John Peter Zenger
|Born||October 26, 1697|
|Died||July 28, 1746 (aged 48)|
|Known for||Zenger Trial|
|The New York Weekly Journal|
John Peter Zenger (October 26, 1697 - July 28, 1746) was a German printer and journalist in New York City. Zenger printed The New York Weekly Journal. He was accused of libel in 1734 by William Cosby, the royal governor of New York, but the jury acquitted Zenger, who became a symbol for freedom of the press.
In 1733, Zenger began printing The New York Weekly Journal, in which the journal voiced opinions critical of the colonial governor, William Cosby. On November 17, 1734, on Cosby's orders, the sheriff arrested Zenger. After a grand jury refused to indict him, the Attorney General Richard Bradley charged him with libel in August 1735.
Peter Zenger was born in 1697, a son of Nicolaus Eberhard Zenger and his wife Johanna. His father was a school teacher in Impflingen in 1701. The Zenger family had other children baptised in Rumbach in 1697 and in 1703:1202 and in Waldfischbach in 1706. The Zenger family immigrated to New York in 1710 as part of a large group of German Palatines, and Nicolaus Zenger was one of those who died before settlement. The governor of New York had agreed to provide apprenticeships for all the children of immigrants from the Palatinate, and John Peter was bound for eight years as an apprentice to William Bradford, the first printer in New York. By 1720, he was taking on printing work in Maryland, though he returned to New York permanently by 1722. After a brief partnership with Bradford in 1725, Zenger set up as a commercial printer on Smith Street in Manhattan.
On 28 May 1719, Zenger married Mary White in the First Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia. On 24 August 1722, widower Zenger married Anna Catharina Maul in the Collegiate Church, Manhattan. He was the father of many children by his second wife, six of whom survived. 
In 1733, Zenger printed copies of newspapers in New York to voice his disagreement with the actions of newly appointed colonial governor William Cosby. On his arrival in New York City, Cosby had plunged into a rancorous quarrel with the council of the colony over his salary. Unable to control the colony's supreme court, he removed Chief Justice Lewis Morris, replacing him with James DeLancey of the Royal Party. Supported by members of the Popular Party, Zenger's New-York Weekly Journal continued to publish articles critical of the royal governor. Finally, Cosby issued a proclamation condemning the newspaper's "divers scandalous, virulent, false and seditious reflections."
Zenger was charged with libel. James Alexander was Zenger's first counsel, but the court found him in contempt and removed him from the case. After more than eight months in prison, Zenger went to trial, defended by the Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton and the New York lawyer William Smith, Sr. The case was now a cause célèbre, with public interest at fever-pitch. Rebuffed repeatedly by chief justice James DeLancey during the trial, Hamilton decided to plead his client's case directly to the jury. After the lawyers for both sides finished their arguments, the jury retired, only to return in ten minutes with a verdict of not guilty.
In defending Zenger in this landmark case, Hamilton and Smith attempted to establish the precedent that a statement, even if defamatory, is not libelous if it can be proved, thus affirming freedom of the press in America; however, succeeding royal governors clamped down on freedom of the press until the American Revolution. This case is the groundwork of freedom of the press, not its legal precedent. As late as 1804, the journalist Harry Croswell lost a series of prosecutions and appeals, because truth was not a defense against libel, as decided by the New York Supreme Court in People v. Croswell. It was only the following year that the assembly, reacting to this verdict, passed a law that allowed truth as a defense against a charge of libel.
In an issue of The New York Weekly Journal prior to Zenger's arrest, is a typical attack against the government in Zenger's newspaper. In an issue dated February 25, 1733 is an opinion piece written under the pseudonym "Cato." This was a pen-name used by British writers John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, whose essays were published as Cato's Letters (1723). Jeffery A. Smith writes that "Cato" was "The leading luminary of the 18th century libertarian press theory...Editions of Cato's Letters were published and republished for decades in Britain and were immensely popular in America." This article gave its readers a preview of the same argument attorneys Hamilton and Smith presented 18 months later in the government's libel case against Zenger -- that truth is an absolute defense against libel. The words are reprinted from Cato's essay "Reflections Upon Libelling":
A libel is not less the libel for being true...But this doctrine only holds true as to private and personal failings; and it is quite otherwise when the crimes of men come to affect the publick...Machiavel says, Calumny is pernicious, but accusation beneficial, to a state; and he shews instances where states have suffered or perished for not having, or for neglecting, the power to accuse great men who were criminals, or thought to be so...surely it cannot be more pernicious to calumniate even good men, than not to be able to accuse ill ones.
Zenger died in New York on July 28, 1746, with his wife continuing his printing business.