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John Peter Zenger (October 26, 1697 – July 28, 1746) was a German American printer, publisher, editor and journalist in New York City. Zenger printed The New York Weekly Journal. He was a defendant in a landmark legal case in American jurisprudence, known as "The Zenger Trial", in which his lawyers Andrew Hamilton and William Smith, Sr., argued that truth is a defense against charges of libel. In late 1733, Zenger began printing The New York Weekly Journal to voice his opinions critical of the colonial governor, William Cosby. In November 1734, Zenger was arrested by the sheriff on the orders of Cosby. After a grand jury refused to indict him he was charged with libel in August 1735 by the attorney general Richard Bradley.
In 1733 John Peter Zenger published in a newspaper in New York to voice his disagreement with the trivial policies of newly appointed colonial governor William Cosby. Upon his arrival in New York, Cosby plunged into a rancorous quarrel with the Council of the colony over his salary. Unable to control the state's supreme court he removed Chief Justice Lewis Morris, replacing him with James DeLancey of the royal party. Supported by members of the popular party, Zenger's New York Weekly Journal continued to publish articles critical of the royal governor. Finally, Cosby issued a proclamation condemning the newspaper's "divers scandalous, virulent, false and seditious reflections."
On Sunday, November 17, 1734, Zenger was arrested and charged with seditious libel. James Alexander was Zenger's first counsel, but he was found in contempt of court and removed from the case. After more than eight months in prison, Zenger went to trial now defended by the Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton and the New York lawyer William Smith, Sr. The case was now a cause célèbre with public interest at fever-pitch. Rebuffed repeatedly by Chief DeLancey during the trial, Hamilton decided to plead his client's case directly to the jury. After the arguments for both sides were finished, the jury was retired, only to return in ten minutes with a verdict of not guilty.
To better understand the significance of this historic case, it is important to examine an actual issue of the New York Weekly Journal prior to Zenger's arrest. Here we see a typical attack against the government in Zenger's original newspaper as it originally appeared more than 260 years ago. Page one of this issue dated February 25, 1733, carries an article under the pseudonym "Cato". This article gave its readers a preview of the same argument Attorney Hamilton and William Smith would present 18 months later in the government's libel case against Zenger: That the truth is an absolute defense against libel.
In defending Zenger in this landmark case, Hamilton and Smith attempted to establish the precedent that a statement, even if defamatory, is not libelous if it can be proved, thus affirming freedom of the press in America. However, if they succeeded in convincing the jury, they failed in establishing the legal precedent. As late as 1804, the journalist Harry Croswell was prosecuted in a series of trials leading to the famous People v. Croswell. The argument that truth was a defense against libel was repeatedly rejected. It was only the next year that the assembly, in reaction to this verdict, passed a law allowing truth as a defense in cases of libel.
"But this doctrine ('a lible (sic) is not less a libel for being true') only holds true as to private and personal failings;
The exposing therefore of public 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?
It has been hitherto generally understood, that there was no other Libels but those against Magistrates and those against private men. Now to me there seems to be a third set of libels, full as destructive as any of the former can probably be, I mean libels against the people.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."
Johann Peter Zenger was born in 1697, the son of Nicolaus Eberhard Zenger and his wife Johanna. No baptismal record is known. His father was a schoolteacher in Impflingen in 1701. The Zenger family had other children baptised in Rumbach in 1695 and in 1703 and in Waldfischbach in 1706. The Zenger family immigrated to New York in 1710 as part of a large group of German Palatines, and Nicolaus Zenger was one of those who died before settlement. John Peter was bound for 8 years as an apprentice to printer William Bradford of New York, where he learned his trade. By 1720, he was taking on printing work in Maryland, although he returned to New York permanently by 1722. After a brief partnership with Bradford in 1725, Zenger set up as a commercial printer on Smith Street in Manhattan. Zenger married twice, to Mary White in 1719 at Philadelphia, and as a widower in 1722 to Anna Catharina Maul in New York. He was the father of six children by his 2nd wife. John Peter Zenger died in New York on July 28, 1746, and is believed to be buried in Trinity Churchyard in Lower Manhattan. His widow continued the family business until Zenger’s eldest son, John, replaced his mother as head of the print shop in December 1748. John Zenger continued publication of the Journal for another three years.