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The Case of John Peter Zenger
The law was against the poor printer. The governor wanted his scalp. His attorneys were disbarred. Could anything save him—and free speech?
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
On the morning of August 4, 1735, a cross section of New York’s ten thousand citizens clustered outside the city hall at the corner of Wall and Nassau streets. English and Dutch, men of all classes and trades, waited and argued tensely. Carts bounced over the paving blocks. The midsummer morning light slanted down on white sails in the harbor and on the spire of Trinity Church a block away. Here and there in the crowd readers scanned the pages of a fourpage paper entitled The New-Tork Weekly Journal, Containing the freshest Advices, Foreign, and Domestick .
In a few moments, in a courtroom inside the hall, the publisher of that controversial weekly would go on trial for his freedom. It was not only those in the immediate assembly who sensed the drama of the contest that was about to unfold. Throughout New England, from Boston to Philadelphia, and even in London, men of awareness had long discussed the political and intellectual issues that now were about to collide as the government sought to imprison a littleknown German-born printer: the right of citizens to criticize their rulers versus the claims of public order and safety. It was a tense moment in the unending battle for freedom of speech and press that is by no means quiescent today.
For more than eight months the thirty-eight-year-old John Peter Zenger (whose family had left the Upper Palatinate when he was thirteen) had been held in jail on charges of seditious libel stemming from his publication in the Journal of criticisms of the current colonial administration in New York. These were embodied in editorials and letters to the editor, sometimes scholarly in tone, sometimes satirical, composed by a few of the colony’s most highly literate, erudite, and articulate citizens. And they had continued to appear and to sting the authorities throughout his long incarceration. For Zenger was allowed visits from his wife, Anna, and his two oldest sons; and while they cocked their ears against a hole in the door of his cell, he relayed to them muffled in- structions for printing the work ol his contributors. Except for the first week following; his arrest, the Journal did not miss a single issue.
Meanwhile, the tensions created by this first major confrontation in America between government and the press had kept growing, dividing public opinion not only in New York but in other colonies as well. New York, however, was the storm center. Zenger’s paper was the voice of a faction in the colony’s politics. On his side were most middle-class New Yorkers, most residents of Quaker or Dutch extraction, and most longestablished freeholders —independent owners of land and property. Hostile to him were members of the so-called Court Party—wealthy merchants whose interests lay in trade with England, colonial bureaucrats, and peripheral followers of the incumbent governor of New York, William Cosby. It was this official’s personality and behavior that had thrown the city into turmoil.
When Cosby arrived in New York to assume the office of governor by appointment of King George it on August i, 1732, he ignited the fuse of events that exploded at the Zenger trial three years later. Prior to his coming, the mood of the colony was so tranquil that one of the city’s most distinguished lawyers, James Alexander, predicted that Cosby would enjoy an easier administration than any previous governor of New York. People knew that he was an AngloIrish aristocrat, a close friend of the Duke of Newcastle, an army colonel, and brother-in-law to the Earl of Halifax. These facts had preceded him during the year that elapsed between his appointment and his actual disembarkation in New York Harbor. The cause of the delay, as he let it be known, was his protracted fight to procure the defeat of a sugar bill that would favor southern plantation owners at the expense of the middle colonies. So a trusting and grateful populace was there to welcome him warmly as he set foot ashore.
It did not take long, however, for Cosby to reveal his offensive characteristics. The first to emerge were his unbridled temper and arrogance. The day after his arrival he ordered his coachman to horsewhip a farmer who was driving a loaded wagon with his wife seated beside him, because the man did not yield the right of way to Cosby’s carriage with instant, deferential speed.
The prime force that smouldered within this essentially rather stupid and only half-educated man, however, was avarice. What New Yorkers did not know at first was that in his last post as governor of the Mediterranean island of Minorca he had ruthlessly confiscated the property of a Spanish merchant, sold the property at auction, retained the proceeds, secreted the papers to cover his theft, and denied the injured merchant his right of appeal. News of the affair eventually got back to England, and despite Cosby’s powerful connections, his crime was too flagrant to be ignored. He was ordered to reimburse his victim, fined 10,000 for his misconduct, and removed from his post in Minorca. Yet Cosby somehow managed to obtain other appointments, culminating in his important post as governor of New York, which he avowedly looked upon as an opportunity to “repair his fortunes.”