John Peter Zenger

Paskalina Bourbon, Aiden Mcgardy, Alex Abalos, Jessica Hogle

"The question before the court and you, gentlemen of the jury, is not of small nor private concern. It is not the cause of a poor printer, nor of New York alone, which you are now trying. No! It may, in its consequence, affect every freeman that lives under a British government on the main[land] of America. It is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty."

(Defense attorney's closing argument in the Zenger case, 1735)

The Life and the Trial

Personal Life

John Peter Zenger, born in Germany in 1697, emigrated to New York City in the year 1710 at the age of 13 with his family. His father died along the way leaving his mother to raise Zenger and his siblings alone. For 8 years he was an apprentice to William Bradford, finishing his apprenticeship in 1718. The next year he got married, but she died leaving Zenger with a son. Then later on got married to Anna Maulist in 1722, who played a part in the Zenger Trial. The next year he got married, but she died leaving Zenger with a son. Then later on got married to Anna Maulist in 1722, whom played a part in the Zenger Trial.

In 1726 he established his own printing company and in 1733 he published his first issue of the New York weekly journal.

1710- moved from Germany to America at the age of 13

1710- Zenger's father died leaving the mother to raise Zenger and his siblings

1718- Zenger finished his indenture his mother signed him up for with William Bradford

1719- Married for the first time and had a son

1722- Married again with Anna Maulist and had five other children.

The New York Weekly Journal

Zenger had been a successful New York printer since he had opened his business in 1726. In 1733 he was approached by James Alexander and some months later they created the New York Weekly Journal. Zenger published the first issue on November 5, 1733. Therefore the second paper in New York was created (the first journal was published by Zenger's old teacher). The New York Weekly Journal published articles written by people who refused to hide and obfuscate the distortions, incompetence, and irresponsibility of the New York Royal Government, especially that of William Cosby. The other journal was being censored, so the NYWJ was at that time the only source of accurate information about the crown. Though Zenger did not write the articles themselves, he was legally responsible for the paper because he was a publisher. The next year, Cosby had Zenger arrested for publishing 'Libel'. Zenger, however refused to apologize for the writing of the New York Weekly Journal.

William Cosby: The Arch Nemesis

William Cosby was known very well from his military achievements. When George II was crowned he transferred William Burnet to govern New Hampshire and Massachusetts leaving John Montgomery to take office, but died shortly after. George II then announced Cosby as "Captain General and Governor Chief of the Provinces of New York, New Jersey and Territories depending thereon in America". Cosby then proceeded to make himself the most hated man in New York. He bent the law in order to steal money from the salary of the respectable senior member of the provincial council, Rip Van Dam. He censored articles that attacked him and hired the writer Francis Drake to advertise his greatness. The articles in the NYWJ he condemned as libel and then ordered the arrest of Zenger. But his greedy and selfish disposition could only get him so far...

The Trial of Peter John Zenger

Zenger was arrested on Cosby's orders on November 16, 1734 for publishing libel. By the time of his arrest, Cosby had already order the NYWJ burned and its publication stopped. The next day was the only time in the history of the NYWJ that n issue as not published. Wild in jail, Zenger wrote letters to the public, which, along with an unfairly high bail fee, helped fuel popular support for Zenger's freedom. On August 4th of that same year, Zenger's trial began. He was defended by the highly supportive lawyer Andrew Hamilton. During the trial, Alexander (who ha approached Zenger with the idea for the Journal) did admit to the court that the journal criticized Cosby. The defense did insist, however, that Zenger should not be punished for publishing the truth. Hamilton insisted that the law in England need not be the law in the colony of New York. When this argument was not enough to defend the charges against Zenger, Hamilton told the jury to"not merely judge whether the law was broken but to determine whether the law was just." This argument appeared to work, because after 2 days, the jury came to the conclusion that Zenger was not guilty. Even though the trial only lasted for 2 days, Zenger was held in prison for 35 weeks. While he was in jail, his wife and colleagues continued to publish and print the Journal. In the next issue of the paper Zenger was quoted: "The jury returned in ten minutes, and found me not guilty."


John Peter Zenger demonstrated good citizenship in his service of the British colonists and set a good example for the Americans who would gain their independence 50 years later. Zenger published in the British colony of New York during the 1730's; a time when the concept of America as an independent country didn't really exist. Zenger attacked William Cosby because of his unjust actions. Though it was illegal to verbally attack the government in the way Zenger did, this dies not make Zenger a bad citizen either by the colonial standards of the day or the standards of Americans centuries later. Cosby was acting in such a way that hurt the society of New York. He was not acting patriotically. He was not fulfilling his duty to the people of New York. He was a bad citizen. But Zenger who sacrificed his business and arrest in order to tell New York citizens about their government, was a good citizen. He kept his society informed. He tried to arm them with knowledge against the injustice of their government. He was fulfilling his duty as a citizen if New York to his utmost ability. There were many times when Zenger could have stopped attacking Cosby and saved his own skin. But Zenger did not stop. He continued to publish the NYWJ when Cosby ordered it burned. He wrote letters to the public while in prison. He ensured that his wife kept the paper going even when he was awaiting trial. Hs determination to expose the truth about the provincial government both fulfilled his duty to his fellow New York Citizens and set a new standard for freedom of the press. The important distinction in the case of Peter John Zenger is one between what is legal and what constitutes good citizenship. Citizenship is a quality that binds the individual to a society, not to a government. Therefore, if the government hurts the people, a citizen's duty is to defend and protect the society against the government. And that is what Zenger did, he defended his society. If Zenger had allowed Cosby's abusive behavior to pass unacknowledged, he would have been failing in his duty to the rest of the New York citizens.


John Peter Zenger was a man of great integrity who was not afraid of condemning the selfish and morally wrong actions of an incompetent and beaurcratic governor. William Cosby stole colonial money, censored colonial speech, and hurt the colonial people. Zenger, did what he believed was right and exposed the greed of Cosby to the rest of New York. Zenger was brave enough to stand up for what he believed even directly to a man in power. He knew when he began the NYWJ that he would probably be arrested for 'spreading sedition and libel', but fear of punishment did not stop his righteous behavior. Even after being jailed he maintained that Cosby was an irresponsible and selfish leader and he stuck to his sense of morality. After the trial, the jury ruled Zenger as innocent and as a result, freedom of the press was won in what was soon to be the United States of America. Like in the case of citizenship, one does not act with integrity simply by following the law, because a government is not always made up of individuals who try to do the right thing. Also a government does not dictate morality to its citizens. Every person ruled by a government has their own sense of right and wrong INDEPENDENT of law. Integrity is the trait someone has when they do what they believe is right regardless of the consequences. So again, by the moral standards of 18th century Britain or modern day America, Zenger conduct the affair of the NYWJ with integrity. His courage in the face of adversity (even when he was arrested, his paper ordered burned, and tried) helped inspire what was to become the American standard of an uncensored press. Zenger had the integrity to stand up for what was right and help show others what was wrong.

In Conclusion

Peter John Zenger set the standard for the American Press of the future. More locally, Te Zenger Trial made it clear to the Royal Government in that the colonists would not tolerate any unfair treatment. Furthermore, he helped secure the freedom of the press, and establish their duty to tell the truth to the American people. Zenger fought for what was right and inspired others to do the same.

Forty years after his death in 1746, Zenger's name was repeatedly mentioned in the debate over the American Bill of Rights.


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