Ever wonder where the Founding Fathers got the idea of a Free Press? I did, and that led me to the Trial of John Peter Zenger

John Peter Zenger was a German immigrant who printed a publication called The New York Weekly Journal. The pamphlets he printed were really critical of New York’s Royal Governor, William Cosby, who has gone down in history as one of the more oppressive and corrupt of the royal appointees.

Zenger printed articles – written by others – that accused the governor of an assortment of crimes such as election rigging, stealing taxes, being friendly to the French, and being a royal idiot. Although Zenger only printed the articles (he did not write them), he was arrested in 1733. The authors of said articles were anonymous, and Zenger would not name his sources.

Brave, considering the time.

Zenger was accused of publishing information that was opposed to the government – that would be the English government.

The first jury was packed with Cosby cronies but Zenger’s wife Anna kept the presses hot. Her reports led to public outcry and Cosby’s jury was replaced with a true jury of Zenger’s peers.

Zenger had good allies: Andrew Hamilton, one of the most famous lawyers in the colonies, defended Zenger. Yes, Hamilton argued, Zenger printed the material in question, then demanded the prosecution prove that to be false. Hamilton pleaded for his client’s release. “It is not the cause of one poor printer,” he claimed, “but the cause of liberty.” The judge ordered the jury to convict Zenger. But the jury returned in less than ten minutes with a verdict of:

Not Guilty.

Cheers reportedly filled the courtroom. Good job, Hamilton!

The verdict was hailed as a victory for freedom and is considered an important step to the Constitution’s First Amendment that would be written 50 long and hard years later.