Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Zenger, John Peter

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ZENGER, John Peter, printer, b. in Germany about 1680; d. in New York city in 1746. He came to this country about 1700, and was an apprentice in the printing-office of William Bradford the elder. On 5 Nov., 1733, he began the publication of the “New York Weekly Journal.” This paper was the organ of the party that was opposed to the governor of the province, and was powerfully supported by Chief-Justice Lewis Morris, Rip Van Dam, and James Alexander. It abounded in lampoons and pasquinades that attracted wide attention, and attacked the government with severity, contributing greatly toward loosening the bonds between England and the colonies. On 17 Nov., 1734, Zenger was arrested and imprisoned by virtue of a warrant from Gov. William Cosby and the council for “printing and publishing several seditious libels.” The house of assembly refused to concur with the governor, and he ordered the mayor to burn the papers containing the alleged libels by aid of the hangman. The order was obeyed, but by the sheriff's servant, not the hangman, and the jury failing to find an indictment against Zenger, the attorney-general was directed to file an information against him for the said libels at the next term of the court. His political friends employed Andrew Hamilton, of Philadelphia, to plead his cause, which proved at the same time to be the question of the liberty of the press in America, and all the central colonies regarded the controversy as their own. (See Hamilton, Andrew.) At the trial the publishing was confessed, but Hamilton justified the publication by asserting its truth. “You cannot be permitted,” interrupted the chief justice, “to give the truth of a libel in evidence.” “Then,” said Hamilton to the jury, “we appeal to you for witnesses of the facts. The jury have a right to determine both the law and the fact, and they ought to do so. The question before you is not the cause of a poor printer, nor of New York alone; it is the cause of liberty . . . the liberty of opposing arbitrary power by speaking and writing truth.” The jury gave their verdict “not guilty,” and Zenger, released from his imprisonment of thirty-five weeks, was received with tumultuous applause by a concourse of people who had assembled to learn the result. This event has been termed “the morning-star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.” After his death Zenger's widow and his son John conducted the “Journal” until 1752. A narrative of the trial was published with that of William Owen (Boston, 1765).