John Peter Zenger

John Peter Zenger was a printer in colonial New York during the early eighteenth century. He leveraged a colonial political scandal to prop up his struggling printing business and eventually emerged a successful proprietor of a print shop as well as publisher of the New-York Weekly Journal.


John Peter Zenger (born 1697 in Rumbach, German Palatinate; died July 28, 1746 in New York City, Province of New York) was a printer in colonial New York during the early eighteenth century. He leveraged a colonial political scandal to prop up his struggling printing business and eventually emerged a successful proprietor of a print shop. As the publisher of the New-York Weekly Journal, the colony’s first independent political newspaper, he was defended successfully against a charge of libel, thereby securing a milestone victory for freedom of the press in the American colonies. Although Zenger, an uneducated workman who had no direct involvement in politics, was probably unaware of the significance of his trial, he emerged as a kind of folk hero during the nineteenth century, celebrated as a zealous defender of freedom of the press. His name and his famous trial thus became synonymous with this basic American right.

Family and Ethnic Background

Zenger’s origins are obscure. He was born in the village of Rumbach in the German Palatinate in 1697, the eldest of four children of Nicolaus Zenger, a schoolmaster, and his wife, Johanna. Sometime in late 1709, when John Peter was twelve, the Zenger family joined the mass migration of Palatinates and other German-speakers to England, with the intention of immigrating to North America.[1]

In April 1710 the Zengers, including John and his two surviving siblings, sailed for New York with a large contingent of other emigrants.[2] During the arduous voyage across the Atlantic, Zenger’s father died. Zenger’s widowed mother Johanna, together with her three children arrived in New York in June 1710.[3] By prior arrangement, the governor of New York, Robert Hunter, had guaranteed local apprenticeships for the children of Palatinate immigrants. On October 26, 1710, Hunter signed thirteen-year-old John Peter Zenger’s articles of apprenticeship to William Bradford, the first and, at the time, only printer in New York.[4] The articles of indenture were ratified by Johanna Zenger early the following year.

According to the terms of the indenture John Peter Zenger was required to work for William Bradford until his maturity. Bradford had originally operated a printing shop in Philadelphia when he arrived in the colony in 1682, but his publications led to a series of civil and religious conflicts with the Quaker leadership of Pennsylvania, including a 1692 arrest and trial after he published a religious pamphlet by George Keith that criticized mainstream Quaker religious practices. These clashes with the local Quaker authorities convinced Bradford to leave Philadelphia for New York in 1693.[5] After he arrived in New York, the royal governor of the colony, Benjamin Fletcher, appointed Bradford as the colony’s official printer. In this capacity, he printed currency, books, legal documents, and other materials for the colonial government. Additionally, he produced printed material for private individuals on a contract basis. Working for Bradford, Zenger would have learned the ins and outs of the printing trade and would have acquired valuable and marketable experience by helping Bradford print the wide variety of official and private materials that passed through his shop.

Business Development

After eight years as Bradford’s apprentice, Zenger left the shop in 1719. On July 28 of that year he married Mary White in Philadelphia. The couple moved to the wealthy Chesapeake Bay port settlement of Chestertown, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, perhaps in the hope that Zenger could emulate his former master’s success by becoming the official printer of government documents for the Maryland colony. Zenger had little competition at the time, since the printing trade demanded years of training and a large capital outlay for equipment and supplies. It is not clear how Zenger acquired his printing equipment. He may have received some money from Bradford at the end of his apprenticeships, his wife may have had a dowry, or he may have received money through her family. Despite a lack of competition in Maryland, there was limited demand for his printing services even though the colonial government, headquartered in nearby Annapolis, depended on Philadelphia-based printers to produce all official Maryland government publications.[6]

Records show that Zenger was given 500 pounds of tobacco in 1720, a small amount of remuneration, for a one-time contract, namely printing the “Laws of the Counties” of Maryland.[7] He was unable, however, to secure a permanent contract with the government, which would have provided him with a steady source of income. While living in Chestertown he became a naturalized citizen of the colony. A few years later, following the death of his wife, he returned to New York to settle as a freeman. Zenger married Anna Catherina Maulin on September 11, 1722. The couple had numerous children, six of whom survived.

