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Rare Issue of John Peter Zenger’s
New-York Weekly Journal, 1734
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John Peter Zenger’s iconic newspaper, The New-York Weekly Journal, was created to spark popular opposition to William Cosby, the new royal governor of New York. He was the last colonist to be prosecuted for seditious libel, and to have his case go to trial, before the American Revolution. Zenger’s case, ending in his acquittal, stands as a landmark in the history of one of our most basic rights – freedom of the press. Historian Leonard Levy concludes that “the Zenger verdict made people exult in liberty and the relationship of liberty of the press to liberty itself.”

Pre-1768 newspapers are exceedingly rare, and this newspaper is central to the debate over freedom of the press in America.

[JOHN PETER ZENGER]. Newspaper, The New-York Weekly Journal, Containing the freshest advices, Foreign and Domestick, Numb. XXXIV. New York: John Peter Zenger, June 24, 1734 4 pp. 11 x 6⅞ in.

Inventory #30026.01       Price: $4,800

Excerpt

Mr. Zenger;

I Find Mr. Bradford’s [William Bradford’s competing New York Gazette] Writers are not contented to asperse the Character of People in the Province, but extend their Endeavours beyond Sea, and that in an Instance which shews no great Regard to His Majesty: They take upon themselves to say, That Sir John Norris, whom His Majesty has thought fit to entrust with the Command of the British Fleet, is Superanuated. This I suppose is to insinuate to the World, That His Majesty has thought fit to employ a Person whose great Age renders him unfit for that Station, and therefore a Conduct not altogether prudent. How fit a Thing of that Kind (if true, as it is not) was to be published in the Government’s Paper here I leave the World to judge. The Admirers of Atterbury and Collier, and the Principles they espoused, cannot help showing themselves. We desire them to tell us when and where their next imaginary Fleet is to appear, and whether the Ten Sail is it be augmented or not?

Historical Background

William Cosby arrived in New York as the new royally commissioned governor of New York in August 1732.  He soon embroiled himself in a controversy that would lead to the earliest struggle in the American colonies for freedom of the press. Cosby infuriated a bloc of influential New York politicians by demanding half of the salary earned by acting governor Rip Van Dam from July 1731 until Cosby’s arrival in the colony. He turned to the New York Supreme Court, asking that they consider the dispute as a case in equity. Because equity courts sat without juries, Van Dam and his backers, the Morris/Alexander faction, appealed to popular anxiety about unchecked royal power, symbolized by Cosby. The Supreme Court ruled in Cosby’s favor, but Chief Justice Lewis Morris dissented and published his opinion in pamphlet form, denouncing Cosby and claiming that only the Assembly could call an equity case. On August 21, 1733, Cosby suspended Morris as Chief Justice, wrote a letter to the Duke of Newcastle (in London) urging his removal, and elevated James DeLancey in his stead.

In November, John Peter Zenger, William Bradford’s former apprentice, began publishing the rival New York Weekly Journal and almost immediately became an arm of the opposition while Bradford’s Gazette reflected the attitudes of the ruling class. Morris, the defrocked Chief Justice, and lawyers William Smith and James Alexander, who defended Van Dam, began to organize an opposition party. Very likely, Morris and Alexander helped to fund John Peter Zenger’s New-York Weekly Journal as a partisan organ to sound their views and become a focus of anti-Cosby political agitation. The first issue was printed on November 5, 1733. Not three months later, and just six days before this issue came off the press, Zenger accused Governor Cosby of threatening the “liberties and properties” of the people, in his January 28, 1734 issue. Over the coming months, Zenger and his contributors innovated by citing the writings of opposition Whig theorists such as John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, authors of Cato’s Letters. Zenger’s printings popularized a strain of thought and a group of writers who were influential to the Founding Fathers later in the century.

On October 22, 1734, Governor Cosby ordered that issues 7, 47, 48, and 49 of the New-York Weekly Journal be burned. Two weeks later, frustrated in his attempts to quiet the opposition, Cosby ordered Zenger arrested for publishing “false, scandalous, malicious, and seditious libels.” The last charge was most serious – sedition signified an intent to overthrow the government. Cosby’s allies in the Supreme Court, including James DeLancey, ensured that the case would go to trial. During Zenger’s eight-month confinement in New York City’s Old Prison, his wife Anna continued to keep publishing the New-York Weekly Journal, missing only one issue.

Zenger’s defense attorney, Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, was widely considered the best lawyer in the colonies. Hamilton brilliantly conceded that Zenger had published the statements in question, and argued that the jury was bound to consider whether Zenger’s published statements were true or false. Only if they were false could they be, in a legal sense, seditious libel. Truth-as-defense would become an important precedent for the legal history of free speech in America. Hamilton also emphasized the responsibility of the jury – not judges – to decide the law in libel cases, a radical notion for its time.

Bradford, forty three years earlier, had contested similar charges on the same grounds, but he was now seventy-one years old and derived much of his income through governmental appointments and did not rally to Zenger’s defense. Zenger’s case established the important legal precedent that the truthfulness of statements was a defense for libel without Bradford’s help. Bradford would later justify his actions in 1736, sounding like a toady of Governor Cosby. He remained neutral in the Zenger-Cosby controversy because he had “been above forty years last past a Servant to the Government (and consequently to several Governours during that time) so I have according to my duty, some times printed in my Gazette some observations which the late Governour’s Friends, thought proper to make upon what the other Party printed against him, and for so doing Mr. Zenger, or some of the Party, have been angry with me....against my Gazette, insinuating that what I published was not true....” Bradford concluded that he intended to be “obedient to the King, and to all that are put in Authority under him.”

Though Chief Justice DeLancey put forth sound precedents attacking Hamilton’s claims, Hamilton responded by saying that those precedents all derived from the tyrannical Court of Star Chamber, an extinct relic of the Tudor Dynasty. Despite the presence of Cosby allies as judges, the twelve New York City jurors returned a verdict of not guilty on August 5, 1735. Hamilton had achieved victory in a case deemed unwinnable. For his role in defending Zenger, the Common Council of New York awarded Andrew Hamilton (1676-1741) the freedom of the city, with a 5½-ounce gold box, inscribed in Latin, “Acquired not by money, but by character.” Hamilton was the architect of the building that would become Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

James Alexander, soon after Zenger’s acquittal, published his Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger. According to historian Michael Kammen, Alexander’s pamphlet (published by Zenger) became “the most widely known source of libertarian thought in America during the eighteenth century.”

John Peter Zenger (1697-1746) was a German-born immigrant printer and editor who apprenticed under William Bradford, then New York’s only printer. Zenger later broke away from Bradford and established an important opposition newspaper in New York City, the New-York Weekly Journal. His indictment, trial, and acquittal on charges of sedition and libel for his ongoing criticism of Governor William Cosby were significant factors in the development of freedom of the press in colonial America.

References

Bonomi, Patricia. A Factious People: Politics and Society in Colonial New York. New York, 1971, pp. 106-139.

Kammen, Michael. Colonial New York: A History. New York, 1975, pp. 205-212.

Levy, Leonard. Emergence of a Free Press. New York, 1985, p. 37.

“Famous American Trials: John Peter Zenger, 1735.” http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/zenger/zenger.html. Accessed 3-21-08.

Wall, Alexander, Jr. “William Bradford, Colonial Printer. A Tercentenary Review”

http://www.americanantiquarian.org/proceedings/44604985.pdf


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