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Zenger Trial

John Peter Zenger and the Zenger Trial

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John Peter Zenger was born in Germany in 1697. He immigrated to New York with his family in 1710. His father died during the voyage, and his mother, Joanna, was left to support him and his two siblings. At the age of 13, Zenger was apprenticed for eight years to the prominent printer William Bradford who is known as the "pioneer printer of the middle colonies." They would form a brief partnership after the apprenticeship before Zenger decided to opened his own printing shop in 1726. When Zenger would be later brought to trial, Bradford would remain neutral in the case. 

Zenger was approached by Lewis Morris, a chief justice who had been removed from the bench by Governor William Cosby after he ruled against him. Morris and his associates created the “Popular Party” in opposition to Governor Cosby and needed a newspaper to help them spread the word. Zenger agreed to print their paper as the New York Weekly Journal.

At first, the governor ignored the newspaper which made claims against the governor including his having arbitrarily removed and appointed judges without consulting the legislature. However, once the paper began to grow in popularity, he decided to put  a stop to it.  Zenger was arrested and a formal charge of seditious libel was made against him on November 17, 1734. Unlike today where libel is only proven when the published information is not only false but intended to harm the individual, libel at this time was defined as holding the king or his agents up to public ridicule. It did not matter how true the printed information was.

Despite the charge, the governor was unable to sway a grand jury. Instead, Zenger was arrested based on prosecutors’ “information,” a way to circumvent the grand jury. Zenger's case was taken before a jury.

Zenger was defended by Andrew Hamilton, a Scottish lawyer who would eventually settle in Pennsylvania. He was not related to Alexander Hamilton. However, he was important in later Pennsylvania history, having helped design Independence Hall. Hamilton took the case on pro bono. Zenger's original lawyers had been stricken from the attorney's list due to the corruption that surround the case. Hamilton was able to successfully argue to the jury that Zenger was allowed to print things as long as they were true. In fact, when he was not allowed to prove that the claims wer true through evidence, he was able to eloquently argue to the jury that they saw the evidence in their everyday lives and therefore didn't need additional proof.

The result of the case did not create a legal precedent because a jury’s verdict does not change the law. However, it had a huge impact on the colonists who saw the importance of a free press to hold the government power in check. Hamilton was lauded by New York colonial leaders for his successful defense of Zenger. Nonetheless, individuals would continue to be punished for publishing information harmful to the government until state constitutions and later the US Constitution in the Bill of Rights would guarantee a free press.

Zenger continued to publish the New York Weekly Journal until his death in 1746. His wife continued to publish the paper after his death. When his eldest son, John, took over the business he only continued to publish the paper for three more years.

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