Crown v. Zenger: Freedom of the Press

On November 17, 1734, the publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, John Peter Zenger, was arrested and charged with libel by the state of New York, then governed by the King of England, George II. Zenger had published critical pieces about the King’s appointed Governor of New York, William Cosby. Zenger was held in jail for nine months and tried for printing seditious libel. In an enormous upset, Zenger was found not guilty by the jury. The case Crown v. Zenger became a landmark decision in the freedom of the press.

In 1733, Chief Judge of New York, Lewis Morris, wrote a dissenting opinion about a case involving Governor Cosby. Consequently, Governor Cosby had Justice Morris removed from his seat. Morris then went on to write scathing criticisms of Cosby in the New York Weekly Journal, branding the governor a tyrant. In his quest to shut down the paper that dared oppose him, Governor Cosby had the publisher, John Peter Zenger, arrested and charged with libel. Unlike today, libel in the 18th century referred to any writing that opposed His Majesty’s government— veracity of the statement notwithstanding.

Zenger was held in jail for nine months before his trial took place. He was presented before Chief Justice James De Lancey, the very judge the governor appointed to replace Lewis Morris. Justice De Lancey did not make things easy for Zenger or his attorneys, whom he had disbarred after they claimed that De Lancey shouldn’t be the one making the decision since the removal of Justice Morris had been unlawful in the first place. Zenger’s next lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, argued in front of the jury that “the question before the Court and you, Gentlemen of the jury, is not of small or private concern. It is not the cause of one poor printer, nor of New York alone, which you are now trying. No! It may in its consequence affect every free man that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty.” He argued that while Zenger admitted to having published the criticism of the governor, the decision lay in whether or not the information was true.

Justice De Lancey ordered the jury to decide the case based only on whether or not Zenger had actually printed the information. The jury deliberated for only ten minutes before returning with a verdict of “not guilty.” This reversal was an early instance of jury nullification, in which a jury disregards the law and acquits the defendant despite the jury’s belief that they are guilty. The jury believed that the printed criticism of the governor was fact and therefore could not be considered libel. This changed the definition libel. Now, to be considered libel, information must be decidedly false. This change encouraged other publishers to call out corruption in government—an act instrumental in the ushering in of the American Revolution. Crown v. Zenger planted the seed that eventually bloomed in to the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Learn more here:


The Bill of Rights: Two Amendments That Didn’t Make the Cut

On September 25, 1789, the original draft of the Bill of Rights was proposed and accepted by Congress. The first draft, written by James Madison, contained 12 amendments, though only 10 were ratified by the states in the end. Do you know what the two unratified amendments were?

Bill of Rights, 1791 post treatment 00306_2003_001

The original first amendment stipulated that a congressional district cannot have more than 50,000 residents. While this amendment was passed by the First Congress, it was not ratified by the states nor was it passed in the centuries since. If the amendment was passed today, the House of Representatives would have to have over 6,000 members (1).

The original second amendment outlined when Congress could change their pay. The amendment would require any pay change to happen after the election, essentially allowing citizens to approve or disapprove of any pay changes during the election. While this amendment was not originally ratified by the states, it finally became the 27th Amendment in 1992.

The ability to make changes to the Constitution was important to founding father Thomas Jefferson. In a letter he wrote to James Madison on September 6, 1789 (who was at the time, in the process of penning the Bill of Rights), Jefferson said, “The question whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water . . . it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct . . . every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right (4). While Jefferson’s suggestion was not incorporated, the founding fathers did allow Congress to add amendments to the Constitution beginning with the original 10.

Learn more here:


April History Hits: The Birth of the American Presidency

On April 30, 1789, George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States of America. This historic event marked the beginning of a new era for the fledgling nation, as it transitioned from a loose confederation of states to a more centralized federal government.

