The Power of the Free Press

Today, June 13th, marks the fortieth anniversary of the beginning of publication by The New York Times of the “Pentagon Papers, ” a secret study of United States involvement in Vietnam. As I think about that event, history occurring in my lifetime, I ponder the list of editors, journalists and publishers who took risks, made trouble and in some ways advanced freedom and justice. I could compose and chant a litany of them. As the philosopher Cornel West has commented, “Sometimes it’s good just to say their names.”

The two that come to my mind today are John Peter Zenger and William Lloyd Garrison. I find it worthwhile to remember who they were and what they did.

At age 13, Zenger, born in Germany, emigrated to America in 1710 and took work as an apprentice to William Bradford, the only printer in New York at that time. Sixteen years later Zenger opened his own printing shop, For the six years, he primarily published religious tracts and open letters concerning public issues.

In the summer of 1732 William Crosby arrived in New York to take his position as the new governor of the colony of New York. Almost immediately Crosby began a series of manipulations of government offices, the courts and a newspaper, the New York Gazette, to advance his public career and his private fortune. On November 5, 1733, Zenger published the first issue of his New York Weekly Journal, a paper funded by James Alexander, an outspoken opponent of Governor Cosby and his policies. In one issue in January, 1734 and again in two issues in September, the Weekly Journal accused governor Cosby of threatening the “liberties and properties” of the people and violating the rules of his office.

On October 22, 1734, Governor Cosby ordered that copies of Zenger’s Weekly Journal be burned in public near the city’s pillory. When local magistrates refused to carry out the order, Francis Harison, editor of the pro-Crosby newspaper, carried out the burning with the compelled assistance of his black slave.

On a Sunday, November 17, the sheriff arrested Zenger, placing him in jail incommunicado and at an extremely high bail, an amount set at Governor Cosby’s request. Initially, the judges set to hear the case, acting at the Governor’s orders, delayed the start of trial. Finally jury selection began on July 29, 1735. Zenger’s previous counsel having been disbarred for challenging the judge, Zenger was represented by Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, the best known and probably best trial lawyer of the time. Hamilton took the case at the urging of Ben Franklin, a printer of Philadelphia. The trial opened on August 4. The king’s prosecutor for the colony of New York, a Mr Bradley, argued to the jury that in order to prove the charge of “seditious libel,” he need only prove that the statements in question were printed. The truth or falsity of the statements was irrelevant. Mr Hamilton presented a lengthy and eloquent argument to the jury. In key parts, he said:

“There is heresy in law as well as in religion, and both have changed very much. We well know that it is not two centuries ago that a man would have been burned as a heretic for owning such opinions in matters of religion as are publicly written and printed at this day. They were fallible men, it seems, and we take the liberty not only to differ from them in religious opinions, but to condemn them and their opinions too. I must presume that in taking these freedoms in thinking and speaking about matters of faith or religion, we are in the right; for although it is said that there are very great liberties of this kind taken in New York, yet I have heard of no information preferred by [Mr. Bradley] for any offenses of this sort. From which I think it is pretty clear that in New York a man may make very free with his God, but he must take a special care what he says of his governor.”

I imagine smiles upon the faces of some members of the jury by this point and disapproving frowns on the faces of the judge and prosecutor. Hamilton continued:

“It is agreed upon by all men that this is a reign of liberty. While men keep within the bounds of truth 1 hope they may with safety both speak and write their sentiments of the conduct of men in power, I mean of that part f their conduct only which affects the liberty or property of the people under their administration. Were this to be denied, then the next step may make them slaves; for what notions can be entertained of slavery beyond that of suffering the greatest injuries and oppressions without the liberty of complaining, or if they do, to be destroyed, body and estate, for so doing?”

Invoking the concept of jury nullification, a plea that the jury return a “Not Guilty” verdict despite instructions from the court, a concept approved by England’s highest court in the trial of William Penn for unauthorized preaching, Hamilton declared to the jury:

“Gentlemen: The danger is great in proportion to the mischief that may happen through our too great credulity. A proper confidence in a court is commendable, but as the verdict, whatever it is, will be yours, you ought to refer no part of your duty to the discretion of other persons. If you should be of the opinion that there is no falsehood in Mr. Zenger’s papers, you will, nay pardon me for the expression, you ought, to say so- because you do not know whether others – I mean the Court – may be of that opinion. It is your right to do so, and there is much depending upon your resolution as well as upon your integrity.”

The jury acquitted Zenger after a short period of deliberation. The next March the disgraced Governor Cosby died. Andrew Hamilton drew up architectural plans for a building in Philadelphia which came to be known as “Independence Hall” where in the spring of 1787, a convention met to draw up a constitution for the new government of the United States.

Like Zenger, young William Lloyd Garrison, in 1819, at age fourteen, began working as an apprentice for the Newburyport (Massachusetts) Herald. By age twenty-five he was deeply committed to the cause of radical, immediate abolition of slavery. Eventually he became known as one of most articulate opponents of the slave power. In January of 1831, he began publication of his own anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator. In his famous opening editorial, he wrote:

“I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.”

And for thirty-five years, he made every effort to be heard. Interestingly, when he began seeking money to start The Liberator, most white anti-slavery advocates refused to help. Two well-to-do African Americans from Pennsylvania, John Vashon from Pittsburgh and James Forten from Philadelphia, provided the money Garrison needed.

In addition to advocacy of abolition of slavery, Garrison spoke and wrote on behalf of many reform movements–international peace, non-resistance, abolition of the death penalty, universal suffrage, protection of laborers and the rights of women. For example, in October, 1853, he argued that “the natural rights of one human being are those of every other; in all cases equally sacred and inalienable; hence, the boasted Rights of Man, about which we hear so much, are simply the Rights of Woman, about which we hear so little; or, in other words, they are the Rights of Humankind, neither affected by or dependent on sex or condition.”

Such advocacy earned him the friendship of people like Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Lydia Maria Child and Susan B. Anthony while often alienating him from white male and some black activists and reformers. Early on, copies of The Liberator were taken from the mail in southern post offices and burned. Several slave-holding states made it a crime for a slave to even posses or handle a copy of The Liberator.

Garrison knew and cherished the symbolic gesture. In a nineteenth-century antecedent to flag-burning, Garrison, at the Fourth of July celebration in 1854 at Framingham, Massachusetts, set a match to a copy of the Unites States constitution, denouncing that document as “a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell” because of the protections of slavery written into it by the framers. “So perish all compromises with tyranny. And let all the people say, ‘Amen,’” Garrison exclaimed like a revivalist preacher. As Henry Mayer in his brilliant biography of Garrison, All On Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery, writes, “With a gesture harking back to Martin Luther’s defiant burning of both the canon law and the papal bull that had excommunicated him for heresy, the editor made his most sensational and concentrated statement yet against” the slave system and the government which protected it.

I appreciate journalists and editors who dare speak truth to power. They make us uncomfortable. But that is exactly what we need.


Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Virginia Mollenkott  On June 14, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    When I was on the editorial board of THE WITNESS, I had the privilege of staying overnight at the home of William Lloyd Garrison. So I am glad to get more details about his wonderful librration activities. I was not previously aware of John Zenger.Thanks for lifting up his good work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: