See biography by L. Rutherford (1904, repr. 1970); V. Buranelli, ed., The Trial of Peter Zenger (1957, repr. 1985).
(born 1697, Germany—died July 28, 1746, New York, N.Y.) German-born U.S. printer and journalist. He immigrated to New York at age 13 and was indentured to a printer before starting his own printing business (1726). In 1733 he began publishing the New York Weekly Journal. Arrested for libel in 1734 for his attacks on the policies of the colonial governor, he was acquitted on the grounds that his charges were based on fact (a key consideration in libel cases since that time). It was the first important victory for freedom of the press in Britain's North American colonies.
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His indictment, trial and acquittal on sedition and libel charges against the Governor William Cosby of the New York Colony in 1735, with the noted lawyer Andrew Hamilton acting in his defense, were important contributing factors to the development of freedom of the press in America. The Zenger decision helped clarify the beliefs of early Colonial life and lay the groundwork for the responsibilities of both media and government in a functioning democracy.
Zenger's paper had been successful until he criticized William Cosby, Governor of New York, and the governor had him arrested and jailed. Zenger claimed in his apology that even though he was in jail without supplies, he could still publish his paper through a hole in the door with the help of his wife and servants. It is unclear just how seriously Zenger personally took the material published in the Weekly Journal. It was almost certainly financed by one of the opposition factions in New York politics, possibly by James Alexander, who along with William Smith was disbarred for objecting to the two-man court that Cosby had hand-picked. Zenger was most likely a convenient target to use in an attempt to end criticism. His defense attorney, Andrew Hamilton, was from Philadelphia, and won a case most local attorneys were confident would be unwinnable, and over which prior attorneys had been disbarred. His success may have resulted in the addition of the expression "Philadelphia lawyer" to the language.
A notable aspect of the case is that Hamilton challenged the legality of the crimes for which his client was being prosecuted. It was one of the first times in American history in which a lawyer challenged the laws rather than the innocence of his clients. The jurors were stunned and didn't know how to, or even if they were allowed to, address whether the law itself was "legal."
At the end of the trial on August 5, 1735, the twelve New York jurors returned a verdict of "not guilty" on the charge of publishing "seditious libels," despite the Governor's hand-picked judges presiding. Hamilton had successfully argued that Zenger's articles were not libelous because they were based on fact. Zenger published a verbatim account of the trial as A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger (1736). "No nation, ancient or modern, ever lost the liberty of speaking freely, writing, or publishing their sentiments, but forthwith lost their liberty in general and became slaves" stated Zenger.
Hamilton had served for free. In gratitude for what he had done, the Common Council of New York City awarded him the freedom of that city, and a group of prominent residents contributed to the production of a 5½-ounce gold box that was presented to him as a lasting mark of their gratitude. The box was preserved as a family heirloom for many years and is now in the possession of the Atwater Kent Museum near Independence Hall, Philadelphia. Each year the Philadelphia Bar Association presents a replica of the box to the outgoing Chancellor of the Association. A Latin motto inscribed on the box, identical to the original, is translated as "Acquired not by money, but by character."
Zenger died in 1746 at 48 years of age.