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John Peter Zenger Trial: 1735

Zenger Verdict's Legal Impact

Zenger quickly published the transcript of the trial, and his and other printings—one by Benjamin Franklin—soon spread the story of the trial throughout the American colonies and to England. While cheered by many people on both sides of the Atlantic, legal authorities and public officials were slow to accept the verdict as a binding legal precedent. It took the British Parliament until 1792, with the passage of the Fox Libel Act, to formally give juries the right to consider truth, not just publication, in seditious libel cases.

Although freedom of the press was enshrined in the American Bill of Rights, the bitter political battle between Federalists and Republicans after independence was won from Britain sparked seditious libel cases against newspapers in several states. In the 1803 prosecution of a scurrilous Federalist editor, Harry Croswell, for libeling President Thomas Jefferson, a devoutly Republican Justice Morgan Lewis ordered the jury to rule strictly on the fact of publication and banned evidence on the truth of the libel. Another Hamilton—Alexander—appealed to the New York Supreme Court to overturn the jury's guilty verdict and order a new trial, basing his argument on the Zenger case. Although the court split two-and-two on the issue, thus in effect denying the appeal, the eloquence of Hamilton's argument won over public opinion, and the prosecution dropped the proceedings against Croswell. The legal principles enunciated by Hamilton and repeated in the written opinion of Supreme Court Justice James Kent were incorporated into the New York Constitution of 1821.

Through the powerful oratory of both Hamiltons and the courage of Zenger's jurors, the right to free speech—to a free press—was established, and the importance of the right to trial by jury as a safeguard against oppressive government recognized.

Edward W. Knappman

Suggestions for Further Reading

Buranelli, Vincent. The Trial of John Peter Zenger. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975.

Fleming, Thomas J. "A scandalous, malicious and seditious libel." American Heritage (December 1967): 22-7, 100-06.

Goebel, Julius and T.R. Naughton, Law Enforcement in Colonial New York. New York: Commonwealth Fund, 1944.

Hopkins, W. Wat. "John Peter Zenger." In A Biographical Dictionary of American Journalism, edited by Joseph P. McKerns. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Konkle, B.A. The Life of Andrew Hamilton, 1676-1741. Philadelphia: National Publishing Co., 1941.

Morris, Richard. Fair Trial. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952.

Rutherford, Livington. John Peter Zenger, His Press, His Trial, and a Bibliography of Zenger Imprints. New York: Arno Press, 1904.

Schuy ler, L. R. Liberty of The Press in The American Colonies Before The Revolutionary War. New York: T. Whittaker, 1905.

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