Zenger may have worked as a printer in New York for several years after his return, possibly for William Bradford, his former master. Zenger became a partner in Bradford’s printing business in 1725, when Bradford founded the weekly New-York Gazette, the first newspaper in the colony. Zenger left Bradford after a year-long partnership to set up a rival print shop. The move was a bold decision since he would have had to compete for business with Bradford, who had been designated the King’s Printer by the British Crown and was in firm control of the New York market. As in Maryland, Zenger struggled to attract customers at a time when demand for printing was still relatively limited to official government publications, religious materials, and the occasional secular work. By the end of 1731 Zenger’s commissioned print jobs numbered only twenty-one compared with Bradford’s fifty-four imprints in addition to the New-York Gazette. It is unclear whether these twenty-one publications covered Zenger’s household expenses or if he had some other source of income. Zenger’s commissioned prints were mostly religious tracts, with one important exception. He made a notable contribution to the history of printing in America by publishing, in Dutch, the book Arithmetica, by Peter Venema, in 1730, which is considered the first arithmetic text printed in New York.

Controversy and Opportunity

In August 1732 a new governor of the New York colony, William Cosby, was appointed by the British Crown. From the outset, Cosby’s highhanded and often crude behavior established him as an unpopular figure. When Cosby removed Chief Justice Lewis Morris from office as a result of a conflict between Cosby and the former acting governor, Rip Van Dam, many colonists were outraged. James Alexander, William Smith Sr., and other prominent opponents of Cosby formed a new political faction, the “Country Party,” in support of the ousted chief justice. Alexander needed a printer to publish political tracts expressing the Country Party’s views. He turned to Zenger, since Bradford was the official printer for the colony and thus a Cosby supporter by definition. Thanks to the new business that this political battle generated, Zenger edged ahead of Bradford as the colony’s most prolific printer by the fall of 1733. In November of that year he was given additional duties when Alexander founded a second newspaper in the colony, the New-York Weekly Journal, to give opponents of Cosby a regular outlet for their criticisms. Zenger became not only its printer but also its editor of record. Alexander and his followers did the actual writing and editing, but they observed political caution by listing only Zenger’s name on the masthead. Some of the articles in the Journal were signed by Zenger, but it is unclear whether he actually wrote them or covered for authors who wanted to remain anonymous. Establishing the Journal put Alexander and Zenger directly at odds with William Bradford and his New-York Gazette, which supported Cosby as the legitimate authority in the colony. Nevertheless, the business generated by the conflict likely benefited Zenger’s bottom line after years of struggling against Bradford’s domination of the printing market.

From the point of view of Cosby and his supporters, the Journal was a subversive, inflammatory publication that threatened public order by calling for Cosby’s downfall, and by making that claim against the paper, the Cosby faction appeared to have the force of law on its side. After battling the Journal for more than a year, Cosby had Zenger arrested for seditious libel on November 17, 1734. Since Zenger could not raise bail — the considerable sum of six hundred New York pounds — he spent nearly nine months in jail. It is unclear why Alexander and Smith, who had substantial resources, did not come to the aid of the man they had used as the mouthpiece for their political views. One possibility, of course, is that Alexander and Smith wished for a trial to take place, hoping that by securing a victory in a test case their support and defense of freedom of the press would be upheld

While Zenger remained in jail, his wife Anna oversaw the shop and continued publication of the Journal. Zenger allegedly communicated instructions to Anna “through the hole of the door of the prison.”[8] In a pretrial hearing a grand jury refused to indict Zenger, but the Supreme Court nevertheless agreed to hear the case based on the personal testimony of Richard Bradley, attorney general of the colony and a supporter of Cosby. Zenger’s case finally came to trial in the New York Supreme Court on August 4, 1735. Lawyer Andrew Hamilton, a man of great eloquence, conducted Zenger’s defense. His dramatic appeal, which rendered the law subordinate to personal freedom, won over the jury, and Zenger was acquitted.

