August 15, 2018
A hush fell over the courtroom as the jury returned to their seats. They had only deliberated 10 minutes. The prosecutor and judges tried to contain their pride as they were positive the jury would rule their way. As the defendant rose to hear his fate, the town leaned in as well. The foreman cleared his throat as he announced, "We find the defendant not guilty." The courtroom erupted in cheers and applause as the Chief Justice tried desperately to regain control, yet the crowd's enthusiasm would not subside. And soon, neither would the country's.
Since the beginning, Americans have cherished free thought. To achieve that, colonists highlighted the importance of education, even from the time Harvard College opened their doors in 1636. Six years later, the Massachusetts Act of 1642 made it mandatory to teach reading and writing so children could read and understand Scriptures as well as the laws of the commonwealth. (see )
Those in power have always tried to suppress and restrain the spreading of ideas as it might limit their control, but it became more imperative and also more difficult once the printing press was invented. (see ) Martin Luther used the power of the printing press to lead the Protestant Reformation. It changed the world. (see and ) The King and his supporters wanted none of that in the New World.
This need to control the people was expressed by Virginia Governor Sir William Berkley in 1671:
"I thank God we have not free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have for another hundred years. For learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world and printing has divulged them and libels against the Government. God keep us from both!"
However, Berkley’s wish did not last long. William Bradford, a London Quaker brought to the New World by William Penn in 1682, set up a printing press in Philadelphia in 1685. (see ) Known as the “pioneer printer of the middle colonies,” Bradford was among the first printers outside of New England. As German immigrants flooded the colony of Pennsylvania, their thirst for true, uninhibited liberty brought them to the brink of anarchy as they resisted even the simplest forms of government. However, the Provincial Council, made up of Quakers, took their tenets very seriously and soon imposed restrictions upon Bradford, preventing him from printing anything without a license from the Council.
In 1689, Bradford printed Penn’s Charter of Pennsylvania at the request of a Council member. Being a prohibited document, the Council immediately went after him, claiming he did not include his imprint. While facing Governor John Blackwell on April 9, Bradford claimed ignorance to any laws forbidding his actions. He also maintained he was not obligated to testify against himself. However, he did confidently proclaim, "If I print one thing today, and the contrary party bring me another tomorrow, to contradict it, I cannot say that I shall not print it. Printing is a manufacture of the nation, and therefore ought rather be encouraged than suppressed."
Bradford put his words to actions in 1692 when George Keith asked him to print a harsh critique of the Society of Friends. Friction was growing amongst the Quakers and Keith wanted to share his criticisms. Furious, the Council accused Bradford of printing seditious material as well as violating the Act of Parliament of 1662 since he again did not include his imprint. He was arrested, jailed, and his printing press and tools were seized.
While Keith was found guilty, the jury could not agree on Bradford’s verdict. At the time, information could be ruled seditious regardless of its truthfulness, especially content critical of the government. Acting as his own defense, Bradford maintained his innocence on printing the material. However, he argued for the jury to decide on if it was in fact seditious. Despite the judge declaring it was absolutely libel, the jury could not agree that he printed it. Therefore, he was released. Following the return of his equipment, Bradford soon accepted an offer from the Provincial Council of New York as the public printer. The first printer in New York, his new position began April 10, 1693.
In 1710, as part of a large migration of Palatine Germans to New York, 13-year-old John Peter Zenger set sail to the New World with this family. Since his father died on the voyage, John secured an apprenticeship upon his arrival with Bradford for eight years. Following his apprenticeship, Zenger partnered with Bradford for a short period in 1725 before setting up his own shop in Manhattan. At the end of that year, Bradford published the city’s first newspaper, the New York Gazette, on November 8. It was the city’s only newspaper until Zenger’s Weekly Journal hit the streets on November 5, 1733. A year later, on November 17, 1734, Governor William Cosby had Zenger arrested for seditious libel.
