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Federal Hall: John Peter Zenger and The Bill of Rights

When we visited Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street in lower Manhattan, we saw a display dedicated to John Peter Zenger, a New York newspaper publisher from the early 18th century. Zenger went to jail for a sensational “freedom of speech” case. His trial was held here at the site of Federal Hall, in the original building on this site. Historians point to this landmark case as the “germ of American freedom” that was later epitomized in our Bill of Rights, according to Gouverneur Morris (who penned the U.S. Constitution).

Meet the cast:


John Peter Zenger, an American colonist of German heritage. Born in 1697. The typical New Yorker: sardonic, humorous, feisty. He started up a public newspaper in 1733 after seeing a great need for an additional perspective in the media. He named his paper The New York Weekly Journal. He printed his own authored works as well as works submitted by others.

Sir William Cosby, loyal subject of the British crown. Served a New York’s royal governor for four long years, from 1732 to 1736. He was born in Ireland, worked his way up into the British military, married a wealthy women with connections to Buckingham Palace. Before his appointment as NY governor by King George II, Cosby made a great name for himself by illegally seizing a Portuguese ship and taking the cargo of snuff for himself.

Andrew Hamilton, Esquire, a Scotsman by birth (1676) and emigrated to the American colonies in 1697. He studied law and settled in Philadelphia. He became the 18th Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, serving two terms, one in 1729 to 1732 and a second in 1734 to 1738. Hamilton made the phrase “Philadelphia lawyer” famous, as used in the old proverb “Only a Philadelphia lawyer could have done it!”

The Story

In 1734 before the American colonies became independent states, John Peter Zenger published anonymously-written, highly critical articles about Governor William Cosby. Outraged, Cosby tried to organize a public bonfire of Zenger’s paper, The New York Weekly Journal. When that didn’t work out, Cosby sued Zenger for seditious libel, and Zenger was jailed. Cosby “stacked” the deck in his own favor by appointing a hand-picked court to sentence Zenger and had Zenger’s bail set so high that Zenger couldn’t possibly see the light of day again. When Zenger’s lawyers criticized Governor Cosby’s court appointments and high bail, they were disbarred from practicing law!

Zenger seemed to take the entire fiasco like the typical cocky New Yorker. He publicly apologized to his readers that his paper had skipped a week, as he explained that he was in jail without supplies. The excessive bail prevented him from freedom, and he was forced to dictate his newspaper instructions through a small hole in the jail wall to his hapless wife and servants. Zenger remained in jail for 8 months.

The case got extra-colonial attention, garnering even the intervention of fellow printer, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin realized Zenger would need a new (and brilliant) attorney, so he persuaded young Andrew Hamilton from Philadelphia to take Zenger’s case. Hamilton did on a pro bono basis, receiving no payment for his efforts.

The court case was wrought with as much excitement, corruption, and sensational media attention as modern cases today. During the proceedings, the prevailing judge instructed the New York jurors to resist the slanderous defense that Andrew Hamilton was sure to give, and dole a guilty verdict for the malicious, libelous Zenger.

Hamilton’s defense centered on the fact that while Zenger’s newspaper did indeed publish very critical and harsh statements, the statements were all TRUE and therefore not libelous. Hamilton probably drew from an article that Zenger had published over a year previously regarding libel and freedom of the press. According to the February edition of The New York Weekly Journal, a writer named “Cato” proclaimed that the word “libel”:

…only holds true as to private and personal failings; and it is quite otherwise when the Crimes of Men come to Affect the Publick. Every Crime against the publick, is a great crime…

…The exposing therefore of Publick Wickedness, as it is a Duty which every Man owes to the Truth and his Country, can never be a Libel in the Nature of Things.

…almost all over the Earth, the People for one Injury they do their Governor, receive Ten Thousand from them. Nay, in some Countries it is made Death and Damnation, not to bear all the Oppression and Cruelties, which Men made Wanton by Power inflict upon those that gave it them.”

The trial slogged through the hot summer of Manhattan here at the site of Federal Hall National Memorial. But finally, on August 5, 1735, the jurors reached their decision and submitted the verdict.

NOT GUILTY.

The ramifications of the verdict exploded throughout the colonies, ringing aloud that truth is an absolute defense against libel.

Zenger, like any good newspaperman, later published an account of the trial in his pamphlet A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger. This case is considered a landmark case that paved the way for the First Amendment right “freedom of the press.”

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The Result

Many of America’s founding fathers point to this case and the many printed publications contained within the Weekly Journal as the impetus for the growing sentiment of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness– of a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Morris called Hamilton the “day-star of the American Revolution” and Hamilton was hailed across the country and in England as a defender for the common rights of man.

Andrew Hamilton was honored by New York City for his eloquent and gracious service. The Common Council of New York City gave him the “freedom of the city,” recognition with great honors. A group of New Yorkers gave Hamilton a gold box engraved with Latin phrases from Cicero, translated to say: “For let the laws be never so much overborne by some one individual’s power, let the spirit of freedom be never so intimidated, still sooner or later they assert themselves” and “Acquired not by money but by virtue.”

Fifty-six years later, the United States of America granted liberty by law– freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of the people to assemble peacefully and our right to petition the government for grievances:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Of course, man is man. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, eh? The First Amendment does not guarantee that government (men in power) will never attempt to silence critics. But the First Amendment gives the people teeth to proclaim these encroaches as unjust and the power to fight back when need be.

Sources:
A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger; www.courts.state.ny.us/history/elecbook/zenger_tryal/pg1.htm
The Trial Of John Peter Zenger; www.courts.state.ny.us/history/zenger.htm
Peter Zenger and the Freedom of the Press; www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/bookmarks/zenger
John Peter Zenger Trial 1735; law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/zenger/zenger.html
Philadelphia Bar; www.philadelphiabar.org/page/AboutHistory?appNum=2&wosid=BHECcqgLRIxbt85PXwtM5w

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About the Author

I've been traveling throughout New York State since I got the travel bug after touring the Herkimer Home on a school field trip as a youngster. We've been blogging about our travels since 2006 and have visited over half of New York's 62 counties so far.

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