Soon after Zenger’s acquittal and release from prison, a detailed account of his trial appeared in the Journal. In 1736 the proceedings were published in a separate, often reprinted pamphlet, A Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger. James Alexander’s name appeared on the title page as the author. It is unclear if Zenger profited in any way from the publication of the pamphlet, as copying and reprinting material was common during this era. Zenger emerged from his ordeal as a local hero who could capitalize on his fame to advance his business. In 1737, a year after Governor Cosby died, Zenger was appointed the public printer for New York, replacing Bradford, his former master, partner, and business rival. Zenger must have been successful in the performance of his provincial government contract because in 1738 the royal governor of New Jersey appointed him to the same post in the neighboring colony. Zenger also continued as publisher of the Journal, which stabilized his financial situation for almost a decade.

John Peter Zenger died in New York on July 28, 1746, and is believed to be buried in Trinity Churchyard in Lower Manhattan.[9] His widow continued the family business until Zenger’s eldest son, John, replaced his mother as head of the print shop in December 1748. John Zenger continued publication of the Journal for another three years.


Zenger’s name is indelibly linked with his trial for libel, which historians such as George Bancroft portrayed as critical to the establishment of freedom of the press. Later historians such as Stanley Nider Katz depicted it as the culmination of a battle of “a somewhat narrow-minded political faction seeking immediate political gain rather than long-term governmental or legal reform.”[10] Zenger’s impact as an immigrant entrepreneur is different: he used the education and social capital, including familiarity with the English language, which he acquired through his apprenticeship as a printer, and possibly some form of financial assistance from his wife’s family, to set up a printing business in Maryland. When success from that enterprise failed to materialize and his wife passed away, he returned to New York where he first worked for, and then partnered with, his former master until he had the means to establish his own shop. It may well have been that he was used by politicians in their fight with an unpopular governor, but he was also able to use the affiliation with the Country Party to further his printing business and financial success. As printer for the provincial governments of New York and New Jersey and as publisher and editor of the Journal, he established and maintained a business that supported his family and that flourished sufficiently to enable first his widow and then his eldest son to succeed as head of the printing operation.


[1] The 1709 mass migration of Palatinate Germans to England was largely the result of promises made by agents working on behalf of the Carolina Colony proprietors. These agents informed the impoverished German Protestants of the Palatine that they would receive free passage to the American colonies and free land if they migrated to England. The arrival of thousands of “Pool Palatines” in England created a crisis for the English government. Some were settled unsuccessfully in Ireland, while others were sent to New York to produce naval stores for the Royal Navy. For more information, see Phillip Otterness, Becoming German: The 1709 Palatine Migration to New York (Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 2004).

[2] Friedrich Kapp, Geschichte der Deutschen im Staate New York (New York: E. Steiger, 1867), cited in Albert Bernhardt Faust, The German Element in the United States, Vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909), 80-83. Information on the Zenger family is also included in I. Daniel Rupp, A Collection of Upwards of Thirty Thousand Names. . . . 1875; 2nd rev. and enl. ed. (Philadelphia: Leary, Stuart, 1927), 444, 445. In addition, see Henry Z. Jones, Jr., The Palatine Families of New York: A Study of the German Immigrants Who Arrived in Colonial New York in 1710, Vol. 2 (Universal City, CA: self-published, 1985), 1123-1125, 1201-1202.

[3] Faust, 80-83. The exact dates of their departure and arrival are unknown. In the early eighteenth century, the average length of a transatlantic voyage was about nine weeks.

[4] Ibid. Under Hunter’s auspices, more than six dozen children from the Palatinate, both male and female and as young as three years of age, were apprenticed in various trades between 1710 and 1714. According to Faust, op. cit., these mandatory apprenticeships, often resulting in the separation of children from their parents, caused a considerable amount of dissension among the émigrés.

[5] John Smolenski, Friends and Strangers: The Making of a Creole Culture in Colonial Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010),149-177.

[6] See Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America. 1810; reprint ed. Marcus A. McCorison (New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 40.

[7] See Jones,1124.

[8] New-York Weekly Journal, November 25, 1734.

[9] Information regarding Zenger’s burial is scarce. Available public information seems to point to a burial in an unmarked grave at Trinity Church cemetery. See “John Peter Zenger,” (accessed October 15, 2012).

[10] James Alexander, A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger, ed. and with an introduction by Stanley Nider Katz, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1972), 3-4.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title John Peter Zenger
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
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  • Access Date May 24, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018