Censorship is the official prohibition or restriction of any type of expression conceived as a threat to the sociopolitical or moral order. Attempts by the authorities to suppress freedom of the press in the American colonies were recurrent. These efforts would eventually lead to a confrontation at the Supreme Court in the case of New York v. John Peter Zenger in August 1735.
The trial of this German Palatine printer shaped American thinking prior to the adoption of the First Amendment which states that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. Key to the case was this question: should someone be prosecuted for criticizing a government official even if the offending words or phrases are the truth?
At the time, English common law as applied in the colonies provided that truth was no defense to an accusation of seditious libel. Truthful information could be even more dangerous than lies as it was more believable (in Britain, the discussion appears relevant again today). In fighting this legal concept, Scottish-born lawyers in the colony played a prominent part.
Until unification, German-speaking people were spread over a network of independent principalities. By the beginning of the eighteenth century the relative peace in this patchwork of territories was disturbed. An age of social turmoil was to follow.
The Rhenish Palatinate region (the Pfalz) on the River Rhine had been devastated by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and subsequently by the armies of Louis XIV. The region was plundered and terrorized. One calamity followed another. The winter of 1708 was the harshest for decades, destroying orchards and vineyards.
These catastrophic developments left large numbers of urban and rural inhabitants destitute. Many of them escaped from a disrupted and seemingly doomed homeland and crossed the English Channel in 1709/10. Between 13,000 and 15,000 Palatines arrived in London through the port of Rotterdam. The metropolis was unprepared for such an invasion of despondent people.
Countless “Poor Palatines” gathered on Blackheath and in Camberwell. They were herded into an encampment of dilapidated buildings and warehouses, living under miserable conditions, being despised by locals.
The influx of refugees polarized political opinion. The ruling Whigs encouraged Protestant immigration. Had Britain not benefited from the arrival of Flemish and Dutch settlers, or from the coming of skilled French Huguenots? Moreover, was it not the duty of a Protestant nation to support Palatine “refugees of conscience” who were the perceived victims of Catholic oppression?
Tories on the other hand feared that the country would be swamped by foreigners. To them, the presence of so many displaced and desperately poor newcomers was an acute financial burden, even if they were Protestants. Catholic fugitives in the meantime were returned to the Continent.
Daniel Defoe supported the idea that England should welcome immigrants to expand its labor force. He mocked those who argued the “sacred” nature of Englishness. The immigrant theme is present in his novel Robinson Crusoe. Critics have celebrated the figure of Robinson Crusoe as the “emblematic English emigrant and imperialist.” It is often (conveniently) forgotten that Robinson was the son of a Bremen-born merchant, the name Kreutznaer being corrupted to Crusoe. The story of a castaway struggling against all odds on a hostile island serves as an allegory of refugee life.
Amongst immigrants living in dire straits in London “camps,” the rumor took hold of a “golden future” on American plantations. English agents encouraged displaced individuals to set sail to a plentiful “New World.” Queen Ann offered to send six to eight hundred (Lutheran) Palatines to Carolina. Some went to Virginia, but by far the biggest group was destined for the New York Colony.
In 1710, Edinburgh-born Robert Hunter was appointed Governor of New York. He offered to take 3,000 migrants to what is now Germantown and Saugerties in the Hudson Valley to produce tar from pine trees on behalf of the British Navy. He actually accompanied the Palatines traveling to their new destination. Significantly, he guaranteed apprenticeships for their children on arrival. (Later, some Palatines moved to the Mohawk and Schoharie Rivers, founding towns such as Palatine and Palatine Bridge.)
Among those who sailed for New York in 1710 was twelve-year old Johann [John] Peter Zenger who had been born in the village of Rumbach in Rhineland-Palatinate, the eldest of four children of teacher Nicolaus Eberhard Zenger and his wife Johanna. During the rough voyage across the Atlantic, Peter’s father died. Johanna and her three children arrived in New York in June 1710.
On October 26th, 1710, Hunter signed thirteen-year-old John Peter Zenger’s articles of apprenticeship to William Bradford, the first and, at the time, only printer in New York. The articles of indenture stated that the youngster was required to work for Bradford until his maturity.
William Bradford was born in the Leicestershire village of Barwell where his father was a printer and a member of the Society of Friends. He was apprenticed to Andrew Sowle, London’s foremost Quaker printer. Having married his master’s daughter, the couple joined William Penn’s new colony in North America in 1682. Eight years later he set up Pennsylvania’s first printing press.
