John Peter Zenger was a German-born American printer, publisher, editor and journalist in New York City.
He owned the second newspaper in the city, 'The New York Weekly Journal'. He printed another man's document that criticized William Cosby, Governor of New York, who had him arrested on a charge of seditious libel. Zenger claimed in his "apology" for missing an issue, that even though he was in jail without supplies, he could still publish by speaking through a hole in the door with the help of his wife and servants. It is unclear just how seriously Zenger personally took the material published in the Weekly Journal. It was almost certainly financed by one of the opposition factions in New York politics, possibly by James Alexander, who along with William Smith was disbarred for objecting to the two-man court that Cosby hand-picked. Zenger was most likely a convenient target to use in an attempt to end criticism. His defense attorney, Andrew Hamilton, was from Philadelphia, and won a case most local attorneys were confident would be unwinnable, and over which prior attorneys had been disbarred. His success resulted in the addition of the expression "Philadelphia lawyer" to the language with its original denotation of competence.
A notable aspect of the case is that Hamilton challenged the legality of the crimes for which his client was being prosecuted. It was one of the first times in American history in which a lawyer challenged the laws rather than the innocence of his clients. The jurors were stunned and didn't know how to, or even if they were allowed to, address whether the law itself was "legal." See also Jury nullification.
At the end of the trial on August 5, 1735, the twelve New York jurors returned a verdict of "not guilty" on the charge of publishing "seditious libels," despite the Governor's hand-picked judges presiding. Hamilton had successfully argued that Zenger's articles were not libelous because they were based on fact. Zenger published a verbatim account of the trial as A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger (1736). "No nation, ancient or modern, ever lost the liberty of speaking freely, writing, or publishing their sentiments, but forthwith lost their liberty in general and became slaves" stated Zenger.
Hamilton had served for free. In gratitude for what he had done, the Common Council of New York City awarded him the freedom of that city, and a group of prominent residents contributed to the production of a 5½-ounce gold box that was presented to him as a lasting mark of their gratitude. On the lid of the box the city's arms were engraved, encircled with the words "Demersae leges — timefacta libertas — haec tandem emergunt" (extracted from Cicero's "Quamvis enim sint demersae leges alicuius opibus, quamvis timefacta libertas, emergunt tamen haec aliquando," "For let the laws be never so much overborne by some one individual's power, let the spirit of freedom be never so intimidated, still sooner or later they assert themselves" [De officiis 2.24]); on the inside were the inscriptions "Non nummis, virtute paratur" ("Acquired not by money but by virtue") and "Ita cuique eveniat ut de republica meruit" ("Thus let each receive what he has deserved of the republic," an altered quote from Cicero's Second Philippic, where it reads "...ut de republica quisque mereatur"). The box was preserved as a family heirloom for many years and is now in the custody of the Atwater Kent Museum near Independence Hall, Philadelphia. Each year the Philadelphia Bar Association presents a replica of the box to the outgoing Chancellor of the Association.
· 1 decade ago