A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian looks back at the 1730s, when a single court case established the first step toward freedom of the press.
Kluger (The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America, 2011, etc.) presents the story of John Peter Zenger (1697-1746). After apprenticing to William Bradford, the appointed royal printer, and serving as his journeyman, Zenger set up his own printing company. It was not as easy as it sounds, and he had considerable backing. This is also the story of the wealthy Lewis Morris. It was the legal engagement required to secure his inheritance that set him on his quest for lifelong learning and power. Eventually becoming one of the strongest politicians in the New York area, he was the senior member of the New Jersey Provincial Council. Kluger also tells the tale of the royally appointed governor serving New York and, after Morris’ successful petition, New Jersey. Historically, governors sent to the Colonies were strong on connections but short on capital. As such, there were many instances of self-serving governors, and Morris’ role in the recall of two of those illustrates how strong his powers were—that is, until William Cosby took over. He immediately took sides against Morris’ faction, siding with the trade barons against him. Here, Zenger met the needs of Morris and his brilliant cohorts. They hired Zenger to publish the New-York Weekly Journal to be an irritant to the governor. Wise to the draconian libel laws, they carefully avoided any illegal steps. Kluger takes some time to get to the meat of the story, but the attempts to indict Zenger and the eventual trial are enlightening and frightening—frightening to see how easily the press could be quashed and enlightening to see how that freedom was secured.
A book of American history for all, but lawyers and journalists will especially appreciate it.