ZENGER, JOHN PETER. Encyclopedia of American Journalism

John Peter Zenger (October 26, 1697–July 28, 1746) was the
defendant in a landmark 1735 case that Gouvernor Morris,
one of the drafters of the Constitution, later called—perhaps with some overstatement—“the germ of American
freedom, the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.”
Zenger immigrated to America from Germany and
in 1710 became an apprentice to William Bradford, New
York’s only printer at that time. In 1733, Zenger became
the printer of the New York Weekly Journal, an independent
political newspaper highly critical of New York colonial
governor William Cosby for his misconduct and abuses of
After unsuccessful attempts by the governor to prosecute
the pseudonymous authors of critical editorials in the Journal, Cosby had a bench warrant issued for Zenger’s arrest
in November 1734, accusing him of seditious libel for publishing writings that “raise[d] factions and tumults among
the people of this Province, inflaming their minds with contempt of His Majesty’s government, and greatly disturbing
the peace thereof.” Under English law, any criticism of the
government could be prosecuted as seditious libel, even if
it was true. The duty of the jury in a seditious libel trial at
that time was only to determine whether the defendant had
indeed printed the material; whether it constituted seditious
libel was a matter of law for the judge to decide.
Zenger was initially represented by two defense attorneys, one of whom was James Alexander, a founder and
financial supporter of the Journal who may also have been
the author of the critical editorials. After those lawyers
were disbarred for objecting to the fairness of a trial presided over by judges hand-picked by Crosby, famed Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton stepped in to serve as
defense counsel.
With Alexander’s advice, Hamilton devised a novel
defense strategy. He admitted that Zenger had printed the
allegedly libelous material and that the law was not on
his side. But he urged the jury to acquit his client anyway,
based on the right of colonists to speak the truth against
abuses of power such as Cosby’s. Hamilton argued that the
law of England need not be applied the same in America
and that a “not guilty” verdict would send a message of support for truth and freedom against tyranny that would be
heard across the colonies.
Hamilton’s plea for jury nullification worked and the jury
quickly found Zenger not guilty. The verdict demonstrated
the growth of public opposition to seditious libel prosecutions. Zenger’s wife, Anna, continued publication of the
Journal during the months Zenger was imprisoned. While
the case set no legal precedent, it helped establish the defense
of truth in libel cases, and generally marked the beginning
of greater press freedoms in America. Alexander’s 1736
account of the trial helped spread the cause of freedom of
speech and press in England and America and established
the reputations of both Zenger and Hamilton. Zenger later
became public printer for the colonies of New York and New
Further Reading
Alexander, James. A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of
John Peter Zenger, Printer of the New York Weekly Journal,
edited by Stanley N. Katz. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press,
Covert, Catherine L. “‘Passion Is Ye Prevailing Motive’: The
Feud behind the Zenger Case.” Journalism Quarterly 50, 1
(Spring, 1973): 3–10.
Putnam, William L. John Peter Zenger and the Fundamental
Freedom. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1997.
Kathleen K. Olson