A Real Zenger

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Does the name, John Peter Zenger ring a bell? Unless you attended elementary school in New York City, probably not. I learned about him in the third grade and hadn't thought about him since. But recently, it slipped back into my consciousness. A little research established why.

In 1734, Zenger, a German immigrant, started publishing a newspaper, in which he was very critical of the royal governor, one William Cosby. Though he did not deny the charges, Cosby sued Zenger for libel, accusing him of printing, in his words, "false and seditious reflections". Zenger spent eight months in jail awaiting trial. His lawyer, one Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, no relation to Broadway Hamilton, was the first to wear the sobriquet "Philadelphia lawyer" as a tribute to his legal acumen. Knowing the judge for a Cosby crony, Hamilton tried the case before a jury, arguing that telling the truth was a valid defense against libel. The jury quickly agreed.

What got the acquittal, however, was not Hamilton's argument, but Cosby's massive unpopularity. No precedent was set, but the seed sprouted seventy years later, when a man named Crosswell was convicted of libel, again in New York. On appeal, the more celebrated Hamilton came to his defense, also arguing that statements should not be considered defamatory if they are true. Because the judges split, the conviction stood, although Crosswell was never imprisoned. And, a year later, the state legislature made truth as a defense a law.

Ironically, also in 1804, Hamilton was rapping one night across the dinner table with the Jeffersonian candidate for governor. His excoriation of the Federalist-leaning opponent was leaked to the press, contributing to that worthy's defeat. That worthy was one Aaron Burr. The musical tells you the rest.

In one of history's neat little codas, both Alexander Hamilton and John Peter Zenger rest in the graveyard of Trinity Church, in lower Manhattan.


John Peter Who? Imagine the discussions we might not be having these days without him.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Friedlander.

Richard Friedlander is a mediator, actor and author. He lives in the East Bay.