In 1735, forty-one years before thirteen British colonies stepped onto the world stage in 1776 to declare independence and throw off their royal shackles, twelve common New Yorkers (and one prominent Philadelphian) made a bold statement about the crucial role a free press must play in a truly free society-and it happened right here on Wall Street.
British colonial governor of New York, William Cosby, was by most accounts a spiteful, mean-spirited, quick-tempered, greedy, jealous reprobate-and a sore loser to boot. His defenseless dismissal of his chief justice, Morris Lewis, for petty, personal reasons gave birth to a loud opposition voice.
From 1725 to 1733, William Bradford’s New-York Gazette was the city’s only newspaper-and an unashamed government mouthpiece. Printer John Zenger had worked as an indentured servant at the Gazette for eight years before he struck out on his own to begin a rival paper, the New-York Weekly Journal. The Journal was most decidedly not a government mouthpiece.
Morris Lewis, the dismissed chief justice, was among those who funded the Journal as a way to give voice to his own mistreatment and to expose the many scandals of Governor Cosby’s administration. Anonymous authors at the Journal railed against the government as the Gazette continued to praise it.
After a few months, Governor Cosby had had enough. He ordered the public burning of the Journal “by the common hangman,” then had the printer arrested for seditious libel in an attempt to obtain the names of the authors.
For eight months, Zenger sat imprisoned in the basement of City Hall, then on the corner of Wall and Nassau. His only visitors were his wife, Anna, and his workmen, with whom he spoke through a hole in his cell door. Anna, an unsung hero, made sure the Journal continued publication throughout her husband’s imprisonment-keeping the matter fresh in the public’s mind.
At trial, the government confidently argued that the truth of the attacks was not the issue: after all, criticism of the government-true or false-was, in fact, seditious libel under current law.
Andrew Hamilton, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer, stepped up to defend Zenger when his attorneys were disbarred for merely objecting to an earlier court decision. Hamilton informed the jurors that his client would not dispute the charges, but asked them to consider that a statement-even a defamatory one-cannot be libelous if it can be proven. He reminded them that this court was not in England and suggested there was a different mindset about these sorts of things here in the colonies.
And on August 5, 1735, in a most consequential example of jury nullification, twelve New Yorkers agreed to disregard the law and declare that John Zenger could not be found guilty of seditious libel because he printed the truth.
And there it is-a major pushback by New Yorkers against the Crown, laying the groundwork for what would become our precious rights embodied in the First Amendment fifty-six years later.