On this day: The trial of John Peter Zenger

On this day in 1735, John Peter Zenger, the editor of the New York Weekly Journal, was acquitted of seditious libel against the royal governor of New York, William Cosby.

The New York Weekly had discovered that readers thoroughly enjoy their press openly criticizing those in power. William Cosby had been appointed colonial governor in 1733, and immediately began to quarrel with the colony’s Supreme Court. His solution to this disagreement was to remove the Chief Justice, Lewis Morris, replacing him with a supporter of the royals – James DeLancey.

Zenger was a prolific commentator on the exploits of New York’s governor, and published numerous critical articles. The New York Weekly accused the government of conspiring with the French, and complained that they had rigged elections. After being condemned by the governor for his “divers scandalous, virulent, false and seditious reflections,” Zenger was charged with seditious libel.

Although a grand jury had refused to indict him, Zenger spent more than eight months in prison. Once his case was eventually taken to trial, he was acquitted by the jury after a deliberation of just ten minutes.

Zenger was defended by two lawyers, Andrew Hamilton and William Smith, after his first counsel was removed from the case by the government. Hamilton appealed to the jury, claiming that this case was “not the cause of one poor printer, but the cause of liberty”. Zenger’s lawyers were defending the freedom of the press, against a corrupt government.

This was a legal argument which had been propounded to much public acclaim in the New York Weekly Journal’s ‘Cato’s Letters’. Cato – a pseudonym used by the British writers John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon – published a series of articles, and came to be seen as one of the leading luminaries of the 18th century. Cato further argued that it should be made an “express crime” to “inveigh against the interest of the people”, even going so far to say that “sapping and betraying the liberties of a people” should be classed as treason.

Hamilton and Smith successfully argued truth as a defence against libel, however they were unsuccessful in establishing this as a legal precedent. It was only in 1805, following the famous People v. Crosswell case, that a law was passed that allowed truth as a defence against libel.