John Peter Zenger: Wikis


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John Peter Zenger (October 26, 1697 – July 28, 1746) was a German-born American printer, publisher, editor, and journalist in New York City. He was defendant in a landmark legal case in American jurisprudence that determined that truth was a defense against charges of libel.


Facts of the case

John Peter Zenger owned the second newspaper[1] in New York City, The New York Weekly Journal. He printed another man's document that criticized William Cosby, the Governor of New York. Zenger was listed as the printer, but the inspiring voice came from lawyer and mathematician James Alexander, who anonymously printed his assaults on Governor Cosby every Monday.[2] Cosby, angered by the criticism, first asked the Assembly's permission to have a public burning of the New York Weekly Journal.[2] When they refused, Cosby had Zenger arrested on a charge of seditious libel. Zenger claimed in his "apology" for missing an issue, that even though he was in jail without supplies, he could still publish by speaking through a hole in the door with the help of his wife and servants. It is unclear just how seriously Zenger personally took the material published in the Weekly Journal. It was almost certainly financed by one of the opposition factions in New York politics, possibly by Alexander, who along with William Smith was disbarred for objecting to the two-man court that Cosby hand-picked. Zenger was most likely a convenient target to use in an attempt to end criticism. His defense attorney, Andrew Hamilton, was appointed after Zenger's disbarred ex-lawyers, James Alexander and William Smith, interested Benjamin Franklin in the case. Franklin was able to persuade Hamilton to accept the challenge.[3] The judge in the case gave the jurors an order to ignore whatever slander Hamilton tried to throw at them and deal a guilty verdict to Zenger based on his charge of printing false, scandalous, and malicious articles about the Governor.[2] After much battling in the courtroom Hamilton said "The question before the court and you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is not of small nor private concern...No! It may in its consequences affect every free man that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause of liberty..."[3]

Hamilton was successful in convincing the jury that whether words are libelous depends on whether the reader considers them true. Zenger was guilty of seditious libel according to the law at the time of his arrest, yet Hamilton was able to persuade the jury to take part in jury nullification. This essentially is a "jury's knowing and deliberate rejection of the evidence or refusal to apply the law wither because the jury wants to send a message about some social issue that is larger than the case itself or because the result dictated by law is contrary to the jury's sense of justice, morality, or fairness."[4] His success resulted in the addition of the expression "Philadelphia lawyer" to the language with its original denotation of competence.[5]

Legality of the criminal laws

James Alexander, one of Zenger's attorneys, who was disbarred by the justices presiding over Zenger's trial

A notable aspect of the case is that Hamilton challenged the legality of the crimes for which his client was being prosecuted. It was one of the first times in American history in which a lawyer challenged the laws rather than claiming the innocence of his clients. The jurors were stunned and didn't know how to, or even if they were allowed to, address whether the law itself was "legal."


At the end of the trial on August 5, 1735, the twelve New York jurors returned a verdict of "not guilty" on the charge of publishing "seditious libels," even though judges who were hand-picked by the governor were presiding. Hamilton had successfully argued that Zenger's articles were not libelous because even if they were slanderous in use, all statements were based on fact. Zenger published a verbatim account of the trial as A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger (1736). "No nation, ancient or modern, ever lost the liberty of speaking freely, writing, or publishing their sentiments, but forthwith lost their liberty in general and became slaves" stated Zenger.


Hamilton had served for free. In gratitude for what he had done, the Common Council of New York City awarded him the freedom of that city, and a group of prominent residents contributed to the production of a 5½-ounce gold box that was presented to him as a lasting mark of their gratitude. On the lid of the box the city's arms were engraved, encircled with the words "Demersae leges — timefacta libertas — haec tandem emergunt" (extracted from Cicero's "Quamvis enim sint demersae leges alicuius opibus, quamvis timefacta libertas, emergunt tamen haec aliquando," "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" [De officiis 2.24]); on the inside were the inscriptions "Non nummis, virtute paratur" ("Acquired not by money but by virtue") and "Ita cuique eveniat ut de republica meruit" ("Thus let each receive what he has deserved of the republic," an altered quote from Cicero's Second Philippic, where it reads "...ut de republica quisque mereatur").[6] The box was preserved as a family heirloom for many years, and it is now in the custody of the Atwater Kent Museum near Independence Hall, Philadelphia. Each year the Philadelphia Bar Association presents a replica of the box to the outgoing Chancellor of the Association.

Peter Zenger died in 1744 at the age of 43.

Zenger case in history

The "Penman of the Constitution", Governor Morris, wrote this of the Zenger case: "The trial of Zenger in 1735 was the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America."[7]

See also


  1. ^ Trial of Zenger
  2. ^ a b c "And a Toast to Zenger's Jury :[EDITORIAL]." New York Times 4 Aug. 1985. Proquest. 25 Oct. 2009 [1]
  3. ^ a b Fellow, Anthony. American Media History: Second Edition. Boston: Wadsworth, 2010.
  4. ^ Thomas Mitchell. "When judges can't handle the truth. " Las Vegas Review-Journal 14 Jan. 2007, ProQuest National Newspapers Premier, ProQuest. Web. 26 Oct. 2009. <>
  5. ^ Merriam-Webster Online
  6. ^ Livingston Rutherfurd, John Peter Zenger, His Press, His Trial and a Bibliography of Zenger Imprints: His Press, His Trial and a Bibliography of Zenger Imprints (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1904), p. 127.
  7. ^ [2] UMKC Law Account


  • 1-9A Criminal Defense Techniques § 9A.02, FN3 (note his name is misspelled as John Paul Zenger, although from context it is clear the publication was referring to John Peter).
  • Livingston Rutherfurd, John Peter Zenger (New York, 1904)
  • M. Van Gerpen, Privileged Communication and the Press, 5-6 (1979)

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

John Peter Zenger (October 26, 1697 – July 28, 1746) was a printer, publisher, editor and journalist whose indictment, trial and acquittal on sedition and libel charges (against the then Governor William Cosby of the New York Colony) in 1734 was an important contributing factor to the development of the freedom of the press in America.


  • Entitle us to the Liberty of proving the Truth of the Papers, which in the Information are called false, malicious, seditious and scandalous.
    • "Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger", pg. 17

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