Our History: Philadelphia lawyer defends press freedom

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I had long heard the phrase and was curious about its origin. As I learned, it grew out of a very famous case which took place in New York City in 1735.

Hamilton was born in Scotland in 1676 and first settled in Virginia but later moved to Pennsylvania, where he became a very prominent barrister in Philadelphia. One case he took on would belong to the ages - that of John Peter Zenger.

Zenger was a colonial journalist born in Germany who had emigrated to America and had been trained in his trade by the printer, William Bradford.

Bradford was the first to set up a printing press in Manhattan (1693) and had earlier introduced printing in Pennsylvania. Serving as a printer for nearly 50 years, he was responsible for the printing of: the first legislative proceedings in America (1694), the first paper money in New York City (1709); the first newspaper in New York City (1725); and the first map of the city (1731).

In the colony of New York in the spring of 1733, there was a serious epidemic of measles and small pox as well as an economic depression. The time was ripe for political confrontation. Lewis Morris, a chief justice ousted from his post by then-Governor William Cosby, gathered together men who opposed the governor, and ran for a seat in the Assembly, handily defeating his opponent. Morris and his supporters, including a number of lawyers and merchants, arranged for John Peter Zenger to launch a newspaper, "The New York Weekly Journal" in opposition to the semi-official "Gazette" put out by Bradford.

Morris' backers sought to challenge the government's virtual monopoly on the dissemination of information. They hoped to mobilize the city's artisans, shopkeepers, and laborers.

Calling themselves "the party of the people," Morris' supporters called for the adoption of electoral procedures already used in Boston and Philadelphia such as the secret ballot, and reapportionment to reflect population growth. They also said that mayors, sheriffs and all other officials should be popularly elected.

In a hotly contested election the "Morrisites," as Morris' followers were called, won in September of 1734, and among the councilmen elected were a painter, three bakers, and a bricklayer.

Each week Zenger's "Journal" lashed out at Cosby's incompetence, corruption, and collusion, and accused the governor and his circle of flaunting the law.

For this, Zenger was eventually arrested on libel charges and imprisoned. The governing party lead by Cosby, intent on winning the case, disbarred all local lawyers who attempted to defend Zenger, so the famous Philadelphia lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, was summoned to take the case.

Zenger was jailed for "seditious libel," and a preposterously high bail was set. Arguing that there must be an "appeal to reason" and natural rights and that the stake at risk was "the right of a free people to criticize their rulers," Hamilton argued: "It is not the cause of a poor printer, nor of New York alone.. It may in its consequences 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."

The jurors brought in a verdict in minutes, acquitting Zenger of all charges.

Though no one at the time would have imagined that the trial and verdict would set a legal precedent, the case furthered freedom of the press in America. It sent a clear warning to judges and prosecutors that juries could no longer be used to shield government from public censure, and that the law of "seditious libel" was looked upon unfavorably by the people. The public favored the right of free people to protect themselves from executive power, and to be allowed to speak out without fear of punishment from the government.

Andrew Hamilton, the ultimate "Philadelphia lawyer," the only counsel who would take Zenger's case, who struck a powerful blow for freedom of the press four decades before the American Revolution, never even charged his client a fee.

Updated 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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