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Zenger, John Peter 1680-1746

Printer; born in Germany, about 1680; came to America in 1700, and learned the printer's trade with the elder Bradford. On the death of John Montgomerie, governor of New York (July 1, 1731), Rip Van Dam, merchant, senior member of the council, became, ex officio, chief magistrate of the province. William Cosby, a colonel in the royal army, was appointed governor, but did not arrive in New York until August, 1732, or thirteen months after the office became vacant. Cosby was rapacious, and cane to the colony to make money. His professions made the Assembly (in session at the time of his arrival) suppose him to be a friend of the people, and they lavished upon him perquisites and presents because of his opposition to the sugar bill before Parliament, which threatened the ruin of the commerce of the colony. Van Dam was a Democrat, and popular with the people. Cosby demanded one-half the salary which Van Dam had received during his presidency over the colony for thirteen months. The merchant agreed, provided the governor would divide the perquisites he had received—a much larger sum. The latter refused, and the former declined to make a division. A bitter quarrel and a lawsuit ensued. Never were party lines in the colony more defined than now, the Democratic party taking sides with Van Dam, and the Loyalist party— “men of figure” —with Cosby.

At that time the venerable William Bradford was the government printer, and was publishing a newspaper called the New York weekly gazette. It was the organ of the governor and his party. At the same time Zenger was publishing a paper called the New York weekly journal. It was the organ of the Van Dam, or popular party. Through its columns writers severely criticised the administration. Squibs, ballads, and serious charges that appeared in Zenger's Journal irritated Cosby and his council beyond endurance. On Nov. 2, 1734, the council ordered certain numbers of the Journal containing alleged libels to be “burned by the hands of the common hangman, or whipped near the pillory” ; and a few days afterwards, by order of the same authority, Zenger was arrested and cast into prison on a charge of libel. Van Dam's counsel (William Smith, father of the historian, and William Alexander, father of Lord Stirling) took up Zenger's case with vigor. At the next term of the court (April, 1735) they filed an exception to the commissions of the chief-justice (James De Lancey) and the associate (Frederick Phillipse).

This questioning of their authority made the judges very angry, and, by an order of the chief-justice, Smith and [498] Alexander were silenced as advocates. The arbitrary act aroused public indignation, and the silenced lawyers made ample preparations for the trial, which came on in July. The grand jury had found no indictment, and Zenger was tried on “information” by the attorney-general. Andrew Hamilton, of Pennsylvania, the most eminent lawyer in the colonies, was secretly employed to defend Zenger. To the astonishment of the court, he appeared, on the day of trial, as the champion of the freedom of the press. By keen legal weapons, he foiled the sophistry of the court, and obtained from the jury a verdict of acquittal for Zenger, on the ground that an alleged libel is justified by its truth, and that jurors are judges of both law and fact. The crowded courtroom was instantly resonant with applause, and the delighted people carried the venerable advocate out of the city hall on their shoulders. The corporation of the city of New York presented Mr. Hamilton with the freedom of the city in a gold box “for his learned and generous defence of the rights of mankind and the liberty of the press.” He charged no fee for his services. Gouverneur Morris said to Dr. John W. Francis: “The trial of Zenger, in 1735, was the germ of American freedom—the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.” Zenger died in New York City in 1746.

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