The Arrest of John Peter Zenger and the Seeds of the American Revolution

Andrew Hamilton defending John Peter ZengerAndrew Hamilton defending John Peter Zenger. (Photo: Library of Congress)

On November 17, 1734, newspaper printer John Peter Zenger was arrested on charges of seditious libel. He would spend eight months in jail, and the ensuing trial would result in a symbolic victory for a free press and lay the foundation for the American Revolution and the First Amendment.

Zenger was the publisher of the Weekly Journal in New York. His newspaper covered the corrupt actions of Royal Governor William S. Cosby. The newspaper accused Cosby and his administration of rigging elections, and accused the governor of numerous crimes.

The Weekly Journal was not published the day after Zenger’s arrest. It would be the only issue missed in its publishing history. The next week, with Zenger’s wife, Anna, at the helm, the Journal resumed publication. In the first issue following Zenger’s arrest, Anna Zenger printed her husband’s statement:

“As you last week were disappointed of my Journal, I think it incumbent on me to publish my apology, which is this. On the Lord’s Day, the seventeenth, I was arrested, taken and imprisoned in the common jail of this City by virtue of a warrant from the Governor, the honorable Francis Harison, and others in the Council (of which, God willing, you will have a copy); whereupon I was put under such restraint that I had not the liberty of pen, ink or paper, or to see or speak with people, until my complaint to the honorable Chief Justice at my appearing before him upon my habeas corpus on the Wednesday following. He discountenanced that proceeding, and therefore I have had since that time the liberty of speaking thro’ the hole of the door to my wife and servants.”

His high bail kept the printer in jail until the trial, so Anna Zenger continued publishing her husband’s letters in the newspaper, which created enormous public sympathy for his case. After the first selection of a jury stacked with people on the governor’s payroll, Anna Zenger’s reporting led to the seating of a new and impartial jury.

Colonial Law at the time defined seditious libel as simply the act of printing information critical of the government. The truth or falsity of the information was irrelevant. As the trial was getting underway, the attorney general laid the case before the jurors by arguing that Zenger was a “seditious person and a frequent printer and publisher of false news and seditious libels.” In the government’s eyes, the case should be a simple one. All it had to prove was that Zenger had printed the material in question for the jury to find guilt in what was known as seditious libel. Under British rule, the colonists could not criticize the government.

The court had disbarred Zenger’s initial two defense attorneys. His new attorney was one of the most famous lawyers in the colonies, Andrew Hamilton. Hamilton admitted that Zenger printed the charges but demanded the prosecution prove them false. In a stirring appeal to the jury, Hamilton pleaded for Zenger’s release: “It is not the cause of one poor printer, but the cause of liberty.” The jury returned in less than ten minutes with a verdict of not guilty, stunning prosecutors and the court by ignoring the law and employing an action known as jury nullification.

The case did not set precedent but it was a symbolic victory for the press. Fearing more jury nullifications, the government sought few seditious prosecutions over the coming years. Newspapers took advantage of this new “freedom” and intensified their scrutiny of British rule in the colonies, fueling the cries for independence from England.

This criticism of British rule led to the American Revolution. The ability of the press to criticize the government was central to the creation of the First Amendment in 1791. Gouverneur Morris, American statesman, founding father and representative of Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, said 50 years after the Zenger trial that: “The trial of Zenger in 1735 was the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.”

About the Author

Kimberly Wilmot Voss

Kimberly Wilmot Voss, PhD, is a tenured associate professor of journalism at the University of Central Florida, where she teaches media law and journalism history and coordinates the journalism program. She is the author of The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and a co-author of Mad Men & Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness (Peter Lang, 2014). She is the winner of the 2014 Carol DeMasters Award for Service to Food Journalism given by the Association of Food Journalism.

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