John Peter Zenger died 30 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, but his work as a newspaper publisher and, in particular, his trial for sedition influenced revolutionary thinkers of the day and continued to have lasting effects on American jurisprudence. Alexander Hamilton, one of the most influential of early U.S. leaders, represented Zenger at trial and used the case to demonstrate some of his fundamental beliefs about personal liberty. The outrage over the trial also stirred up anti-government sentiment in the last decades of Colonial rule.
An American Success Story
Even without the notoriety of his trial, Zenger might have become an exemplar of the ideals of the new nation the Founding Fathers envisioned. Arriving in the American colonies from Germany as the child of an indentured servant who died during the Atlantic crossing, Zenger rose from this impoverished beginning to become the apprentice to William Bradford, a leading printer in New York. He achieved some business success, but, according to the “Encyclopedia of World Biography,” did not prosper; when the political faction of ousted judge Lewis Morris selected Zenger as their publisher, however, his fortunes seemed to change. The “New-York Weekly Journal” garnered a wide following and became a key voice for anti-government sentiment.
Although Zenger did not write most of the material in the “Journal,” as publisher he was legally responsible for its content; he refused to name the anonymous authors. The paper had printed substantive criticisms of the alleged corruption of New York Governor William Cosby as well as satirical poems and other lampoons. Cosby tried a number of censorship measures, including requesting the legislature to order the state executioner to burn copies of the paper; in November 1734, the state Supreme Court, packed with Cosby’s allies, issued a bench warrant for Zenger’s arrest on the charge of seditious libel.
The Historical Society of the New York Courts’ account of the case explains that in colonial America, seditious libel was defined as “intentional publication, without lawful excuse or justification, of written blame” of a public institution or person – in this case, Governor Cosby. The articles in the “New-York Weekly Journal” were in some cases false, Cosby argued, but certainly defamatory. New York Chief Justice James DeLancey instructed jurors only to consider the question of whether Zenger had published the scandalous articles, not the content of the articles themselves.
Zenger’s trial did not, according to The Historical Society of the New York Courts, establish a direct legal precedent, but it did have a far-ranging impact on American thought, especially in jurisprudence. Hamilton, who represented Zenger after DeLancey disbarred the first attorneys for criticizing his impartiality, defied the official line that the truth of the material was irrelevant, arguing instead for freedom of expression; the jury declared Zenger not guilty. Morris' grandson Gouverneur, who represented Pennsylvania at the in the Constitutional Convention, called the case “the germ of American freedom,” according to The Historical Society of the New York Courts. It influenced the crafting of the Bill or Rights and, later, the Sedition Act of 1798.
Jennifer Spirko has been writing professionally for more than 20 years, starting at "The Knoxville Journal." She has written for "MetroPulse," "Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times" and "Some" monthly. She has taught writing at North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee. Spirko holds a Master of Arts from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-on-Avon, England.