Zenger Trial

Andrew Hamilton, Zenger’s attorney, as drawn by Jacques Reich

The Zenger Trial was an important event in the history of American opposition to British colonialism. John Peter Zenger was an opposition newspaper printer who had been arrested and charged with seditious libel by the colony’s attorney general. In the trial Andrew Hamilton represented Zenger and convinced a jury to acquit him in August 1735. The colonial authorities didn’t again attempt to prosecute colonial printers after Zenger’s acquittal.

Oppositional Newspaper

John Peter Zenger was a German immigrant to the United States. In 1733 he agreed to print the first oppositional newspaper in the colonies, entitled New York Weekly. It caught the attention of the British rulers due to its strong attacks on William Cosby, New York’s royal governor. Cosby was seen as inept and authoritarian and was unpopular with New Yorkers, the paper’s witty attacks on him made it popular with colonial audiences. The paper would also play a role in shaping colonial ideology by reprinting English libertarian philosophers and their essays such as the Cato’s Letters. The newspaper had many backers in America, among them Lewis Morris who had recently been removed as chief justice of the colony, as well as lawyers James Alexander and William Smith who would initially represent Zenger at his trial.

Arrest and Trial

The British were determined to shut down the newspaper and made several failed attempts to have a grand jury indict Zenger. Cosby then had Zenger arrested in November 1734 by the sheriff but once again couldn’t find a grand jury to indict him causing him to rely on the colony’s new attorney general, Richard Bradley, charging him with seditious libel in January 1735. In the meantime Zenger was in prison as his supporters hadn’t paid bail because they believed he would be let out of jail by December when a grand jury failed to indict him.

Zenger was initially represented by Alexander and Smith, the lawyers who backed his publication, but they were debarred by chief justice James DeLancey when they questioned his appointment. DeLancey instead selected a pro-Cosby lawyer John Chambers to represent Zenger who would attempt the traditional defence in libel trials of denying publishing libel.

At his trial however Andrew Hamilton, the famous Philadelphia lawyer, took over and instead argued that Zenger should be acquitted because the accusations were not libellous because of their factual accuracy. The trial began in July 1735 and would end the following month. This wasn’t a traditional defence in libel law and seemed to be an admission of guilt (English law stated libel didn’t need to be false), but Hamilton persuaded the jury to acquit Zenger in August 1735 by arguing the definition of libel including statement of truth came from the Star Chamber, an institution that was deeply unpopular. He argued that if the statements made by Zenger were true then an American court shouldn’t find him guilty even if a British could would as America didn’t have to adopt the British practice in libel trials of simply establishing if the printing of the alleged libel took place.

Impact

While the definition of libel didn’t change in the aftermath of the trial, the British did not attempt to prosecute other printers in fear that a similar outcome might prevail. Hamilton would produce, anonymously, a booked entitled A Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger which was published by Zenger himself in 1736 and had a strong impact on colonial opposition.


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