John Peter Zenger and the Zenger Trial | Eastchester Westchester County New York
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John Peter Zenger and the Zenger Trial


Westchester County

John Peter Zenger and the Zenger Trial

Historic Zenger Trial
Name: John Peter Zenger
Born: 1697 in Palatinate, Germany
Died: July 28, 1746 in New York

Among the famous people associated with the Town of Eastchester, is John Peter Zenger. Learn about the Zenger Trial and its impact on the American Revolution, and the Bill of Rights, First Amendment relating to Freedom of the Press .

    An election held on the 29th of October, on "the Green" at the Town of Eastchester, was to become the most notable election in the whole colonial history of Westchester County. The elaborate and graphic description of the election was published by John Peter Zenger in the first number of the famous New York Weekly Journal, November 5, 1733.

"John Peter Zenger, the printer whose prosecution helped establish the principles of press freedom and jury nullification, came to America in his early teens. His father died during the family's voyage to America, and the younger Zenger worked for several years as an indentured servant for printer William Bradford before opening his own print shop in 1726. Seven years later he started the New York Weekly Journal, the second newspaper in the colony of New York, competing with the Gazette published by his former master. Stridently partisan in its approach, the Journal was relentless in its criticism and lampooning of Royal Governor William Cosby (1690-1736) and his administration, and on 17 November 1734 Cosby had Zenger arrested and imprisoned for seditious libel. Though Zenger had neither written nor edited the pieces that outraged the Governor, as publisher he could be held liable under law.

"He engaged two lawyers to represent him, and both were promptly disbarred. He then called upon an out-of-state barrister, Andrew Hamilton (c. 1676-1741), who had less to fear from New York's oppressive Governor Cosby. At trial Hamilton admitted that the Journal had printed the items in question, but he made the novel claim that because the criticism was truthful, Zenger should not be punished. When the prosecution pointed out that truth was no defense to charges of sedition, Hamilton's next argument, perhaps even more radical, was to tell the jury to not merely judge whether the law was broken but to determine whether the law was just.

"Zenger was held behind bars for 35 weeks but his trial took only two days, and in the next edition of the paper he reported that "The jury returned in ten minutes, and found me not guilty". During his time in jail, Zenger's wife and colleagues had continued publishing the Journal, and continued its criticisms of the Governor. His prosecution and trial, and his letters written from jail and published in the Journal, helped galvanize American resentment of the colonies' British overlords. More than forty years after his death, Zenger's name was frequently mentioned in the debate that culminated with the American Bill of Rights in 1789." Sourced from Trial of John Peter Zenger.

Second Historic Reference
Events Around the John Peter Zenger Trial

The following text about the trial of John Peter Zenger is sourced from:
History of Westchester County, New York: From Its Earliest Settlement to the Year 1900, Part 1
Authors: Frederic Shonnard, Walter Whipple Spooner
Publisher: New York History Company, 1900
Original from the New York Public Library, Digitized Feb 11, 2008 by Google

"The cry of the Morris party, "No Pretender!" and the altercation about the supposed Jacobite principles of Forster afford added illustration of the fundamental character of the contest. At that period the exiled Stuarts were still scheming to make their way back to the throne of England. In the minds of the plain people, particularly in the American colonies, the associations of the degraded dynasty were entirely those of oppressive rule, licentiousness, corruption, and religious intolerance. No severer political reproach could attach to an American subject (especially if he sought elective office) than the suspicion of being a Jacobite or supporter of the Stuart Pretender. Hence the alacrity with which that reproach was flung at the government candidate by the democratic Morrisites. With such an accumulation of aristocratic sins upon him, it was truly an inconvenient position in which Forster stood when he faced the Westchester yeomanry.

"The newspaper report of the election reproduced above [Source: complete report] was written by a printer from New York, one John Peter Zenger, who had gone to Eastchester to witness the struggle, and doubtless intended his account of it for the columns of the New York Weekly Gazette, at that time the only newspaper in the province. The first number of the Gazette appeared on October 16, 1725, under the direction of William Bradford, who was originally a printer in Philadelphia, but since 1693 had been government printer in New York on a salary of £40 per annum over and above what he might earn at his craft. The Gazette, naturally a government organ, had, throughout the Van Dam controversy, been scrupulously careful to print nothing objectionable to the governor and his partisans; and Zenger's strongly pro-Morris report of the Westchester County election was therefore quite unadapted for insertion in it. It is said that Zenger, before returning to New York, showed his manuscript to a leading Friend, who, referring to the Quaker vote, said: "Send me eight-and thirty copies." At all events, he at once took steps to begin the publication of a rival newspaper; and a week later the first issue of the New York Weekly Journal came from the press. The election report accompanied the edition proper as a broadside, or supplement; and, in addition, appeared the following notable piece of news:

"On Wednesday, the 31st of October, the late Chief Justice, but now Representative, landed in this city about five o'clock at the Ferry stairs. On his landing he was saluted by a General Fire of the guns from the merchant vessels lying in the Roads, and was received by great numbers of the most considerable Merchants and Inhabitants of the city, and by them with loud acclamation! of the people as he walked in the streets, conducted to the Black Horse Tavern [northwest corner of Smith Street, now William, and Garden Street, now Exchange Place), where a handsome entertainment was prepared for him at the charge of the gentlemen who received him, and in the middle of one side of the room was fixed a tablet with golden capitals, " King George, Liberty and Law."

"Indeed, the greatest enthusiasm prevailed among all classes of the people except those immediately identified with the governors cause, and the news was hailed with rejoicing in distant parts of the country. The bells of the Middle Dutch Church, on Nassau Street, of which Rip Vau Dam was a member, rang out a jubilant peal, and the bell ringer, to commemorate the event, carved deep in the wooden wall of the cupola the inscription " L. M. Oct. 31, A.D. 1733," which could still be deciphered at the time when that ancient edifice was dismantled, some twenty years ago.

