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Acquittal of Printer John Peter Zenger in Colonial New York Establishes Foundation for American Freedom of the Press
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It is not the cause of a poor is the cause of liberty.

This volume, printed in London three decades after John Peter Zenger’s trial, illustrates the continuing relevance of his acquittal to the freedom of the press. The volume also includes the story of William Owen, a London bookseller, who had been prosecuted for libel at the request of the House of Commons in 1752. Like Zenger, Owen was also acquitted by a jury.

John Almon, a publisher and bookseller known for his commitment to the freedom of the press, printed the volume as part of his challenge to governmental censorship of the press. In the same year that Almon published this pamphlet, the attorney general prosecuted him for the publication of a pamphlet entitled Juries and Libels, but the prosecution failed.

[JOHN PETER ZENGER]. The Trial of John Peter Zenger, Of New-York, Printer: Who was charged with having printed and published a Libel against the Government; and acquitted. With a Narrative of his Case. To which is now added, being never printed before, The Trial of Mr. William Owen, Bookseller, near Temple-Bar, Who was also Charged with the Publication of a Libel against the Government; of which he was honourably acquitted by a Jury of Free-born Englishmen, Citizens of London, 1st ed. London: John Almon, 1765. Three-quarter olive calf, red morocco spine label, stamped in blind and in gilt, over marbled paper-covered boards; some sunning to leather; all edges trimmed. 60 pp., 5 x 8.25 in.

Inventory #27745       Price: $3,500

John Peter Zenger, late of the city of New-York, Printer, (being a seditious person, and a frequent printer and publisher of false news and seditious libels, and wickedly and maliciously devising the government of our said lord the king of this his majesty’s province of New-York, under the administration of his excellency William Colby, Esq; captain-general and governor in chief of the said province, to traduce, scandalize and vilify; and his excellency the said governor, and the ministers and officers of our said lord the king of and for the said province to bring into suspicion and the ill opinion of the subjects of our said lord the king residing within the said province) the twenty-eighth day of January, in the seventh year of the reign of our sovereign lord George the Second, by the grace of God of Great-Britain, France and Ireland, king, defender of the faith, &c. at the city of New-York, did falsly, seditiously and scandalously print and publish, and cause to be printed and published, a certain false, malicious, seditious, scandalous libel, intituled, the New-York Weekly Journal, containing the freshest advices foreign and domestic; in which libel (of and concerning his excellency the said governor, and the ministers and officers of our said lord the king, of and for the said province) among other things therein contained, are these words: ‘Your appearance in print at last gives a pleasure to many, tho’ most wish you had come fairly into the open field, and not appeared behind retrenchments made of the supposed laws against libelling, and of what other men have said and done before; these retrenchments, gentlemen, may soon be shewn to you and all men to be weak, and to have neither law nor reason for their foundation, so cannot long stand you in stead: therefore, you had much better as yet leave them, and come to what the people of this city and province (the city and province of New-York meaning) think are the points in question (to wit) They (the people of the city and province of New-York meaning) think, as matters now stand, that their liberties and properties are precarious, and that slavery is like to be intailed on them and their posterity, if some past things be not amended, and this they collect from many past proceedings.’” (p11-12)

[Andrew Hamilton:] “It is true in times past it was a crime to speak truth, and in that terrible court of star-chamber, many worthy and brave men suffered for so doing; and yet even in that court, and in those bad times, a great and good man durst say, what I hope will not be taken amiss of me to say in this place, to wit, ‘The practice of information for libels, is a sword in the hands of a wicked king, and an arrand coward, to cut down and destroy the innocent; the one cannot, because of his high station, and the other dares not, because of his want of courage, revenge himself in another manner.’

Mr. Attorney. Pray, Mr. Hamilton, have a care what you say, do not go too far neither; I do not like those liberties.” (p29)

[Andrew Hamilton:] “the question before the court and you, gentlemen of the jury, is not of small or private concern; it is not the cause of a poor printer, nor of New-York alone, which you are now trying; no! it may, in its consequence, affect every freeman that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause: it is the cause of liberty!... That, to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right,—the liberty—both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power (in these parts of the world at least) by speaking and writing truth.” (p46)

The jury withdrew, and in a small time returned, and being asked by the clerk, ‘Whether they were agreed of their verdict, and whether John Peter Zenger was guilty of printing and publishing the libels in the information mentioned?’ They answered by Thomas Hunt, their foreman, Not Guilty

Upon which there were three huzzas in the hall, which was crowded with people; and the next day Zenger was discharged from his imprisonment.” (p47-48)

Historical Background
Three grand juries had refused to indict John Peter Zenger, but he was arrested anyway, charged with Seditious Libel, and imprisoned for nearly a year before his trial. The trouble had started when the new Royal Governor, William Cosby, arrived in New York in 1732 and re-focused the government on the accumulation of his own wealth and power. He attempted to grab half the salary his predecessor had earned as acting governor, directing his lawsuit to a non-jury trial viewed by many as a form of tyranny. Chief Justice Lewis Morris dismissed the case, so Cosby fired him. Members of the General Assembly, who benefited from Cosby’s refusal to call new elections, voted him a generous five-year pay package.

John Peter Zenger and the supporters of the “Popular Party” and ex-Justice Morris established an opposition newspaper, the New-York Weekly Journal, in 1733. The paper boldly accused Cosby of attempting to rig the 1734 elections, stealing from taxes, appropriating Indian and settlers’ lands, and allowing French ships (England’s enemy) to dock in New York harbor, among other crimes. Getting personal, the paper labeled the governor an idiot and a crook.