Cosby’s arrival in the colony in 1732 brought corruption, greed and abuse to the office. President of the Province's Council, Rip Van Dam, acted as governor in the year between Cosby’s appointment and arrival. Receiving his own pay during the time, Cosby also demanded half of Van Dam’s salary for that period. Van Dam refused to concede to Cosby’s demands, causing Cosby to sue. To assure a victory, he organized a new court consisting of just three Supreme Court Justices to hear his case. When the verdict was reached in April of 1733, the Justices voted 2-1 in favor of Cosby. However, this victory was not enough for Cosby. He demanded Chief Justice Lewis Morris explain his vote for Van Dam. Morris complied, but presented his dissenting opinion in a public document that he had Zenger print. Furious, Cosby promptly fired Morris, a justice of 20 years, and replaced him with James Delancey, a staunch royalist.
The official royal printer, Bradford’s paper stayed friendly to the new governor, especially following the appointment of Francis Harison as editor and censor by Cosby. Having already experienced the trials of British law on American printers, as well as the inside of a jail cell, 70-year-old Bradford refrained from starting another battle, particularly with Harison in charge. However, his former apprentice willingly picked up where he left off forty-three years earlier.
Morris, along with Van Dam’s attorneys, William Smith and James Alexander, organized the “Popular Party” to oppose Cosby. Despite Cosby trying to manipulate an election for assemblyman of Westchester, Morris won. Needing a voice for the new party, Morris and the lawyers approached Zenger concerning printing another New York paper. Zenger agreed and immediately started printing the truth of Cosby’s actions regarding the election.
At first, Cosby ignored Zenger’s paper, but as its influence grew he soon began to target the printer. Failing to secure an indictment from two grand juries, Cosby ordered the Attorney General to go straight to the justices, Delancey and British Justice Frederick Philipse, who issued a bench warrant. Zenger’s lawyers, Alexander and Smith, objected to Cosby handpicking Delancey and Philipse as the two-man court for Zenger. In response, Judge Delancey abruptly disbarred both attorneys on April 16, 1735. They were replaced with John Chambers, a young, inexperienced lawyer, who was again picked by Cosby’s administration.
As jury selection began in July, per Cosby’s instruction, Harison provided the court a list of potential jurors. All were sympathetic to the governor with some being Cosby’s former and current employees. Yet even Delancey and Philipse could not allow such blatant bias and selected a jury of Zenger’s peers.
Zenger’s wife, Anna, kept the Weekly Journal going while he was behind bars. With each edition, Zenger garnered more support for his case and for the cause of liberty. Meanwhile, Alexander and Smith persuaded prominent Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton to defend Zenger, who offered his services pro bono. A fierce advocate of liberty, Hamilton feared New York’s government was out of control.
The trial began on August 4, 1735, (August 15, 1735 N.S.) with the Attorney General Richard Bradley reading the charges and Zenger’s “not guilty” plea. However, Hamilton stunned the courtroom when he announced Zenger would not contest the charges of printing the material. Therefore, Bradley dismissed his witnesses and informed the jury that, “As Mr. Hamilton has confessed the printing and publishing of these libels, I think the Jury must find a verdict for the king. For supposing they were true, the law says that are not the less libelous for they. Nay, indeed the law says their being true is an aggravation of the crime."
Setting up his defense, Hamilton argued the truth of Zenger’s accounts. Yet, Delancey prevented him from admitting any evidence, stating, “The law is clear that you cannot justify a libel. The jury may find that Zenger printed and published those papers, and leave to the Court to judge whether they are libelous.” However, that is exactly what Hamilton wanted him to say.
Thanking the court, Hamilton turned his attention directly to the jury, where he presented his true defense, that of jury nullification, proclaiming, “Leaving it to judgment of the court whether the words are libelous or not in effect renders juries useless (to say no worse) in many cases.” Presenting a well thought out case for liberty, Hamilton argued it is the people’s right to express their grievances and it is their duty to keep the government in check.