He soon got into conflict with local Quaker leaders. In 1692, Bradford was jailed for printing without an imprint and publishing a pamphlet critical of mainstream religious practices. His press and type were temporarily seized. Continuous interference by the authorities and their attempts to limit his freedom as a printer made him decide to leave Philadelphia for New York where he was appointed in 1693 to the position of printer for the Colonial government. He settled in Pearl Street, Manhattan, and his offices were located at Hanover Square.
Training with Bradford, Zenger learned the ins and outs of the trade, acquiring valuable experience by assisting his master print a variety of official and private materials that passed through his shop.
Zenger left Bradford’s printing house in 1719, married Mary White in Philadelphia that same year, and settled in Chestertown, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Demand for printing services however proved limited as most of Maryland’s official publications were printed in Philadelphia. Following the death of his wife, he returned to New York. When in 1725 Bradford founded the weekly New-York Gazette, the first newspaper in the colony, he invited Zenger (by then re-married) to become a partner. Bradford had been designated the King’s Printer by the British Crown and controlled the New York market. In spite of that, Zenger left the firm after a year to set up a rival print shop in Smith Street, Manhattan. In the shadow of his former master, he struggled to survive.
Commissioned works were mostly religious tracts (two of them in Dutch, both dating from 1730). His contribution to New York’s printing history, also in 1730 and in Dutch, was Pieter Venema’s Arithmetica of Cyffer-Konst. The book has been named the first arithmetic text printed in New York.
Neither religion nor science established Zenger’s reputation as a printer. It was in the political arena that he stood up for the free expression of ideas and opinions in print.
In August 1732 the British Crown appointed William Cosby as the new Governor of New York. His highhanded behavior made him an unpopular figure amongst many colonists. As Bradford was the official printer for the Colony, he was Crosby’s subordinate and unable to express or print opposing views.
Those who formally opposed Cosby were led by James Alexander, a Scottish-born lawyer and statesman in the Colony. In need of a printer to publish their tracts and pamphlets, they turned to Zenger. In 1733 Alexander founded the New York Weekly Journal. Most opposing anti-Cosby articles were written by contributors to the newspaper, but Zenger was legally responsible. He acted both as its printer and editor.
The Cosby-camp viewed the paper as subversive and inflammatory, and as such a threat to public order. In 1734, Zenger was arrested on libel charges and imprisoned for nine months. With John in jail, his wife Anna oversaw the shop and continued publication of the Journal. Zenger allegedly communicated instructions to her through the “hole of the door of the prison.” The toughness of many printer’s wives or widows has too often been forgotten or understated.
Zenger’s case came to trial in the New York Supreme Court on August 4th, 1735. His defense was conducted by Scottish-born lawyer Andrew Hamilton who, in an eloquent and dramatic appeal, helped to establish the principle that truth is a defense to an accusation of libel.
He concluded his argument by asserting that the press has a “liberty both of exposing and opposing tyrannical power by speaking and writing truth.” The jury agreed and Zenger was acquitted. The concept was later incorporated into the law of New York and other states.
Soon after, a detailed account of his trial appeared in the Journal. In 1736 the proceedings were published in a separate and often reprinted pamphlet A Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger. James Alexander’s name appeared on the title page as its author.
Governor Cosby died in 1736. A year later, Zenger was appointed public printer for New York, replacing Bradford, his former master and rival. In 1738, he took on the same post in New Jersey. Zenger also continued as publisher of the Journal.
John Peter died in New York in July 1746 and is believed to be buried in Trinity Churchyard, Lower Manhattan. His widow continued the family business until Zenger’s eldest son, John, replaced his mother as head of the print shop in December of 1748. John Zenger continued publication of the Journal for another three years. Free thinking New York owes the Zenger family a debt of gratitude.
Illustrations, from above: inscription of the First Amendment (December 15, 1791) in front of Independence Hall, Philadelphia; the London refugee camp depicted on the title-page of a pamphlet entitled The Palatines Catechism, 1709; portrait of Robert Hunter, c. 1720 by Godfrey Kneller (New York Historical Society); The Rival Editors by Howard Pyle (pen and ink drawing of William Bradford walking past the office of his rival John Peter Zenger, late nineteenth century); page from John Peter Zenger’s New York Weekly Journal, September 1734 (Library of Congress); and A Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger.