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John Peter Zenger

AKA John Peter Zangerin

Born: c. 1697
Birthplace: Palatinate, Germany
Died: 28-Jul-1746
Location of death: New York City
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Trinity Churchyard, Manhattan, NY

Gender: Male
Religion: Christian [1]
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Journalist

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Sedition against the Crown

John Peter Zenger, the printer whose prosecution helped establish the principles of press freedom and jury nullification, came to America in his early teens. His father died during the family's voyage to America, and the younger Zenger worked for several years as an indentured servant for printer William Bradford before opening his own print shop in 1726. Seven years later he started the New York Weekly Journal, the second newspaper in the colony of New York, competing with the Gazette published by his former master. Stridently partisan in its approach, the Journal was relentless in its criticism and lampooning of Royal Governor William Cosby (1690-1736) and his administration, and on 17 November 1734 Cosby had Zenger arrested and imprisoned for seditious libel. Though Zenger had neither written nor edited the pieces that outraged the Governor, as publisher he could be held liable under law.

He engaged two lawyers to represent him, and both were promptly disbarred. He then called upon an out-of-state barrister, Andrew Hamilton (c. 1676-1741), who had less to fear from New York's oppressive Governor Cosby. At trial Hamilton admitted that the Journal had printed the items in question, but he made the novel claim that because the criticism was truthful, Zenger should not be punished. When the prosecution pointed out that truth was no defense to charges of sedition, Hamilton's next argument, perhaps even more radical, was to tell the jury to not merely judge whether the law was broken but to determine whether the law was just.

Zenger was held behind bars for 35 weeks but his trial took only two days, and in the next edition of the paper he reported that "The jury returned in ten minutes, and found me not guilty". During his time in jail, Zenger's wife and colleagues had continued publishing the Journal, and continued its criticisms of the Governor. His prosecution and trial, and his letters written from jail and published in the Journal, helped galvanize American resentment of the colonies' British overlords. More than forty years after his death, Zenger's name was frequently mentioned in the debate that culminated with the American Bill of Rights in 1789.

[1] Dutch Reformed Church.

Mother: Johanna Zenger ("Hanah", b. circa 1677)
Brother: Zenger Johannes (b. 1691)
Sister: Anna Catharina Zenger Becker (b. 1694)
Wife: Mary White Zenger (m. 1719, d., one son)
Son: John Zenger (Journal publisher)
Wife: Anna Catherine Maulin Zenger (Journal partner, b. 1718, m. 11-Sep-1723, d. 1751, five children)
Daughter: Elizabeth Zenger Kook (b. 1726, d. 1817)
Daughter: Catherine Zenger Lane (b. 1738, d. 1836)
Son: Pieter Zenger

    New York Weekly Journal Publisher (1733-46)
Libel 17-Nov-1734 (acquitted)
    Sedition 17-Nov-1734 (acquitted)
    Naturalized UK Citizen 6-Jul-1723
    German Ancestry

Author of books:
A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger (1735)

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