“The question before the Court and you, Gentlemen of the jury, is not of small or private concern. It is not the cause of one poor printer, nor of New York alone, which you are now trying. No! It may in its consequence affect every free man that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty. And I make no doubt but your upright conduct this day will not only entitle you to the love and esteem of your fellow citizens, but every man who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you as men who have baffled the attempt of tyranny, and by an impartial and uncorrupt verdict have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our posterity, and our neighbors, that to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right to liberty of both exposing and opposing arbitrary power (in these parts of the world at least) by speaking and writing truth.”
With nothing left to say, Judge Delancey excused the jury to deliberate, but not before instructing them to essentially dismiss everything Hamilton said about the freedom and liberty of the people and side with the court by returning a guilty verdict. As the law was clear, he wasn’t surprised when the jury reentered the courtroom ten minutes later. He never expected that their decision would be the first steps towards freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
Bradford continued to print the New York Gazette until his retirement in 1744. During his years in publishing, Bradford had inspired Zenger in standing for the freedom of the press. He also offered guidance to another young apprentice years earlier that would have an even more powerful effect on the burgeoning nation. In 1723, 17-year-old Benjamin Franklin went to New York hoping to work under Bradford, but Bradford referred him to his son Andrew in Philadelphia. Andrew and Franklin worked together for a while before Franklin broke out on his own and became Andrew's rival. Bradford’s grandson, William, was also a prominent printer during the American Revolution. Bradford died on May 23, 1752, and is buried in Trinity Churchyard Cemetery.
After Zenger’s death on July 28, 1746, his wife continued the New York Weekly Journal, until their oldest John took over the paper, ending it in 1751. Along with Bradford, Zenger is believed to be buried at Trinity Churchyard Cemetery but in an unmarked grave. His grave is not marked, but history is marked by the legacy he left behind: .
Liberty, while all other countries fought to bring the printing press into their cultures, America was born with it. Education and free sharing of knowledge was not only encouraged, it was expected. Regardless, just like Cosby, today's outlets like Facebook, YouTube and other social media deny conservative content, not because it’s not true, but precisely because it is true and it destroys their narrative. Furthermore, if you dare not think and speak as they want you too, you should be destroyed because you threaten their power.
While Democrats and reporters fill their day with things Republican President Donald Trump might do to the media, they outright ignored the FBI under Democrat President Barack Obama monitoring journalists’ phones. His administration prosecuted nine whistleblowers; three times more than all other administrations combined. Obama’s administration repeatedly targeted reporters, pressuring and subpoenaing them in efforts to discover their sources. For eight years Obama’s administration attacked reporters just like Gov. Crosby had centuries before, with the mainstream media playing the role of Harison, constantly covering up his actions.
The worst the Trump administration has done is question libel laws and accuse fake news. After they uninvited a reporter from one Rose Garden photo shoot, the media acted like it was not only the end of the , but the end of the world. However, they conveniently forget the multiple times Obama chastised reporters for asking him a question. One instance ended with the other journalists chanting, “Throw him out, throw him out,” eagerly demanding a fellow reporter be removed. This is why we are Constitutionalists fighting for small government. No president, Republican or Democrat, should have so much power or cause such fear in the people.
Even though one must prove not only that the information is false but that it was done intentionally to harm, Seditious and Libel Laws are a slippery slope. No one wants false information printed about them. Even John Adams got caught up in fighting sedition and libel. (see ) Printers were relentless during the 1800 election between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. (see ) However, we must be extremely careful in pushing for the administration to go after the reporters, even when there is overwhelming evidence for seditious libel. Once you open the door for such actions, it only makes it easier of the next administration to do it and become Gov. Cosby. Before you know it, we are back to 1734, without the ability to print truth to power. Freedom of speech and press will be simply ideas from history. Only, they won’t be written about in the history books.
That’s my 2 cents.
A TALE OF TWO PRINTERS