John Peter Zenger was an American publisher, editor, and journalist. Zenger is most famous for printing the first mathematics book in the New York colony. He is also known widely for helping to establish the idea of press freedom in the colonies with the aid of attorney Andrew Hamilton.
Zenger was born on October 26, 1697, in present-day Germany and immigrated to the United States at age 13 with his father and brother. During the trip, his father died, and Zenger, needing money, became an apprentice to William Bradford, who owned the Gazette. Zenger worked for Bradford for eight years before beginning his own weekly journal.
In 1719, Zenger married his first wife, Mary White, and moved to Chestertown, Maryland, but she died shortly after. Zenger was left with a baby son. After returning to New York, Zenger married Anna Maulist in 1722. They had five children together.
In 1725, Zenger and Bradford became business partners, but their partnership did not last. Many of the books Zenger published were religious English and Dutch texts and polemical tracts. In 1730, he also printed Venema’s Arithmetica, the first mathematics book in the New York Colony.
Three years later, he was offered the opportunity to be printer and editor of the New York Weekly Journal, founded by James Alexander, a prominent lawyer. The journal expressed opposition toward the policies of the governor of the New York colony, William Cosby, who frequently imprisoned or disbarred those opposed him.
Wealthy New York lawyers and politicians such as William Smith and James Alexander had Zenger publish oppositional articles in his journal. Alexander wrote many of the editorials against Cosby. Zenger himself did not write many of the articles, but he knew the potential consequences for publishing them.
In 1734, as a result of his publication, Zenger was charged with seditious libel by the governor and imprisoned for nearly 10 months. During this time, Zenger’s wife ran the paper, which rallied support for Zenger’s case.
Both Smith and Alexander defended Zenger for the articles that were printed in the New York Weekly Journal. When the two attorneys accused Cosby of handpicking the two judges and the jury, their right to practice law was revoked.
The trial ended on August 5, 1735, when defense attorney Hamilton came to Zenger’s aid. Hamilton proved that Zenger could not be guilty of the charges because many of the accusations written in his journal about Cosby, although indeed seditious, were true. In this manner, Hamilton gained the sympathy of the court.
Zenger died on September 28, 1746, poor and leaving his wife to continue the paper. His eldest son, John, took over the paper from 1748 to 1751. It is believed that Zenger is buried in an unmarked grave in New York City at the Trinity Church cemetery.