I went into Richard Kluger’s book, Indelible Ink: The Trials of John Peter Zenger and the Birth of America’s Free Press, thinking I was in for a First Amendment origin story. The heroic struggle for free speech. Humble colonial printers pushing back on the crown’s policy of forbidding seditious libel. I got an origin story, but not the one I went looking for. I was expecting a triumphant little-guy story, that feel when you watch a movie like Rudy. Instead I felt like you do after watching Dangerous Liaisons, scandalized and a little sad.
Kluger gives us an account of the trial and ultimate acquittal of John Peter Zenger, printer of the New-York Weekly Journal, who was accused of seditious libel by then governor William Cosby. The colonies had never seen a trial or verdict like this before. The year was 1735. Not long before in England, it was illegal to print anything negative about those in power, whether or not one was printing the truth. The very suggestion of weakness in the ruling class could threaten faith in the social order, and the ruling class wouldn’t allow it. Printing anything even remotely seditious could lead to jail time, the loss of an ear, even death.
This is the baggage the colonists brought with them to the New World. Printers had to apply for a license to print. Papers had marks identifying their printers to allow authorities to trace printed material back to the source. And if the actual author of a seditious piece of writing could not be identified, the printer took the fall.
So Zenger gets arrested for printing satire and disparaging remarks about Governor Cosby. Cosby came to the colonies, like most governors at the time, to make money. He had already proven that he was not above larceny in his previous crown appointment as the Governor of Minorca. After a slap on the wrist and an embarrassing apology, Cosby was somehow given another chance to govern, this time in the New York Colony, and he wasn’t about to leave one legit, legal-penny he had coming to him on the table.
Colonists did not get attached to these governors. They were installed by the king, their appointments seen as wealth-building ventures. The colonists just had to put up with them, though no ever knew for how long. It’s like how I felt about some of the men my single mom dated while I was growing up; I knew their days were numbered but I still went along with the act.
Influential colonists could express their displeasure to the crown if they felt their governor wasn’t up to snuff. Kluger describes the list of charges leading up to the removal of one such governor, New Jersey’s Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, in 1708:
The governor was said to be a bribe taker, an embezzler of royal funds, neglectful of his duties, a persecutor of Quakers, and, after his wife’s death in the summer of 1706, a social deviant for dressing in ball gowns and sashaying about on social occasions (58).
Although he would have made an ideal contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Lord Cornbury was not the father figure colonial New Jersey was looking for at the time. So you never knew who was coming or how long they would be around, which I imagine was frustrating for colonists.
Soon after taking his post, Governor Cosby ran up against the competing interests of Lewis Morris and James Alexander. Morris and Alexander were both powerhouse colonists (Morris had been instrumental in the removal of Lord Cornbury and had a permanent eye on the New Jersey governorship) who were used to getting what they wanted – land grants, lucrative political appointments, tax deals. Cosby wouldn’t play the game by their rules, so Morris and Alexander hired Zenger to publish a paper whose primary purpose was to bring Cosby down. Morris and Alexander published their attacks on Cosby anonymously in Zenger’s Weekly Journal, leaving the printer vulnerable to legal action should Cosby cry seditious libel.
Cosby enlisted his own printer. He was unpopular with most colonists but still had his own powerful allies, local trade barons whose fortunes depended on Cosby keeping Morris and Alexander in check.
Kluger sums up the tension between the Morrisites and their new governor at the time:
[Cosby’s] foul reputation is due in no small part to the enemies he made, among them some of the most talented and influential men in the colony, whose interests they believed Cosby imperiled, and so they set out to brand him a tyrant worthy of removal from office. Whether his detractors were largely justified in their charges or merely self-interested in their vehement finger-wagging, their efforts were the first to shatter the claims that bound free expression in America (98).
Zenger waited in jail for almost a year while the men who used his printing press continued their campaign of character assassination, still cloaked in anonymity but very much free. Kluger believes that Zenger and his family were most likely financially supported through this time by Morris and Alexander, but I imagine that made sitting in a jail cell for so long only slightly more bearable.
Did Governor Cosby deserve what he got in the Weekly Journal? Some of it, yes. But Morris was no angel. He had proven before that he would stand behind purloining governors, including Lord Cornbury, as long as they aligned with his financial interests.
After a heated public trial which featured a star performance by his talented Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton, Zenger was acquitted by the jury. This is the first time a colonial printer has been let off the hook like this and it bodes well for the future of a free press.
Are you satisfied? Me neither. I feel robbed of my David and Goliath story. Does Zenger’s legacy simply illustrate that, from the beginning, the press has been less about monitoring power for the common man and more about consolidating power for the elite? Does this hallowed institution, our Fourth Estate, spring from little more than the maneuvering of wealthy men, each trying to get a bigger piece of the pie, all the while batting the press around like a hockey puck?
Kluger insists there is more to it than that:
After the Zenger trial was publicized through relatively wide distribution of its Brief Narrative, almost no colonial juries convicted writers or editors charged with seditious libel. By the 1740s, publishers from Massachusetts to North Carolina wer being acquitted upon presenting evidence of the truth of statements that had prompted the defamatory (298).
Maybe in the end it did have something to do with bravery or freedom. About colonists standing up to the crown and demanding a say in how they were governed. The Zenger case is an early victory for a free press, yes, but it rings slightly hollow for me because of its cast of characters – shady all around – who used the the printers to do their dirty work. Like all American history, it’s complicated. After Zenger’s trial, colonial newspapers, which before had functioned primarily as community bulletin boards, were now free to criticize the government. Be it watchdog or attack dog, this dog was finally off the chain.
Indelible Ink is so much more than I’ve described here. Kluger brings the players in this drama to life, serving healthy doses of moral ambiguity on all sides and weaving their fascinating individual histories together into the story of this fateful 1735 press brawl. It’s a truly American story, one of exploitation cloaked in patriotism, striking for how familiar it feels today.
I’m not likely to convince many high school students to read this book, but if I could get them to care about Zenger’s story the way Kluger did for me, I would love to ask them a couple of questions:
- Would Zenger have been able to make a living if it weren’t for Morris and Alexander’s business? What does that say about the relationship between the press and politics? What does that look like today?
- Can we describe the relationship between the press and politics as symbiotic? Can one exist without the other?