New York Weekly Journal

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Date: 1735

Region: North America

Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion

Medium: Print Journalism


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Artist: Artist/Author/Producer John Peter Zenger (1697 - 1746)

Confronting Bodies: British Colonial Government

Dates of Action: Date of action 1735

Location: Colonial America

Description of Artwork: John Peter Zenger was a libertarian who published the newspaper The New York Weekly Journal, a newspaper in direct opposition to the government paper, the New York Weekly Gazette. The newspaper published articles concerned with the government and liberty of the press. The issues the British Government were concerned with were described "as having in them many things tending to raise seditions and tumults among the people of this province, and to fill their minds with contempt for his majesty's government."

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The Incident: "...In October 1734 a committee was appointed to investigate Zenger's newspaper and to look into the charges of seditious libel that had been alleged against it. The committee found numbers 7,47, 48, and 49, which contained a reprinted article on the liberty of the press, to be libelous as charged and ordered them to be burned. Zenger was arrested and jailed." (The Encyclopedia of Censorship, Jonathon Green, Pg. 365) Zenger was represented in the trial by defense attorney Andrew Hamilton and James Alexander, founder of the American Philosophical Society. Alexander was thought to be one of the first colonial writers to develop a true philosophy on the freedom of the press and speech. Their basic argument, "Truth ought govern the whole affair of libels," coupled with the growing distrust of the British Government enabled them to persuade the jury to return a verdict of not guilty.

Results of Incident: The Zenger case was one of the last of its kind to be held before the American Revolution. The case set a precedent for many trials to come concerning freedom of the press and speech. Alexander went on to write on the Zenger Case, A Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger (1736), which stood as a model for libertarian thought in the 18th century and was used widely by defendants of freedom of speech in Britain and America. As eloquently put by Alexander in one of his texts: "Freedom of speech is a principal pillar in a free government: when this support is taken away, the constitution is dissolved and tyranny erected on its ruins."

Source: The First Freedom Today, R. Downs, ALA,Chicago, 1984 Pg.5