Hero of the First Amendment: John Peter Zenger

First Amendment of the Bill of Rights:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

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The First Amendment is quite possibly the most important part of the United States Constitution.  It guarantees the right of all American citizens to  believe and worship as they see fit, or to choose not to worship, to speak their minds, to have access to a free press, to gather in groups in public, and to complain to the government.

John Peter Zenger (1697 – 1746) died before the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Concord, but he is accounted one of our Founding Fathers because he helped established freedom of the press on the soil of this nation.

Born in Germany, Zenger immigrated to New York at the age of 13.  He was apprenticed to printer William Bradford.  In 1726 Zenger began his own printing business, and in 1733, he began publishing the New York Weekly Journal.  He wrote some, not all, of the articles, but as printer, he was legally responsible for the content of the newspaper by the laws of the time.  The New York Weekly Journal printed many complaints against the colonial governor, the very unpopular General William Cosby.

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Despite the governor’s orders, a grand jury refused twice to indict Zenger.  November 17, 1734, Zenger was arrested for libel. He was confined in prison for nearly 10 months, before he was brought to trial in August of 1735.  Attorney Andrew Hamilton (no relation to Alexander Hamilton) argued that the jury, not the judge, should determine Zenger’s guilt or innocence.  He argued that as what Zenger had printed was true, it could not be libelous.

The question before the Court and you, Gentlemen of the jury, is not of small or private concern. It is not the cause of one poor printer, nor of New York alone, which you are now trying. No! It may in its consequence affect every free man that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty.

The jury acquitted Zenger. He was released from prison the following day, returned to his print shop, and published a widely read account of the trial.

It is important to note that the Zenger case did not establish legal precedent in seditious libel or freedom of the press. Rather, it influenced how people thought about these subjects and led, many decades later, to the protections embodied in the Unites States Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Sedition Act of 1798. The Zenger case demonstrated the growing independence of the professional Bar and reinforced the role of the jury as a curb on executive power. As Gouverneur Morris said, the Zenger case was, “the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America!”

John Peter Zenger continued writing and printing until his death in 1746.

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to the Marquis de la Fayette, wrote: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.” Jefferson considered public education and freedom of the press necessary for the health and survival of the United States, or any free nation.

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

Read the Constitution.  Read American history.  Know your rights as an American citizen.


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