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.