John Peter Zenger was among a group of German Reformed refugees who had fled from the German Palatinate for England, and with the aid of Queen Anne, found a home in the colony of New York. As religious pilgrims, these Palatines had a keen interest in both civil and religious liberty, and young John would prove a seminal figure in the American cause.
In fact, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Gouverneur Morris recognized the importance of the Zenger trial, calling it: “the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.”
Apprenticed to a New York printer with whom the young Zenger would eventually form a partnership, he had a keen interest in printing Reformed sermons and religious pamphlets. His interests would broaden to include the political, filling the pages of his newspaper with political commentary. That zeal eventually brought him into conflict with the Crown’s Governor, William Colby, who sued him for libel.
Zenger engaged Andrew Hamilton to defend him, and the spark of independence was lighted. Hamilton drew the issue in such sharp relief, that the judge warned him to tread carefully, lest he wind up next to Zenger in the dock. What follows is the contemporaneous account of the trial that enshrined in American law the principle that “the truth us a sure defense.”
“John Peter Zenger, late of the city of New-York, Printer, (being a seditious person, and a frequent printer and publisher of false news and seditious libels, and wickedly and maliciously devising the government of our said lord the king of this his majesty’s province of New-York, under the administration of his excellency William Colby, Esq; captain-general and governor in chief of the said province, to traduce, scandalize and vilify; and his excellency the said governor, and the ministers and officers of our said lord the king of and for the said province to bring into suspicion and the ill opinion of the subjects of our said lord the king residing within the said province) the twenty-eighth day of January, in the seventh year of the reign of our sovereign lord George the Second, by the grace of God of Great-Britain, France and Ireland, king, defender of the faith, &c. at the city of New-York, did falsly, seditiously and scandalously print and publish, and cause to be printed and published, a certain false, malicious, seditious, scandalous libel, intituled, the New-York Weekly Journal, containing the freshest advices foreign and domestic; in which libel (of and concerning his excellency the said governor, and the ministers and officers of our said lord the king, of and for the said province) among other things therein contained, are these words: ‘Your appearance in print at last gives a pleasure to many, tho’ most wish you had come fairly into the open field, and not appeared behind retrenchments made of the supposed laws against libelling, and of what other men have said and done before; these retrenchments, gentlemen, may soon be shewn to you and all men to be weak, and to have neither law nor reason for their foundation, so cannot long stand you in stead: therefore, you had much better as yet leave them, and come to what the people of this city and province (the city and province of New-York meaning) think are the points in question (to wit) They (the people of the city and province of New-York meaning) think, as matters now stand, that their liberties and properties are precarious, and that slavery is like to be intailed on them and their posterity, if some past things be not amended, and this they collect from many past proceedings.’” (p11-12)
[Andrew Hamilton:] “It is true in times past it was a crime to speak truth, and in that terrible court of star-chamber, many worthy and brave men suffered for so doing; and yet even in that court, and in those bad times, a great and good man durst say, what I hope will not be taken amiss of me to say in this place, to wit, ‘The practice of information for libels, is a sword in the hands of a wicked king, and an arrand coward, to cut down and destroy the innocent; the one cannot, because of his high station, and the other dares not, because of his want of courage, revenge himself in another manner.’
“Mr. Attorney. Pray, Mr. Hamilton, have a care what you say, do not go too far neither; I do not like those liberties.” (p29)
[Andrew Hamilton:] “the question before the court and you, gentlemen of the jury, is not of small or private concern; it is not the cause of a poor printer, nor of New-York alone, which you are now trying; no! it may, in its consequence, affect every freeman that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause: it is the cause of liberty!… That, to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right,—the liberty—both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power (in these parts of the world at least) by speaking and writing truth.” (p46)
“The jury withdrew, and in a small time returned, and being asked by the clerk, ‘Whether they were agreed of their verdict, and whether John Peter Zenger was guilty of printing and publishing the libels in the information mentioned?’ They answered by Thomas Hunt, their foreman, Not Guilty
“Upon which there were three huzzas in the hall, which was crowded with people; and the next day Zenger was discharged from his imprisonment.” (p47-48)