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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 lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, established 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 and after a grand jury refused to indict him was charged with libel in August 1735 by the attorney general Richard Bradley.
In 1733 John Peter Zenger wrote 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. After more than eight months in prison, Zenger went to trial defended by illustrious Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton. 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 would present 18 months later in the government's libel case against Zenger: That the truth is an absolute defense against libel. In successfully defending Zenger in this landmark case, Hamilton established the precedent that a statement, even if defamatory, is not libelous if it can be proved, thus affirming freedom of the press in America.
"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."
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.