Trial of John Peter Zenger Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Zenger published articles criticizing the governor of New York, who had him prosecuted for libel. He was acquitted based on the argument, a novel one at the time, that the truth of an utterance should be a defense in libel cases. The case became a crucial step in the evolution of the freedoms of speech and of the press in Great Britain and the United States.

Summary of Event

John Peter Zenger’s fame rests upon his role in what is perhaps the best-known free speech Freedom of speech;United States case in American history. Born in Germany in 1697, Zenger emigrated to New York in 1710 and took up an apprenticeship with William Bradford, publisher of the New York Gazette. Bradford was then the only printer in New York and the printer for the colonial government. Zenger became a master printer whose graphic skills exceeded those of his master. He never had any formal schooling and never made any pretense of being a writer, just a printer. At age twenty-one Zenger traveled through the colonies and then settled in Maryland from 1720 to 1722. He married and served for a time as the printer for the colonial administration. When his wife died, he returned to New York and entered into a partnership with Bradford. [kw]Trial of John Peter Zenger (Aug. 4, 1735) [kw]Zenger, Trial of John Peter (Aug. 4, 1735) [kw]Peter Zenger, Trial of John (Aug. 4, 1735) [kw]John Peter Zenger, Trial of (Aug. 4, 1735) Libel;John Peter Zenger[Zenger] First Amendment (U.S. Constitution) [g]American colonies;Aug. 4, 1735: Trial of John Peter Zenger[0880] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 4, 1735: Trial of John Peter Zenger[0880] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 4, 1735: Trial of John Peter Zenger[0880] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 4, 1735: Trial of John Peter Zenger[0880] Zenger, John Peter Hamilton, Andrew Cosby, William Bradley, Richard Morris, Lewis De Lancey, James Alexander, James

In 1726, Zenger dissolved his partnership with Bradford to establish his own printing shop, which was patronized by a small group of New Yorkers who were leading members of the bar: Supreme Court Chief Justice Lewis Morris, Morris, Lewis, Jr. Lewis Morris, Jr., James Alexander, and Smith, William William Smith. He published their political broadsides and pamphlets. When Chief Justice Morris lost his office after issuing an opinion against Governor William Cosby in a dispute over the salary still owed to Cosby’s immediate predecessor in office, Morris engaged Zenger to publish a pamphlet giving his side of the controversy.

Encouraged by the success of the pamphlet, Zenger’s patrons persuaded him to publish an opposition newspaper for which they would anonymously write articles. Zenger was happy to oblige since a newspaper gave a printer steady work and profits. On November 5, 1733, the first issue of Zenger’s New York Weekly Journal appeared. The Journal printed essays on liberty and attacks on Governor Cosby detailing his corruption and incompetence. The newspaper became an immediate success, partly because of the unpopularity of the governor and partly because of the wit and style of the articles.

Governor Cosby was not willing to tolerate the attacks and, after two months’ restraint, ordered Chief Justice James De Lancey to convene a grand jury to bring Zenger to trial for libel. The first attempt in January, 1734, failed, and a second unsuccessful attempt was made in November. On October 17, 1734, a resolution was introduced into the General Assembly to have copies of Zenger’s newspaper brought into the council and burned by the hands of the common hangman, to authorize the governor to offer a reward to discover the authors of the seditious libel, and to demand the prosecution of the printer. The resolution was passed in amended form to authorize the public burning of the newspaper.

Zenger was jailed on a warrant signed by the clerk of the governor’s council while another grand jury met and again refused to indict him. In January, 1735, Attorney General Richard Bradley in a bill of indictment charged Zenger with “printing and publishing several Seditious Libels” in two issues of his newspaper. One of these two issues, dated January 28, 1734, had asserted that the people of New York “think, as matters now stand, that their liberties and properties are precarious, and that slavery is likely to be entailed on them and their posterity.” The second issue, dated April 8, 1734, contained a statement by a New York resident which declared: “We see men’s deeds destroyed, judges arbitrarily displaced, new courts erected without consent of the legislature by which . . . trial by jury is taken away when a governor pleases.” Because reasonable bail was denied, Zenger remained in jail nine months awaiting trial. Zenger’s wife continued publication of the newspaper while he was in jail.