"Zenger's attendance as a self-constituted reporter at the election at Eastchester, and his resulting establishment of the New York Weekly Journal, led to a train of remarkable consequences. Like Leisler, Zenger was a German by birth—a typical representative of the early class of alien immigrants who came to America to better their condition, and readily adapted themselves to the institutions which they found here. He came over as a lad in the Palatinate immigration of 1710, served as an apprentice at the printing trade with William Bradford for eight years, and later opened a printing office of his own, which was located on Stone Street, near the corner of Whitehall. Zealously devoted to the principles of the anti-Cosby party, he embarked boldly in his opposition newspaper publishing venture without weighing and doubtless without caring for the considerations of caution which naturally should have suggested themselves to a person assuming such a responsibility in those times of very limited license for the press.

"He was immediately supported and encouraged by the foremost leaders of the popular party—men like Van Dam, Morris, and the two most eminent New York lawyers of the period, James Alexander and William Smith, both of whom had been present in Morris's behalf at the Westchester County election. These and others furnished him, for his paper, numerous able and aggressive articles upon topics germane to the absorbing question of popular rights, which were printed over 110ms de plume. The tone of the Weekly Journal gradually became more direct, personalities were indulged in, and unsparing poetical effusions, of very manifestly personal application to the governor and his creatures, were provided from time to time for a smiling public. Governor Cosby endured these wicked polemics and exacerbating satires, though not without much misery of soul, for the space of about a year. Then, unable longer to restrain his rage, he resolved to crush the atrocious sheet forever and to visit condign punishment upon its owner.

"In this undertaking the governor had the cordial assistance of Chief Justice de Lancey, who applied to the grand jury to find an indictment against Zenger. But that body, made up from the ranks of the people, ignored the demand. Next, Cosby caused his council to send to the general assembly a message on the subject of the scurrilous publications. The assembly, no more complaisant than the grand jury, calmly laid the matter on the table. Finally, in consequence of some new and particularly flagitious publications, de Lancey procured from the grand jury a presentment against the special numbers of the paper containing them, which were accordingly burned by the hangman. But what was most desired, the indictment of Zenger, was still refused. He was nevertheless arrested on an information for libel, and, after languishing in prison several months, was brought to trial on a charge of printing matter that was " false, scandalous, and seditious." His counsel, Alexander and Smith, courageously took the ground that the whole proceedings before de LanCay were illegal, inasmuch as the new chief justice had been appointed by the mere executive act of the governor, without the consent of the council. De Lancey met this contention by summarily disbarring the two lawyers. With their exit from the scene the entire defense seemed doomed to fall to the ground, as there was no other sufficiently able lawyer in New York to take it up.

"In this emergency Andrew Hamilton, of Philadelphia, an advocate of consummate intellectual qualities and fascinating eloquence, and the Nestor of the whole colonial bar, was persuaded to come to New York and assume the defense of the unfortunate printer. Hamilton admitted the publication of the matters complained of, but demanded that witnesses be summoned to prove them libelous. This was not to the taste of the chief justice, and was denied on the principle that "the greater the truth, the greater the libel."

"Thereupon, accepting with good grace the ruling of the court, Hamilton proceeded to address a powerful plea to the jury as judges both of the law and the facts. He urged them, as patriots and freemen, to dismiss all prejudice from their minds and determine from the facts whether the accused had not really published the truth, or what represented legitimate public opinion, which he had the right to do and which there was need of doing under a free government. "I make no doubt," said he, in prophetic words, "but your upright conduct this day will not only entitle you to the love and esteem of your fellow citizens, but every man who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you as men who have baffled the attempts of tyranny, and, by an impartial and incorrupt verdict, have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our posterity, and our neighbors that to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right — the liberty of both exposing and opposing arbitrary power in these parts of the world, at least by speaking and writing truth."

"To this unanswerable argument the jury responded by an almost immediate verdict of acquittal. Hamilton was hailed by the people with acclaims even more enthusiastic and flattering than those which had greeted Morris. He was presented by the common council with the freedom of the city in a gold box, and upon his departure for Philadelphia a salute was fired in his honor. It was in the month of August, 1735, that this crowning victory of the people over their tyrannous governor was won - just two years after the humiliation of Chief Justice Morris."

    The Zenger verdict established forever the principle of liberty of the press in America.

"In the spirit of political independence nurtured and matured during that period, reflective historical writers have recognized one of the earliest foundations of the American Revolution. That spirit, as an active force, underwent a suspension after the realization of its immediate object, only to be revived, however, with increased energy, when the issues antecedent to the Revolution began to take shape. From that October day, when the people of Westchester County gathered in front of the old Eastchester church to rebuke the presumption of the royal governor, the ultimate attitude of New York concerning any question of popular right never could have been in doubt.

"The sentiment so emphatically expressed by Westchester County was most heartily sustained by the people of New York City whenever the citizens of that municipality had opportunity to make their attitude felt. The public bodies of the city were uniformly opposed to Cosby's attempts. In September, 1734, when the agitation arising out of the Van Dam matter, Morris's dismissal, and the course of the Weekly Journal was at its height, an election for aldermen and assistants was held, at which only one of the government candidates was successful. As we have seen, the grand jury from first to last refused to indict Zenger; and the common council was equally refractory when demands were made upon it by the governor, and at the happy termination of the Zenger prosecution celebrated the grand popular victory by awarding the highest public honors to The New-York Weekly JOURNAL."Sourced from History of Westchester County, New York

Location: Eastchester

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