November 5

Upon this day in 1733 appeared the first number of The New York Weekly Journal, published by a printer of the town named John Peter Zenger, who had been petitioned by a group of citizens opposed to the policies of Colonel William Cosby, Governor of the Colony.

Zenger, a German immigrant, had been apprenticed to the printing trade in 1710 by William Bradford, the Colony’s first printer. Completing the period of his indenture in 1720, he pursued his craft in Chestertown, Maryland where he became a naturalized citizen. Returning to New York two years later, he again worked for Bradford before going into business for himself about 1726.

Within a year the content of the newspaper so angered autocratic Governor Cosby that he asked the House of Representatives to arrest and imprison Zenger for perpetrating “seditious libels.” When Cosby’s request was refused, he ordered the mayor and the magistrates to seize and burn the libelous papers. Upon their repudiation of his demands, he ordered his sheriffs to do so. His order was immediately carried out.

Zenger was then imprisoned and Cosby insured a trial favorable to the Crown by removing a judge sympathetic to the prisoner. Zenger asked that he be released upon bail, but the magistrate set the bail too high and none of his friends and supporters came to his aid. He had not been completely deserted, however, as his family was provided for. The governor’s opposition simply wanted to make a martyr of Zenger. In this they succeeded beyond question even if the printer did have to spend thirty-five weeks in gaol where he enjoyed only, as he later wrote, “the liberty of speaking through the hole in the door to my wife and servants.”

The issue became one of the great cases in which freedom of speech was a factor. Zenger’s trial has since become one of the most celebrated of its kind. Zenger of course was most fortunate to have at his side one of the greatest of colonial lawyers, Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, who based his argument on his proposition that the common law used to charge Zenger was based upon the tyranny of the Star Chamber and should therefore be renounced in the light of modern liberty.

In his final argument Hamilton addressed his remarks to the jury rather than to the judges. He was eloquent, emotional, and effective, saying in part: “The loss of liberty to a generous mind, is worse than death; and yet we know there have been those in all ages, who for the sake of preferment, or some imaginary honor, have freely lent a helping hand, to oppress, nay to destroy their country. . . . the question before the court and you gentlemen of the jury, is not of small nor private concern, it is not the cause of the poor printer, nor of New York alone, which you are now trying. No! It may in its consequences, affect every freeman that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause. It is the cause of Liberty; and I make no doubt but your upright conduct, this day, will not only entitle you to the love and esteem of your fellow citizens; but every man who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you, as men who have baffled the attempt at tyranny; and by an impartial and uncorrupt verdict, have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our posterity, and our neighbors, that, to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right,—the liberty—both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power (in these parts of the world, at least) by speaking and writing truth.”

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