The Trial Of John Peter Zenger

On August 5, 1735, twelve New York jurors, inspired by lawyer Andrew Hamilton, ignored the instructions of the Governor’s hand-picked judges and returned a verdict of “Not Guilty” on charges of publishing “seditious libels.” The Zenger Trial is a remarkable story of a divided Colony, the beginnings of a free press, and the stubborn independence of American jurors.

The man generally perceived to be the villain of the Zenger affair, William Cosby, arrived in New York on August 7, 1731 to assume his post as Governor for New York Province. Cosby quickly developed a reputation as “a rogue governor.” It is almost impossible to find a positive adjective among the many used by historians to describe the new governor: “spiteful,” “greedy,” “jealous,” “quick-tempered,” “dull,” “unlettered,” and “haughty” are a sample of those that have been applied.

Within a year after arriving on American shores, Cosby embroiled himself in a controversy that would lead to Zenger’s trial and ultimate acquittal. The man with whom Cosby chose to pick his first fight, Rip Van Dam, was the seventy-one-year-old highly respected senior member of the New York provincial council. Cosby demanded that Van Dam turn over half of the salary he had earned while serving as acting governor of New York during the year between Cosby’s appointment and his arrival in the colony. The hard-headed Van Dam agreed – providing that Cosby would split with him half of the perquisites he earned during the same time period. By Van Dam’s calculations, Cosby would actually owe him money – over £4000

[tags]american history,john peter zenger,1735,legal history,andrew hamilton,seditious libel,zenger trial[/tags]