Today marks the 274th anniversary of one of the most important cases in the history of the protection of free speech in America: the acquittal of New York newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger. Zenger had been charged with libel against New York Governor William Crosby, after the New York Weekly Journal, of which Zenger was publisher, published several articles highly critical of Crosby. The German-born Zenger was tried, and, on August 4, 1735, was found “not guilty” by a jury. The summation of Andrew Hamilton, one of Zenger’s lawyers, is worth citing on the occasion:
But to conclude; the Question before the Court and you, Gentlemen of the Jury, is not of small nor private Concern, it is not the Cause of a poor Printer, nor of New-York alone, which you are now trying: No! It may in it’s Consequence, affect every Freeman that lives under a British Government on the Main of America. It is the best Cause. It is the Cause of Liberty; and I make no Doubt but your upright Conduct, this Day, will not only entitle you to the Love and Esteem of your Fellow-Citizens, but every Man, who prefers Freedom to a Life of Slavery, will bless and honour You, as Men who have baffled the Attempt of Tyranny; and by an impartial and uncorrupt Verdict, have laid a noble Foundation for securing to ourselves, our Posterity, and our Neighbours, That, to which Nature and the Laws of our Country have given us a Right,—the Liberty—both of exposing and opposing arbitrary Power (in these Parts of the World, at least) by speaking and writing Truth.
While Zenger’s trial and acquittal happened three decades before independence, the enduring significance of the case highlights the conservative nature of the demands that the revolutionary leaders who would become the Founders made of King George III: Respect our traditional liberties as free Englishmen, established through common law jurisprudence.
Being a publisher, Zenger produced an account of his trial, which can be read in its entirety here.