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Andrew Hamilton


By Winning Freedom-of-Press Case He Set a Historic Precedent

In America’s quest for freedom, the case of John Peter Zenger is a milestone. Journalism students learn that the trial was the first major court test over freedom of the press. What they probably don’t know is that the case was won by the eloquence and acumen of Andrew Hamilton, perhaps the most able lawyer in the American colonies at the time. ■ Zenger was a New York printer. Four Scots named Alexander, Morris, Smith and Golden asked Zenger if he would print their New York Weekly Journal with James Alexander as editor. He agreed. Alexander’s editorials roasted New York Governor William Cosby, who was heartily disliked for being arbitrary and unfair. ■ Andrew Hamilton was born in Scotland about 1676. Other than that, his early life is shrouded in mystery. He immigrated to Virginia about 1697. There he married a well-to-do widow and practiced law. Later he moved to Philadelphia. ■ Governor Cosby was outraged by Alexander’s attacks, but jailed Zenger as owner of the printing establishment. The trial judge, a friend of Cosby’s wanted to confine the issue to whether Zenger printed libel and lies as charged.■ Hamilton was called in on the case and rejected the court’s hypothesis. He insisted that the jury had the right to decide the truth or falsity of the charges. Hamilton’s defense included a polemic on press freedom as a control over tyranny no matter the source. ■ To tumultuous applause, the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty.” Hamilton was also a founder of the colonial postal service. He died April 16, 1741, at Perth Amboy, New Jersey. ■ Though he is virtually unknown, the role he played in the Zenger case made a lasting contribution to the doctrine of freedom of the press in America.


Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
Scottish-American History Club
2800 Des Plaines Avenue
North Riverside, IL 60546