Before we established an independent nation - we established an independent press
For everyone who knows a few names from the American Revolution (usually Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, maybe Sam Adams and John Hancock, Lord Cornwallis, General Burgoyne, and Benedict Arnold), the names of heroes in the fights for common liberties we take for granted before the Revolution are barely recalled. Some died while they were setting the pace: Nathaniel Bacon, cousin of Sir Francis, led a successful revolt that overthrew the King's Governor to Virginia, Sir William Berkeley in 1675-76. As a result Bacon's Revolt has been called a harbinger of the American Revolution, and he the "torchbearer" of the Revolution by historian Thomas Wertenberger. Jacob Leisler, a New York Merchant who was briefly the illegal governor of New York Colony (1689
1691) would suggest at an impromptu conference in 1690 in
Philadelphia that until the colonies got news straight from England about the political situation there, they should form a unified military force to protect them from the French in Quebec and the Indians - Leisler thus suggesting a type of military-federalist idea a century before we had a Federal republic. It was dismissed by his fellow governors. Later, tragically, he would be hanged for treason because the new Royal Governor found Leisler's forces would not let him land for awhile - due to Leisler's orders.
But in the 1730s, New York Colony would be the scene of a public power battle that (for a change) was won by the public, not the King or his representatives.
In 1732 King George II appointed William Cosby to be the new Governor of the colony of New York. Cosby (like many other royal appointees) saw the job as a big chance to make money by force and manipulating law. He made a selection of local political figures to ally with, whom he appointed to important posts. Then he began to award them and himself with large land grants and raises to salaries.
Then a new newspaper, The New York Weekly Journal, appeared. It was published by a German born printer named John Peter Zenger. Zenger insisted on printing stories about what Cosby was doing with his cronies. Cosby reacted by imprisoning Zenger for sedition, and arranging the trial to be prosecuted before his own New York Colonial Chief Justice.
But Cosby was in for a serious surprise - Zenger was represented at the trial by Andrew Hamilton, who in the period (until his death in 1741) was the most brilliant defense counsel in the colonies. Hamilton knocked holes into the case of sedition, and reminded the court and jury that freedom of the press was necessary to discuss public policies. The jury agreed, and to Cosby's humiliation it freed Zenger.
Cosby died in 1736. Zenger would continue publishing his weekly newspaper until his death in 1746. Although there were attempts by the British to curb a free press (part of the Stamp Act involved the needs of the publishers of newspapers to pay taxes on stamped newsprint), and by Americans since 1776 (witness the Sedition Act of 1798 and Jefferson's less than supportive view of newspapers once he became President and Lincoln's view of newspapers with an anti-administration slant), Zenger's trial is still quoted as the American precedent for Freedom of the Press.
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