by Melinda Pillsbury-Foster
The American Revolution began in 1775 with a shot fired in Concord as colonists confronted British soldiers attempting to take their weapons.
The conflict had begun much earlier, as people discussed their beliefs and considered the ramifications of their faith ways and the law. Colonists knew the story of William Penn and the jury who risked so much to affirm the rights of men accused unjustly under the Common Law.
A second chapter in the unfolding story began in New York City on August 2, 1732. A new British governor. William Cosby, had arrived. All American colonies, including New York, formerly Dutch, were under the control of George II.
Cosby, an arrogant man, immediately began to assume the powers of a monarch, antagonizing New Yorkers with his corrupt practices. Within a year, Cosby had stripped the popular Justice Lewis Morris ,of office because of a disagreement on the law. Two respected New Yorkers, Lewis Morris and Rip Van Dam, with their political friends had begun a campaign to force Cosby to return to England, using the power of the press.
The first issue of the New-York Weekly Journal came out November 5, 1733. The response from New Yorkers was enthusiastic. James Alexander, a friend of Cosby, became Editor and chief writer. John Peter Zenger, a printer, published the paper.
Within weeks Gov. Cosby attempted to silence the paper. Two grand juries refused to cooperate with Cosby. Because those writing had remained anonymous Cosby focused his ire on the printer, Zenger.
After a year, Cosby persuaded the Provincial Council to order the burning of Zenger's press. Zengar was arrested on their orders November 17, 1734, he remained incarcerated for nine months, as attempts to effect his release failed. Despite this, the Journal continued to appear every week, printed by Zengar's wife and assistants.
On August 4, 1735, John Peter Zenger was brought to trial, represented by a brilliant lawyer from Philadelphia, Andrew Hamilton, who relied on the argument Zenger was not guilty of seditious libel because the Journal’s criticisms of Cosby’s government were true and only a free press can protect colonists from corrupt governors.
The jury found John Peter Zenger not guilty, and he was freed.
Fifty years after the Zenger trial, the Bill of Rights was adopted by Congress in the same building where Zenger had been jailed. Americans understood, and relied on, the power of a free press.