Reviewed by Carrie Spellman for TeensReadToo.com
Words are powerful things.
On August 4, 1735, John Peter Zenger was declared "Not Guilty" of seditious libel, therefore setting the groundwork for freedom of the press in what would become the United States. But, the story truly starts much earlier, and there is a lot more to it than I ever imagined.
The most obvious and immediate event that would lead to the trial of Mr. Zenger was the arrival of a new British Governor, William Cosby. Cosby had earned his position through marriage, and a reputation of being difficult. He was also greedy. He demanded money for things he couldn't prove he'd done, for time not working for the people, raised taxes and fees and took the extra money for himself, and demanded that his salary be increased. He insulted and offended not only politicians, but the people he was supposed to be governing. When he decided to sue a well known and liked colonist he abused the court system, hand-picking a jury that was guaranteed to rule in his favor. The Governor hadn't counted on the honesty and integrity of one of the jury members. Governor Cosby lost his case and was furious. The damage was done with the colonists as well. Having seen the true colors of the governor, they resolved to fight back. The New York Weekly Journal was born.
The New York Weekly Journal was created by a group of men who wanted to strike back at the Governor. They wanted to be able to respond to what the Governor said about them, and tell the truth to the people. John Peter Zenger's only involvement was as the printer of the paper. The articles were all written anonymously, but Mr. Zenger didn't have the education or knowledge to have written them. He was the one who set the type in the printing press and put the pages together for distribution.
Insults flew back and forth between Cosby and the Journal for quite some time before Cosby decided to attempt to put a stop to things. Since he couldn't prove who wrote the articles, Cosby had the printer, Mr. Zenger, arrested and charged with seditious libel. And so began the printer's trial, and the beginning of the battle for freedom of the press.
I learned so much from this book.
To begin with, I never really separated the ideas of sedition and libel. Sedition is basically promoting discontent, usually against the government or ruling authority. Libel is intentionally misrepresenting things, in print, in a negative way. So, seditious libel is intentionally printing things in a false and negative way, in order to make people unhappy with their leaders. Obviously not a good thing.
It's also an interesting look at the early politics in our country. People in power who use the system to their advantage. Groups who let unknowing people become scapegoats in order to prove their point. Using a public forum to present your views as the truth, regardless of whether or not they are. Interestingly it's all stuff you can find in politics today. But, thanks to the freedom of the press we get to see all sorts of different viewpoints and ideas, and make up our own minds.
This is the kind of book I wish I'd had to learn about history. It doesn't just give you dates and occurrences, it tells you the story of what happened, and why, and how.