The Trial of John Peter Zenger

John Peter Zenger was the printer of the New-York Weekly Journal, who in 1734 was charged with Criminal Libel. Zenger was held responsible for the negative opinions of the royal governor William Cosby that were printed in his newspaper. After many failed attempts to shut down the newspaper, Cosby was finally able to charge Zenger with libel. Andrew Hamilton, arguably the best lawyer at the time, established the precedent that a statement is not libelous if it can be proved. The jury decided that Zenger was not guilty and the groundwork for freedom of the press was laid.

According to Wikipedia, this case turned out to be a “cause célèbre,” or a famous case, with public interest at fever-pitch. However, there was not much evidence to support that in the papers found on the America’s Historical Newspapers database. There were not many articles reporting the case or any opinion pieces about Zenger’s indictment. An article published in the New-England Weekly Journal in 1734 describes the rewards Governor Cosby is willing to give for any information about the authors of the seditious libel written about him in Zenger’s paper. Zenger was printing anonymous articles regarding the governor and he wanted to make sure that they were punished as well. The article then goes on to reveal that the Chief Justice was going to be bound to prison even though he had previously posted bail [1].

Another article from the New-York Weekly Journal published in 1735, when the trial was supposed to start, was a list of exceptions to the appointment of a new judge for the case, James De Lancey, written by Zenger’s first lawyers (who were eventually struck from the list of attorneys that were allowed to practice before the Supreme Court) [2]. After these two articles, nothing shows up on the databases of opinions or even verdicts of the trial. This could potentially be because it was only happening in New York and was being published in one of two of the states’ newspapers. While it was a popular paper, the news might have just stayed local within the colonies. Another possibility as to why this wasn’t so widely written about in newspapers is that Zenger wrote about the trial from his perspective and published it separately from the New-York Weekly Journal. Instead of other newspapers reprinting the account, they could just advertise it as a recently published work that readers could purchase, as seen in an edition of the Boston Evening-Post [3].

The thing I found most interesting while searching for newspaper articles from this database was that the next surge of pieces written about the Zenger trial did not appear until 1770, nearly 25 years after the end of the trial. First published in the New-Hampshire Gazette, a reprinting of excerpts from Hamilton’s speeches at the trial, that were originally from the Crafsman, a paper in England [4]. After this initial reprint, many other newspapers began reprinting the story as well. Another account of the trial was published in the Independent Gazetteer from the perspective of “A Spectator,” but that was not printed until 1782 [5].

It is very interesting that one trial could be brought up and written about 25 years after it ended, and written about more than when it was actually taking place. It is also interesting that the reprinting came from an article originally published in England, possibly hinting that the outcome of the trial had more of an effect on England than it did within the colonies, at the time at least. While this case did not set the legal precedent for freedom of the press, it was instrumental in people’s opinions of the issue. The story’s reappearance in the 1780s came as a surprise at first, but upon realizing that the Constitution was not written until 1787 and the Bill of Rights was not proposed to Congress until 1789, the reappearances seem justified and crucial to the Constitutional debates.

[1] [Boston] New-England Weekly Journal, Decemeber 2, 1734.

[2] New-York Weekly Journal, May 5, 1735.

[3] Boston Evening-Post, July 10, 1738.

[4] [Portsmouth] New-Hampshire Gazette, March 16, 1770.

[5] [Philadelphia] Independent Gazetteer, December 31, 1782.


2 thoughts on “The Trial of John Peter Zenger

  1. Based on our reading for class and your work here on Zenger, a few questions for you to perhaps speculate about:

    1. If we assume that other printers in the colonies (by 1735 there were newspapers in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Williamsburg, and Charleston) knew about Zenger’s case, and were themselves interested in a free press, why might they not have publicized the details? That is, what might have stopped them?

    2. Why do you think the story might have resurged in the late 1760s/early 1770s?


    • Thank you for posing these questions! In response:

      1. It is one thing to agree with something and support a movement or event, but it is harder to act and openly show your support with it, which could have been the case with other colonial printers. I’m sure that they saw that Zenger was imprisoned for ten months before his trial and did not want to end up like him.

      2. In the late 1760s and early 1770s, Britain started trying to impose their taxes on the colonies with the Stamp Act, Tea Act, Quatering Act, etc. As the colonists felt that their rights were being infringed upon, perhaps they saw this case as a successful resistance to the crown and had a concrete example that struggle and punishment were worth it in the end.


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