William Cosby, England’s governor for the colony of New York, was a bully and a scoundrel. He tried to silence opponents, rig elections, and use his office to make himself rich. But Cosby had a problem: John Peter Zenger and his printing press.
Zenger, a German immigrant, began publishing his New York Weekly Journal in 1733, and he made it his business to publicize Cosby’s greed and arrogance. No other paper had been so bold.
Cosby reacted by sending his henchmen to seize and burn copies of the paper. Zenger went right on printing his Journal. On November 17, 1734, the governor tried to silence Zenger for good by having him arrested for seditious libel.
At Cosby’s request, bail was set much higher than Zenger could pay. For nearly nine months he sat in prison while his wife, Anna, helped publish the paper.
Finally Zenger got his day in court. But the governor’s handpicked judges disbarred his lawyers, leaving him without counsel. Andrew Hamilton, one of the finest attorneys in the colonies, rose
from his sickbed in Philadelphia and journeyed to New York City to defend the printer.
The court all but ordered the jurors to find Zenger guilty of libel. Hamilton reminded them that the printer’s only crime was that he had dared to publish the truth. It did not take long for the jury to reach a decision. On August 4, 1735, it returned its verdict: not guilty.
The trial set a precedent for America’s world-famous freedom of the press. Journalists sometimes abuse that freedom in pursuit of their own agendas. Still, the First Amendment remains an American bedrock. As Zenger’s newspaper put it, “No nation ancient or modern has ever lost the liberty of freely speaking, writing or publishing their sentiments, but forthwith lost their liberty in general and became slaves.”