Little Bits of History

Truth is Not an Excuse

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 5, 2014
Printing press

Printing press

August 5, 1735: John Peter Zenger is found not guilty. He was a German American publisher and printer in New York City. He printed The New York Weekly Journal and in late 1734 published articles condemning the behavior of the newly arrived Colonial Governor of New York, William Cosby. As soon as Cosby arrived in the colony he began to fight with the Council of the colony regarding his salary. Cosby was unable to control the state supreme court and so removed Chief Justice Lewis Morris and replaced him with a more easily controlled James DeLancey. Zenger brought this information to the reading public which irked the Governor further. Zenger also reported on the rigging of elections and how the government was allowing the French enemy to explore New York Harbor.

All the articles were written by an anonymous person and Zenger was simply the publisher. He would not name the writers. On November 17, 1734 Zenger was arrested and charged with seditious libel. In the 1700s libel did not mean the information printed was false. It simply meant the information did not please the local government. The veracity of the information was not at issue. The judge in the case did not hesitate to charge Zenger with libel since he freely admitted printing the pieces. James Alexander represented the publisher but the court found counsel to be in contempt and removed him from the case and Zenger spent the next eight months in prison. While John was imprisoned, his wife, Anna, kept the presses rolling. Because of the transparency provided by the accurate reporting, when the trial began, it was not packed with Cosby cronies, but with peers of Zenger.

Since Alexander had been removed, Zenger had been in need of a new lawyer. The most famous lawyer in the colonies, Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, offered to take the case pro bono. Hamilton admitted his client had printed the articles but rather than let it go at that, he demanded the prosecution prove them false. Rather than appeal to the bench, Hamilton made his appeal directly to the jurors and admonished them to consider not just the case of one poor printer, but rather to ensure the cause of liberty. The judge instructed the jury to convict Zenger if they believed he had printed the articles. Instead, they returned less than ten minutes with a not guilty verdict.

Freedom of the press was still not yet fully guaranteed. Zenger and Hamilton were hailed as heroes and the cause was carried forward. True freedom of the press would have to wait until after the Revolutionary War and the institution of the Bill of Rights where the First Amendment guaranteed publishers freedom. Zenger and his second wife, Anna, continued to operate the family paper. They had six children and after his death in 1746, their eldest son took over the paper which ran for another three years.

But this doctrine (‘a lible (sic) is not less a libel for being true’) only holds true as to private and personal failings;

The exposing therefore of public wickedness, as it is a duty which every man owes to the truth and his country, can never be a libel in the nature of things?

It has been hitherto generally understood, that there was no other Libels but those against Magistrates and those against private men. Now to me there seems to be a third set of libels, full as destructive as any of the former can probably be, I mean libels against the people.

Almost all over the earth, the people for one injury they do their governor, receive ten thousand from them. Nay, in some countries it is made death and damnation, not to bear all the oppression and cruelties, which men made wanton by power inflict upon those that gave it them. – all from “Cato” the anonymous author

Also on this day: Candle in the Wind – In 1962 Norma Jeane dies, mysteriously.
Road Trip – In 1888, Bertha Benz went for a drive.
Jobless – In 1981, 11,345 striking air traffic controllers were fired.
Dot, Dot, Dot – In 1858, the first transatlantic cable was finished.


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