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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
But John Peter Zenger was a printer, too. He had, in fact, been indentured to Bradford as an apprentice, and after a journeyman’s sojourn in Maryland, had been Bradford’s partner for a year. In 1726 he had set up his own small, struggling printshop in Smith Street, near Maiden Lane. His spelling, syntax, and grammar were unreliable, and his typography left much to be desired. Nevertheless, he did own a working printing press, and this asset, whose value was quite evident to the Morris supporters, led them to back Zenger in the founding of The New-York Weekly Journal , referred to by historian Stanley N. Katz, an authority on Zenger, as “America’s first party newspaper.”
Issue No. 1 of the Journal appeared on November 5, 1733, bearing Zenger’s imprimatur. It featured as its main story the election of Lewis Morris and his son to the assembly against the opposition of Cosby, whose appointed sheriff had used every device to disqualify pro-Morris voters. From its debut the Journal enchanted a readership accustomed only to the bland columns of the Gazette, for its anonymous writers- Alexander, Smith, and the Morrises —wielded the sharpest and most erudite pens in the province. Although it provided some foreign news (with a dateline about ten weeks old) and reported ship arrivals and departures, the Journal regularly devoted its first two pages to a “letter” addressed to Mr. Zenger that was in essence an editorial on local affairs.
It was Alexander, Van Dam’s gifted attorney, who gave Zenger’s paper its basic tone. He and his fellow contributors dipped into the past, quoted from the classics, cited the essays of Addison and Steele, and composed original diatribes against Cosby and his so-called Court Party. Some weeks they applied a touch of sly, ironic innuendo, as in one article that discussed the cabalistic significance of certain letters of the alphabet. It pointed out that the letter C appeared to bring bad luck to New York as well as tu England, as demonstrated in history by Charles i, Cromwell, Charles n, and Lord Cornbury, a predecessor of Cosby’s whose governorship had thrown the colony of New York into turmoil.
Colored by sharp criticism and outspoken dissent, the Journal pursued a course that was bold, indeed reckless, in the light of contemporary libel laws—so rigorous that any printed comment casting disfavor on the government, whether justified or not, could subject both author and publisher to fine and imprisonment.
It cannot be proved in retrospect that the Journal was preparing a challenge, a test of freedom of the press. But it did address the issue at once. In its second and third issues it ran “letters” emphasizing the value of free criticism of government officials. A bad minister was an “impudent Monster in Iniquity,” declared one of these, who might not “immediately be come at by ordinary Justice.” But “let him yet receive the Lash of Satyr... and if he has no Conscience, rouse his Fear . . . sting him with the Dread of Punishment, cover him with Shame, and render his Actions odious to all honest Minds,” and he might be brought down. At the least, such exposures of highly placed administrators would make them cautious, and this alone made “Liberty of the Press not only consistent with, but a necessary Part of the Constitution itself.” (The author’s reference was to the unwritten constitution of England.)
The Journal went on to assert that not only were truthful attacks on wicked officials indispensable to good government, but even the possibility that a free press would give currency to false accusations was to be accepted as risk of freedom. ”... very few good !Ministers can be hurt by Falsehood, but many wicked Ones by seasonable Truth.” The “mischief” that a few might meet with by calumny was nothing to what king and people might suffer “by a shameful, cowardly Silence under the Tyranny of an insolent, rapacious, infamous Minister.” Mere inconvenience was rather to be endured than total destruction. For, “The Loss of Liberty in general would soon follow the Suppression of the Liberty of the Press. . . .”