John Peter Zenger

John Peter Zenger, rare 1734 issue of New-York Weekly Journal

John Peter Zenger, rare issue of his New-York Weekly Journal, 1734

 

John Peter Zenger (1697-1746), editor. The New-York Weekly Journal, Containing the freshest advices, Foreign and Domestick, Numb. XXXIV. New York, June 24, 1734. In very good to near fine condition, with expected wear including light paper folds, toning, and isolated discoloration. 4 pp., each page measuring 11" x 6.875".

 

John Peter Zenger’s newspaper The New-York Weekly Journal was formed in popular opposition to New York Royal Governor William Cosby. Zenger was the last colonist to be tried and prosecuted for seditious libel before the American Revolution. Zenger’s case was a judicial landmark affirming freedom of the press. Historian Leonard Levy concludes that “the Zenger verdict made people exult in liberty and the relationship of liberty of the press to liberty itself.” Pre-1768 newspapers are exceedingly rare, and this newspaper is central to the debate over freedom of the press in America.

 

Excerpt:

 

"Mr. Zenger;

 

I Find Mr. Bradford’s [William Bradford, editor of competing New York Gazette Writers are not contented to asperse the Character of People in the Province, but extend their Endeavours beyond Sea, and that in an Instance which shews no great Regard to His Majesty: They take upon themselves to say, That Sir John Norris, whom His Majesty has thought fit to entrust with the Command of the British Fleet, is Superanuated. This I suppose is to insinuate to the World, That His Majesty has thought fit to employ a Person whose great Age renders him unfit for that Station, and therefore a Conduct not altogether prudent. How fit a Thing of that Kind (if true, as it is not) was to be published in the Government’s Paper here I leave the World to judge. The Admirers of Atterbury and Collier, and the Principles they espoused, cannot help showing themselves. We desire them to tell us when and where their next imaginary Fleet is to appear, and whether the Ten Sail is it be augmented or not?"

 

Recently commissioned New York Governor William Cosby arrived in New York in August 1732, and soon embroiled himself in a controversy that would lead to the earliest struggle for freedom of the press in the American colonies. Cosby infuriated a bloc of influential New York politicians by demanding half of the salary of acting governor Rip Van Dam from July 1731-August 1732. Cosby asked the New York Supreme Court to consider the dispute as a case in equity. Because equity courts sat without juries, this request inflamed popular fears about unchecked royal power. The Supreme Court ruled in Cosby’s favor, but Chief Justice Lewis Morris dissented and published his opinion in pamphlet form, denouncing Cosby and claiming that only the Assembly could call an equity case. On August 21, 1733, Cosby suspended Morris as Chief Justice, wrote a letter to the Duke of Newcastle in London urging his removal, and elevated James DeLancey in his stead.

 

In November 1732, former printing apprentice John Peter Zenger began publishing the New-York Weekly Journal, which almost immediately became the media arm of Cosby opponents. His mentor William Bradford expressed the attitudes of the ruling class in his conservative Gazette. Defrocked Chief Justice Morris and Van Dam defense attorneys William Smith and James Alexander began to organize an opposition party and likely contributed funds to Zenger’s New-York Weekly Journal.

 

The first issue of Zenger's New-York Weekly Journal was printed on November 5, 1733. In January 1734, Zenger accused Governor Cosby of threatening the “liberties and properties” of the people. Zenger referenced political theorists like John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in his paper, thus popularizing ideas that would later influence the Founding Fathers. On October 22, 1734, Governor Cosby ordered that issues 7, 47, 48, and 49 of the New-York Weekly Journal be burned. Two weeks later, frustrated in his attempts to quiet the opposition, Cosby ordered Zenger arrested for publishing “false, scandalous, malicious, and seditious libels.” The last charge was most serious, as sedition signified an intent to overthrow the government.

 

Cosby’s allies ensured that the case would go to trial. During Zenger’s 8-month confinement in New York City’s Old Prison, his wife Anna continued to keep publishing the New-York Weekly Journal, missing only one issue. Zenger’s defense attorney, Andrew Hamilton (1676-1741) of Philadelphia, was widely considered the best lawyer in the colonies. While Hamilton brilliantly conceded that Zenger had published the statements in question, he also argued that Zenger’s published statements were seditious only if they were false. Truth-as-defense would become an important precedent for the legal history of free speech in America. Hamilton also emphasized the responsibility of the jury – not judges – to decide the law in libel cases, a radical notion for its time.

 

12 New York City jurors returned a verdict of not guilty on August 5, 1735. Hamilton had achieved victory in a case deemed unwinnable. For his role in defending Zenger, the Common Council of New York awarded Andrew Hamilton the freedom of the city and a 5-ounce gold box inscribed in Latin: “Acquired not by money, but by character.”

 

William Bradford remained neutral in the Zenger-Cosby controversy because he had “been above forty years last past a Servant to the Government (and consequently to several Governours during that time) so I have according to my duty, some times printed in my Gazette some observations which the late Governour’s Friends, thought proper to make upon what the other Party printed against him, and for so doing Mr. Zenger, or some of the Party, have been angry with me....against my Gazette, insinuating that what I published was not true....”

 

Soon after Zenger’s acquittal, James Alexander published his Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger. According to historian Michael Kammen, Alexander’s pamphlet, appropriately published by their former client Zenger, became “the most widely known source of libertarian thought in America during the eighteenth century.”

 

John Peter Zenger's indictment, trial, and acquittal on charges of sedition and libel for his ongoing criticism of Governor William Cosby were significant factors in the development of freedom of the press in colonial America.

 

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Item: 64114

Price: $4,800.00
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