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The Zenger Trial

Page history last edited by Kevin.Bell 14 years, 5 months ago

John Peter Zenger was born in 1697, a native of the Rhenish Palatinate region of southwestern Germany. His family immigrated to America in 1710, the same year he apprenticed under William Bradford, the only printer in New York at the time and one of the top men of his trade in the Colonies.  In 1726 Zenger went into business for himself, becoming the first rival of his former master. For six years he printed mostly critical pamphlets and open letters for New Yorkers who were dissatisfied with the situation of either church or state and wanted to say so. He eventually became the “official” printer to political writers whose material Bradford could not, or would not, touch.   


In 1732 William Cosby became the royal governor of New York, setting in motion the train of political events that led to the Zenger trial . Cosby was quick-tempered, jealous, and, above all, greedy.  He was only interested in aspects of governorship that brought in money. By 1734 the opposition against Cosby had grown, and Lewis Morris was sent to England to plead for the governor’s removal on the grounds of incapacity. It was then that the New York Weekly Journal was launched, with the aim of stirring up the criticism of the governor in the colony.   


The Journal, edited by James Alexander and printed by Zenger, was the first political independent ever published on this continent. Essays in it accused Cosby of voting as a member of the Council during its legislative sessions, of demanding that bills from the Assembly be presented to him before the Council saw them, and of adjourning the Assembly in his own name instead of the king’s. 


The Journal became known as “Zenger’s paper” because only his name appeared on it. On November 17, 1734, he was arrested on the Council’s warrant, which charged him with printing and publishing seditious libels that tended to inflame the minds of the people against the government and disturbing the peace.


During Zenger's imprisonment all but one issue of the Journal failed to be published.  The credit for its appearance every Monday belongs to his wife, Anna Catherine Zenger, who took up his responsibility in the back of the shop. 


Zenger was acquitted on August 4, 1735 with the help of his friend and editor James Alexander and Andrew Hamilton, a lawyer who came from Philadelphia to defend him.  Zenger's acquittal helped to resolve the ambiguity along the lines of greater freedom and set a legal precedent.  With the acquittal of the Defendant involved the condemnation of the Plantiff.  Cosby's administration was found guilty of the things which the Journal charged it.  A change in the mutual relations of judges and juries was a long-term effect that occured.  The jury brought the decision of not guilty and took the power away from the governor controlled court. The legal tag, "The greater the truth, the greater the libel," was coined at that time, some say by Cosby himself.  The verdict broke Cosby's will, and he died shortly after a discredited man, but still the Governor of New York on March 10, 1736.  


The two great principles -- that truth may be used as a defense in libel cases, and that the jury has the right to decide on both the "fact" and the "law" -- did eventually became the law in both Britain and America.


The Zenger case assisted the rise of public opinion as a factor in American life.  Ever since, journalists have looked back on the Zenger case as the origin of their most primordial right.  Throughout Zenger’s imprisonment he maintained silence about the identity of the men who wrote the contents of his newspaper, which established the precedent that a journalist has the right to keep the sources of his information secret.  


Gouverneur Morris spoke for all fighting for their freedom from the Crown when he delievered his famous judgment that "The trial of Zenger in 1735 was the morning star of that liberty that subsequently revolutionized America."


For further images, records, and issues of the New YorkWeekly Journal

see The Zenger Trial                                                                                                                                      





Alexander, James. A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,



This book contains three parts: Appendix A contains numerous selections from Zenger’s Press, the New York Weekly Journal; Appendix B contains preparations for the trial by James Alexander; and Appendix C contains two essays.


Buranelli, Vincent. The Trial of Peter Zenger. New York: New York University Press, 1957.


This book outlines the reasons for the fame of John Peter Zenger and Andrew Hamilton.  It also explains why James Alexander, the editor of the New York Weekly Journal, became part of the history of America, democracy, and journalism.



Wiggins, Gene. "The Case of John Peter Zenger." The Press on Trial: Crimes and Trials As Media Events. Ed. Lloyd Chiasson. New York: Greenwood Press,



The first chapter of this book gives a tight, well-written overview of the Zenger Trial.  It begins with appointment of Governor William Cosby, the man responsible for arresting Zenger for publishing, “seditious libels.”


Comments (3)

Howie Good said

at 11:27 pm on Dec 1, 2008

terrific work, kevin.

Elizabeth Gross said

at 7:43 pm on Dec 6, 2008

Very excellent. Maybe mentioning the Political ties of this case, specifically the political party that sided with Zenger and the one against his point of view... it would further open the historical significance of this trial on freedom of the press on the rise and fall of the Federalists solely because of their stance on Freedom of the Press. Also a link or two would be lovely.
Take care!

jordan55@... said

at 11:08 am on Dec 8, 2008

I like the link to that other site, nice idea, I'm going to use that terrific addition if you don't mind buddy ; )

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