On October 22, 1734, Cosby ordered the burning of issues 7, 47, 48, and 49 of the New-York Weekly Journal. Unintimidated, Zenger would not name the authors of the critical articles. Two weeks later, the governor had Zenger arrested for publishing “false, scandalous, malicious and seditious libels.” The word “false” was gratuitous; at the time “seditious libel” legally applied to anything opposing or belittling the government. With Zenger in jail, his wife Anna kept publishing the Journal during his confinement, missing only a single day right after his arrest.

Cosby appointed new Chief Justice James Delancy and Attorney General Richard Bradley to serve at his pleasure. Not by coincidence, the original jury roll was overflowing with similarly conflicted men. Because Anna Zenger had managed to keep the spotlight on the rigged proceedings, the court gave up on packing the jury. But Zenger’s lawyers, James Alexander and William Smith, were disbarred in April of 1735 for questioning the judge’s legitimacy.

Knowing that Cosby and his cronies would prevent any New York lawyer from mounting a competent defense, they asked Philadelphia’s Andrew Hamilton for help. He paid his own way to New York to represent Zenger pro bono in the trial that opened on August 4 in City Hall.[1]

Attorney General Bradley told the jury that Zenger was “a seditious person and a frequent printer and publisher of false news and seditious libels” who had “wickedly and maliciously” devised to “traduce, scandalize, and vilify” Governor Cosby and his ministers. He instructed the jury that they must convict if they found only that Zenger printed the offensive articles.

Hamilton countered that Zenger’s acquittal was necessary, as “nature and the laws of our country have given us a right—the liberty—both of exposing and opposing arbitrary speaking and writing truth.”

Andrew Hamilton audaciously opened by conceding that Zenger had in fact published the articles, which caused the dismissal of the only three witnesses. But he demanded that the prosecution prove that Zenger had published anything that was not true, and pleaded directly to the jury that “all freemen...have a right publicly to remonstrate the abuses of put their neighbors upon their guard against the craft or open violence of men in authority....”

He argued that a jury that believed a criminal law to be unjust should refuse to enforce the law, which became known as the theory or act of Jury Nullification. “This of leaving it to the judgment of the court whether the words are libellous or not in effect renders juries useless (to say no worse)....”

Attorney General Bradley had perhaps unintentionally pointed out that, to a corrupt power, the truth could be more dangerous than lies: “As Mr. Hamilton has confessed [Zenger’s] printing and publishing of these libels, I think the Jury must find a verdict for the king. For supposing they were true, the law says that are not the less libelous for that. Nay, indeed the law says their being true is an aggravation of the crime.”

Hamilton called the twelve jurors the last “bulwark against lawless power.” Playing out around the globe to this day, we repeatedly see the truth of his warning, that oppressive governments provoke the people “to cry out and complain; and then make that very complaint the foundation for new oppressions and prosecutions.”

He pointed out that many of the prosecution’s precedents were from non-jury Star Chamber cases, where the Crown and powerful ministers were unchecked by judges “who held their places ‘at pleasure,’ a disagreeable tenure to any officer, but a dangerous one in the case of a judge.”[2] The displeased Chief Justice called out “the great pains Mr. Hamilton has taken to show how little regard juries are to pay to the opinion of judges.” He firmly instructed the jury that there were no facts for it to decide, in effect ordering a “guilty” verdict: “The law is clear that you cannot justify a libel… [the jury must] leave to the Court to judge whether they are libelous.”

The jury took less than ten minutes to return a verdict – Not Guilty. Zenger was freed.

While the law remained unchanged, victory in Zenger set a real-world foundation for the freedom of the press, the freedom of expression, and especially the right of the people to protest and oppose corruption. There were still prosecutions for seditious libel, but many cases were prevented or restrained by the prospect of jury nullification. As late as 1804, the New York Supreme Court found journalist Harry Croswell guilty of libel, ruling that truth was not a defense against libel. The following year, the New York Assembly passed a law in reaction to this verdict, allowing truth as a defense against the charge of libel.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Gouverneur Morris recognized Zenger’s importance, calling it: “the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.”

John Peter Zenger (1697-1746) was born in the German Palatinate and immigrated with his family to New York in 1710. He was an apprentice for eight years to William Bradford (1663-1752), the first printer in New York. After briefly working as a printer in Maryland, Zenger returned to New York by 1722. In 1719, he married Mary White in Philadelphia. After her death, he married Anna Catharina Maul in 1722 in New York City, and they had several children. He had a brief printing partnership with Bradford in 1725 but then set up his own business in New York City. In 1733, in his New -York Weekly Journal, Zenger published articles critical of the actions of colonial governor William Cosby. Zenger was charged with libel and imprisoned. During the subsequent trial, Chief Justice James DeLancey, who had been appointed by Cosby, rebuffed Zenger’s attorney, Andrew Hamilton, who appealed directly to the jury. After a ten-minute deliberation, the jury found Zenger not guilty. After Zenger died, his wife continued his printing business.

John Almon (1737-1805) was born in Liverpool, England, and in 1758 moved to London, where he found work as a printer. He was a friend of the political reformer John Wilkes and became known in the early 1760s as a Whig pamphleteer and London bookseller. As a journalist, his parliamentary reports, published in the London Evening Post, caused a crisis between printers and Parliament in 1771. Wilkes used his position as an alderman of the City of London to prevent the arrest of printers and end Parliament’s power to punish journalists who reported its debates. Almon was once imprisoned for libel and once forced to flee the country. His printed attacks on William Pitt in the 1780s led to his imprisonment for fourteen months in 1792-1793. He lived the rest of his life on bail.

Condition: Very good.

Howes Z-6; Sabin 106311; ESTC T51691

[1] In 1789, the building was renamed Federal Hall. The Federal Hall National Memorial stands there now, diagonal to the New York Stock exchange. See “The Place Where It Happened.”

[2]The Glorious Revolution of 1688 abolished the Star Chamber court and the tyrannical reign that invented it.

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