty were planned during that period by great Americans. Let us hope that America continues to produce and honor such courageous and freedom-loving men.


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