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John Peter Zenger Trial: 1735

Zenger's Attack On The Royal Governor

Zenger hardly seemed destined to play a pivotal role in American history. He appeared an ordinary enough man, his career a struggling and undistinguished one until he reached his middle years. Born in the German Palatinate, Zenger emigrated to America in 1710 as a boy of 13. The following year he was accepted as an apprentice by William Bradford, the British colony's royal printer, who enjoyed a monopoly on government printing. By 1725, he became Bradford's partner in the colony's official newspaper, New York Gazette, but that year he decided to go into business for himself. Zenger eked out a living until 1733 printing religious pamphlets, supplementing his income by playing an organ in church.

What set Zenger's fate in motion was the arrival in New York from England of a new royal governor, William Cosby. While it is not certain that Cosby was a thief, he was unquestionably a grasping and tactless man who demanded huge sums in payment from the New York colonial council for his services. He even attempted to force the prior interim governor, Rip Van Dam, to turn over half the salary he had been paid. When Van Dam refused, Cosby instituted a claim against Van Dam, to whose cause rallied a sizable number of the colony's wealthier gentlemen.

To propagandize their contempt for Cosby—a sentiment as prevalent among the masses as among the rich—and knowing they could expect no help from Bradford's Gazette (not if Bradford wanted to continue to be royal printer), Cosby's enemies turned to Zenger, offering to finance a newspaper for which Zenger would act as editor-publisher. Zenger's Weekly Journal made its first appearance November 5, 1733, and, unlike the Bradford paper, was hardly dry reading. With many of the scorching editorials written by a Van Dam ally, attorney James Alexander, the Journal quickly got attention, particularly for its mock advertisements. In one of them, Francis Harrison, a Cosby lackey, was described as "a large Spaniel, of about 5 feet 5 inches high … lately strayed from his kennel with his mouth full of fulsome panegyrics," or lavish praise for his master. The sheriff found himself described as a "monkey … lately broke from his chain and run into the country." Song sheets stronger in their invective than their meter or rhyme followed. ("The petty-fogging knaves deny us rights as Englishmen. We'll make the scoundrel raskals fly, and ne'er return again.")

None of this set well with Cosby and his friends—one of whom threatened Alexander's wife—and, on November 2, 1734, Cosby ordered that four issues of Zenger's paper be burned by the common hangman. The hangman refused. The sheriff then "delivered the papers into the Hands of his own Negroe" who set the bonfire.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832John Peter Zenger Trial: 1735 - Zenger's Attack On The Royal Governor, Cosby Strikes Back, Hamilton's Appeal For Press Freedom