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:
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.”