Washington’s election was not surprising; he was a respected military and social leader in the colonies. The inauguration took place on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, which served as the nation’s capital at the time. In his inaugural address, Washington emphasized the importance of unity as the only way for Americans to build a strong and prosperous nation. He went on to describe his vision for the nation as such:

. . . the foundation of our nation policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the preeminence of free government be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens and command the respect of the world.  I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my country can inspire, since there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people (1).

As president, Washington faced a number of challenges, including establishing a framework for the new federal government and creating a place for the United States in the international community. Most importantly, Washington’s presidency set a precedent for future leaders of the United States. He set the standard for the role of president as both a leader and symbol of national unity.

Learn more about the inauguration here:


The Raising of America’s First Flag and the Cool Sarcasm of George Washington

The first day of January, not surprisingly, is full of firsts in history.  In today’s world, we begin the new year by getting gym memberships and starting work on our list of New Year’s Resolutions.  On January 1, 1776, George Washington’s resolution was to start a new army to finally beat back the overbearing British government.

On this cold day, George Washington had the Grand Union flag, which was a symbol for the new country they were trying to create, raised at Prospect Hill in what is now Somerville, Massachusetts.  

Washington had come to Boston in the summer of 1775 to take command of the revolutionary army during what was called “The Siege of Boston” where colonists were fighting to gain control of the region. Washington was headquartered in nearby Cambridge, Mass., but Prospect Hill –being a hill– offered the opportunity to fly a flag that would be seen for miles.  

The painting above of the flag raising was created by Clyde O. DeLand who painted it many years after the event– he wasn’t even born until 1872– but it shows members of Washington’s army shouting praise for the flag.

The inclusion of the British flag– otherwise known as Union Jack– in the canton or corner of the flag confused a lot of people including the British soldiers at the time, who considered the flag a sign of surrender.  

King George III– now is the time to muster all of those hilarious images of Jonathan Groff playing an oblivious King George in Hamilton— had in a recent speech offered to spare any colonists that would surrender.

Our guy, George Washington, refers to King George’s surrender offer in a super cool and sarcastic letter to Joseph Reed a few days later on January 4, 1776.  He says, “DEAR SIR: We are, at length, favoured with a sight of His Majesty’s most gracious speech, breathing sentiments of tenderness and compassion for his deluded American subjects.”

George Washington is clearly annoyed and we love him for leaving us that little nugget of sarcasm.  

Later in the letter, he describes the confusion “…for, on that day, the day which gave being to the new Army, but before the proclamation came to hand, we had hoisted the Union flag, in compliment to the United Colonies. But, behold, it was received in Boston as a token of the deep impression the speech had made upon us, and as a signal of submission… By this time, I presume, they begin to think it strange that we have not made a formal surrender of our lines.”

This was not a good time for George Washington.  A revolution does not have a draft or a trained and well funded army to rely on.  The willingness of colonists to fight under such harsh conditions ebbed and waned, and Washington was charged with trying to rally the troops under very dire circumstances. 

Further in the letter, he gives insights into his situation, “Thus, for more than two months past, I have scarcely emerged from one difficulty, before I have been plunged into another. How it will end, God, in His great goodness will direct. I am thankful for his protection to this time. We are told, that we shall soon get the Army completed, but I have been told so many things, which have never come to pass, that I distrust every thing.” 

Washington’s words help us to understand the tense and stressful situation the colonists were in at the time of the flag’s unveiling.

The Grand Union flag was the first to introduce the “stripes” part of the stars and stripes.  It was a flag that was easily created by taking the existing British flag and sewing six white stripes over the top to create the symbol for the 13 colonies.  

Historians differ on the meaning of the flag or why they would include the British flag in the canton.  Was it an act or defiance or just an easy edit?  No one really knows, but it took hold and eventually, the “stars” replaced Union Jack in the canton and the rest is, as they say, history!

Each year, the City of Somerville, Mass. recreates the raising of the flag on Prospect Hill where a tower has been erected.  You can watch the 2019 raising of the flag on Twitter here.

Happy New Year!  And best wishes for a better 2021 and an end to this pandemic.  In the words of Washington, “How it will end, God, in His great goodness will direct.”