I remember hearing a mention of John Peter Zenger in my eighth-grade U.S. history class, but I couldn’t have told you much about him — we were in a rush to get to the Civil War by the end of May. He must have come up in the media law class I took in college, but whatever we learned about him didn’t stay with me, beyond the basics: He was a printer whose trial had something to do with freedom of the press.
Each of those times, I could have really used this new nonfiction title by Gail Jarrow (Calkins Creek, 10/06), but it’s just as welcome today. Of course, there’s never been — and never will be — a time in U.S. history when a better understanding of the free press wouldn’t come in handy. The aims of The Printer’s Trial: The Case of John Peter Zenger and the Fight for a Free Press are narrowly focused on adding to that understanding.
Jarrow strives for clarity and succeeds. Her straightforward narrative takes readers from the initial dust-up with the worthless new colonial governor of New York through the August 1735 trial of Zenger, a German immigrant who was one of just two printers in Manhattan. She’s careful to help readers keep track of the many players, especially the gaggle of influential politicians who (unlike Zenger) remained anonymous in the newspaper where their jabs at the governor appeared.
The Printer’s Trial illuminates just how many levers the government could pull to prevent “seditious libel” — that is, criticism of the government — and how underdog Zenger came out on top thanks to the jury’s willingness to look past the law and vote for free expression instead. Within a generation or two, that outcome had contributed both to the published criticisms of British rule in the run-up to the Revolution and to the First Amendment. And nearly 300 years later, blogs more political than this one still owe a debt to the tradesman at the center of Jarrow’s book.