James Alexander, a former attorney general and author of several of the newspaper articles, and William Smith, a future attorney general and New York Supreme Court justice, defended Zenger. They argued for the removal of Chief Justice De Lancey and Justice Philipse, Frederick Frederick Philipse from the case, arguing that their commissions were defective. Both were disbarred, and the court appointed Chambers, John John Chambers, an inexperienced lawyer and an advocate of Governor Cosby, to represent Zenger at the trial set for August 4.

After an unsuccessful attempt to pack the jury with a preselected list of the governor’s supporters, the prosecution tried to equate the criticism of the governor with action against the king. Andrew Hamilton from Philadelphia had been secretly brought to New York to defend Zenger. He dramatically arose in the court to assume the defense of Zenger. He admitted the fact of publication but added that it was supported with truth. Attorney General Bradley countered that the jury must find a verdict for the king. He added that even if the charges were true, the law said that they are libel and that truth is an aggravation of the crime.

Hamilton replied that to ignore truth Truth as legal defense in matters of libel was a return to the wickedness of the Star Chamber and offered to prove the truth of the articles in the newspaper. This defense was not permitted by the court. Hamilton then argued that to determine the proper punishment for libel, the truth must be determined, since truth aggravated the libel. Again the court disallowed his argument. In summing up, Hamilton reminded the jury that an essential part of liberty was the right to oppose arbitrary power by speaking and writing the truth. Law;and speech[speech] The argument had an effect upon the jury. After a brief deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. The victory was celebrated with cheers, salutes from guns aboard ships, and a dinner in honor of Hamilton. The case became widely known in the colonies and in England.


Although the Zenger case did not establish a binding precedent in libel cases, it was an important step toward truth as a defense against libel. Up to that time, the role of the jury had been limited to ascertaining whether the accused had in fact published the material in question. Two important new rules were derived from Zenger’s case: that juries in libel cases are competent to decide on questions of the “law” as well as those of “fact”; and that truth is a defense in a libel prosecution. These principles were not adopted into U.S. law, however, until the enactment of the Sedition Act (1798) Sedition Act of 1798. Zenger’s trial occurred during a period of increasing demand for liberty. It proved that citizens could speak their minds, take on the authorities, and win. The trial is therefore a symbol of the fundamental freedom to criticize government and the right to publish such criticism, which is necessary to make that freedom meaningful.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, James. A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger, Printer of the New York Weekly Journal. Edited by Sidney N. Katz. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. Katz states that the indirect effect of the Zenger trial was most important and that Hamilton’s argument reflected the prevailing feeling about the proper relationship between government and citizens.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burancelli, Vincent. The Trial of Peter Zenger. New York: New York University Press, 1957. A leading commentary on the Zenger trial emphasizing its importance in libel defense.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emord, Jonathan W. Freedom, Technology, and the First Amendment. San Francisco, Calif.: Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 1991. Author says that Zenger’s case set no legal precedent, but it did give colonial juries a means to thwart libel prosecutions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peck, Robert S. The Bill of Rights and the Politics of Interpretation. St. Paul, Minn.: West, 1992. Peck states that no precedent was established but the trial reflected a growing public sentiment for liberty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Putnam, William Lowell. John Peter Zenger and the Fundamental Freedom. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1997. Comprehensive biography of Zenger. Putnam describes how Zenger’s trial led to the adoption of the First Amendment in the United States and similar safeguards in Europe. The appendix includes copies of the American and English bills of rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rutherford, Livingston. John Peter Zenger: His Trial, and a Bibliography of Zenger Imprints. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1904. A reprint of the account of the trial written by Zenger and published in his New York Weekly Journal.

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Categories: History