- Historic Sites
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
Yet despite the lag in the law, the fact remains that Alexander’s account of the trial and Hamilton’s eloquent peroration to the jury were printed widely throughout the intervening years and caused a furor wherever thoughtful men met—from Barbados to the Inns of Court. They went through fourteen editions in this country alone before 1791. And the Zenger trial was referred to repeatedly during the drafting of the First Amendment to the Constitution. As early as 1738 an English barrister, quoted by a correspondent in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, declared, “If it is not law it is better than law, it ought to be law, and will always be law wherever justice prevails. ”
Quite apart from Hamilton ‘s brilliant victory, it should not be overlooked that John Peter Zenger, the humble printer, inarticulate and merely a mechanical aide to his intellectual contributors—the virtually unseen eye of the storm of political and philosophical controversy that raged around him—had also established a precedent of great importance by his silence, his refusal to divulge the identities of the men whose words he published. Ever since, journalists have looked back upon Zenger as the father of their most cherished and inviolable privilege—the right to protect the sources of their information, a right they must constantly fight for to this day.
The importance of the Zenger trial was not underestimated by the Founding Fathers m 1776. In the words of Gouverneur Morris: “The trial of Zenger in 1735 was the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America. ”