Crown V. John Peter Zenger, 1735 - New York Courthouse Historical Society (2023)

The New York Gazette was founded in 1725 and for many years was the province's only newspaper. It was published by the William Bradford Public Printing Office and supported the governor and his government. As the Chief Justice of New YorkLewis Morrisgave a dissenting opinion in the case of 1733cosby v van presa, Governor William Cosby summarily removed Morris from office. Morris and close associates, attorneysJaime AlexanderjGuillermo Smithcreated the province's first independent newspaper, theNew York Weekly Magazine. Alexander was the newspaper's editor and in articles, satires and pamphlets he accused the Cosby government of tyranny and violation of the rights of the people. Governor Cosby decided to close theNew York Weekly Magazine.

John Peter Zenger was the newspaper's printer, at the time one of the few qualified printers in the province. The Cosby administration decided to take legal action against the printer, possibly believing that the newspaper could not be published without a printer.1Assigned to the governorDaniel Horsmanden,An English lawyer recently arrived in New York to investigate the newspaper for statements that constitute the crime of seditious libel. Seditious defamation was defined as the intentional publication, without legitimate excuse or justification, of the written guilt of a public figure or the law or any statutory body.2Two separate grand juries were formed, one in the spring of 1734 and the other in the autumn of that year. Both were presented with evidence of seditious libel, but neither grand jury returned an indictment against John Peter Zenger.

Then Governor Cosby decided to use the government's power of censorship to stop publication of the New-York Weekly Journal. He asked the assembly to order the public executioner to solemnly burn copies of the newspaper.3The popularly elected assembly refused to issue the order. The Board of Governors then ordered the bailiff to publicly burn the papers, but when the bailiff asked the Court of Quarterly Sessions (a grand jury) for an order authorizing the burning, the court adjourned without recording the order and the public of the executioner. couldn't do it. Continue.4

The Cosby administration then decided to prosecute Zenger through an information process, extremely unpopular in the province, which allowed prosecutors to proceed without a grand jury indictment. the attorney general,Richard Bradley, acting on behalf of the Crown, submitted information to the Federal Supreme Court.5Cosby allies not court, Chief JusticeJames de Lanceyand justiceFriedrich Phillips, issued an arrest warrant for John Peter Zenger. On November 17, 1734, the sheriff arrested Zenger and placed him in the Old New York City Jail.

Zenger's lawyers, James Alexander and William Smith, applied for an arrest warrant, and Zenger was presented before Judge De Lancey, who ordered a hearing for 23 November 1734. At the hearing, the court set bail at £400. amount well in excess of Zenger's surplus funds. Zenger was unable to post bail and was returned to prison pending trial.

(Video) The John Peter Zenger Trial (1735) | Printer Charged With "Seditious Libel"

Defending Zenger against seditious libel charges presented challenges for defense attorneys. His main difficulty was that the veracity of the published statements was irrelevant. Furthermore, in a seditious libel case, the role of the jury was limited to deciding whether the accused was responsible for the alleged defamatory statement. If the jury agreed, Judges De Lancey and Philipse, close associates of Cosby, would examine the text to determine whether the statements constituted seditious libel.

At Zenger's indictment in April 1735, his lawyer challenged the validity of the court. Zenger's lawyers argued that Governor Cosby's summary removal of Chief Justice Lewis (in 1733) was wrong, and therefore de Lancey's subsequent appointment as Chief Justice was invalid.6Zenger's lawyers also questioned the commissions of the other judges on the court because these appointments were "at the Governor's discretion". The court refused to allow that argument, with Chief Justice De Lancey exclaiming, "You've reached the point where we have to come off the bench or you off the bar".7The barrister refused to withdraw the claims, and on April 16, 1735, the court issued an injunction removing the names of James Alexander and William Smith from the list of barristers admitted before the Supreme Court.

Left without legal representation, Zenger asked the court to appoint a lawyer for him.juan chambers,A newly hired young attorney who was loyal to Cosby was brought in to lead Zenger's defense. Contrary to expectations, Chambers held out well to Zenger: he twice contested the lists from which the jury would be selected, thus ensuring that the jury assembled to hear the case would not be biased against Zenger. The names of the judges were: Thomas Hunt (Foreman), Harmanus Rutgers, Stanley Holmes, Edward Man, John Bell, Samuel Weaver, Andries Marschalk, Egbert van Borsom, Benjamin Hildreth, Abraham Keteltas, John Goelet and Hercules Wendover.

