Peter Zenger

Several weeks ago, I talked to you about a man who has been called the “Father of Religious Freedom” in the new world. Do you recall his name? The man was Roger Williams and established the town of Providence in Rhode Island, where he granted religious freedom to all settlers in this colony.

Today, I want to call your attention to one of the early settlers of New York who had the courage to challenge the Royal Governor on the issue of freedom of the press. Can anyone name this man? He was John Peter Zenger, and he was born in Germany in 1697.

Zenger arrived in New York at the age of thirteen and became an apprentice printer for the next eight years, eventually opening opened his own printing plant. Later, he became editor and publisher of The New York Weekly Journal. It wasn’t long before Zenger was printing strong criticism of the Royal Governor’s dictatorial rule.

Peter Zenger was arrested and thrown into jail, where he languished for nine months while the Royal Governor went to work to assure Zenger’s conviction on charges of libel. Two lawyers for Zenger were disbarred for questioning the jurisdiction of the court. From his jail cell, Zenger continued to edit his paper. Each day his wife came to the prison, and Zenger told her through a hole in the door of his cell what he wanted published in the next issue.

When his case was finally brought to trial, the Attorney General, a favorite of the Governor, denounced the editor, and the judge, appointed by the Governor, nodded his head in agreement. The cause of freedom of the press seemed hopelessly lost when the time came for the defense to present its case.

John Peter Zenger looked to be a gone goose. But wait, look! Who is that old man who rose to his feet and announced that he was the lawyer to represent Zenger? The audience gasped as they recognized the old gentleman. He was Andrew Hamilton, the finest lawyer in the Colonies. Although his body was frail with age, he had come all the way from Philadelphia to fight for the rights of John Peter Zenger.

Hamilton’s defense was brilliant, and the main thrust of his argument was that what Zenger printed was the truth and that truth, however unpleasant, was not libel. He closed his appeal to the jury with these remarks: “It is a right which all free men claim, to complain when they are hurt. They have a right publicly to cry out against the abuses of power. The question before this court and you, gentlemen of the jury, is not of small or private concern; it is not the cause of a poor printer, nor of New York alone, which we are trying. No! It is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty.”

When the old man finished speaking, the jury filed out. There was a stillness in the courtroom as the verdict was awaited. After what seemed like hours, the jury returned with the verdict: “We find the defendant, John Peter Zenger, not guilty.” The crowd went wild and spilled into the streets yelling with joy and the knowledge that a round had been won in that eternal conflict that people wage to keep their freedoms.

The trial of Peter Zenger occurred in 1735, and his courageous fight against official governmental arrogance and dictatorial power helped make it possible more than fifty years later for the very first session of our Congress to write into our Constitution one of its most sacred amendments, guaranteeing the rights championed by both Roger Williams and John Peter Zenger.

Hear the voice James Madison reading to that Congress the words of the 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 peacefully to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
It is important that we remember and show gratitude to those in our early history who had the courage of their convictions and stood forth like men.

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