Chief Justice De Lancey adjourned the court until August 4, 1735, to allow Chambers to prepare his case. This was an opportunity for Zenger's allies to secure representation for the printer by the eminent colonial lawyer,Andrés Hamiltonfrom Philadelphia. When the trial opened on August 4 in the second-floor courtroom at City Hall, Attorney General Richard Bradley explained the contents of the "information" and John Chambers pleaded not guilty on behalf of his client. . He then clearly described the nature of the case, the need for the Attorney General to prove who was responsible for the defamation, and his expectation that the Attorney General would fail his evidence. At the end of Chambers' speech, Andrew Hamilton defended Zenger and preempted Attorney General Bradley's case by admitting that Zenger had published the diaries as alleged. In his speech, Hamilton asked the jury to consider the veracity of the published statements and concluded with these famous words:

The question before the Court and before you, the jury, is not of minor importance or of private interest. It's not a bad printer or just a New York thing you're trying right now. NO! Consequently, it can strike any free man living under British rule in most of America. It's the best thing. It is the cause of freedom.

(Video) John Peter Zenger

Judge De Lancey immediately ordered the jury that they, the jury, should decide only on the question of whether Zenger published issues of the New York Weekly Journal. Despite the instructions, after brief deliberation, the jury found Zenger "not guilty" of publishing inflammatory slurs. Applause echoed through the crowded room. Andrew Hamilton's success was celebrated with a dinner in his honor at the Black Horse Tavern, his departure was commemorated with a cannon salute, and in 1735 he was granted the freedom of the city. John Peter Zenger was released the day after the trial. He returned to his printing house and published an account of his trial.

It is important to note that the Zenger case did not set a precedent for seditious libel or freedom of the press. Instead, it influenced the way people thought about these issues and, many decades later, led to the safeguards built into the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Sedition Act of 1798. The Zenger affair demonstrated the growing independence of the professional body and strengthened the role of the jury as a brake on the executive. As Governor Morris said, the Zenger case was "the seed of American liberty, the morning star of that liberty which later revolutionized America!"8

Crown V. John Peter Zenger, 1735 - New York Courthouse Historical Society (1)

The Trial of John Peter Zenger

The full text of the famous 1736 account of the Zenger Trials. Although written from Zenger's perspective, it is believed to have been written by Zenger's attorney, James Alexander.

The Trial of John Peter Zenger

A play in five scenes.


Paul Finkelman. Politics, press and law: the judgment of John Peter Zenger in the American political trials Michal R. Belknap (ed.). Connecticut (1994)

(Video) The Zenger Trial Explained

Donald Ritchie. American Journalists: Get the Story. New York (1997)

Just cheating. Considering Zenger: Party Politics and the Legal Profession in the Province of New York, 94 Columbia Law Review 1495 (1994)

Final considerations

1) Not so. Zenger's wife Anna and her apprentices continued to print the paper. Only one problem was overlooked. The newspaper's continued publication built support for the Zenger cause.

2) Zechariah Chafee, Jr. Free Speech in the United States (1941)


3) In Tudor and Stuart England, the ceremonial burning of books and other printed matter by the public executioner symbolically increased the government's power to restrict free speech.

4) The sheriff, in the presence of several officials loyal to the administration, had the papers of his personal servant publicly burned.

5) Therefore, this case is also Attorney General v. John Peter Zenger; each of the references is correct.

6) At a later date, the Lords of the London Board of Trade would rule that Cosby's dismissal from Chief Justice Lewis Morris without investigation was unlawful.

7) Maturin L. Delafield. William Smith, Justice of the Supreme Court of the Province of New York. Reprinted from The Magazine of American History, April-June 1881

(Video) Constitutional Law and the First Amendment: Freedom of Speech

8) Statesman, founder and grandson of Chief Justice Lewis Morris.


(Gotham Filmwerks)
(Gotham Filmwerks)
3. The NSA and Reporters: What You need to Know
(Columbia Journalism School)
4. The Morning Star of that Liberty: Controversy and Conflict in Early American Press, 1735-1805
5. The First Amendment in American History: Five Pillars of Freedom
(Duquesne University)
6. Freedom of the Press: New York Times v. United States
(Annenberg Classroom)
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