Defense of John Peter Zenger
August 4, 1735
May it please Your Honor, I agree with Mr. Attorney that government is a sacred thing, but I differ widely from him when he would insinuate that the just complaints of a number of men who suffer under a bad administration is libeling that administration. Had I believed that to be law, I should not have given the Court the trouble of hearing anything that I could say in this cause.
I own that when I read the information I had not the art to find out, without the help of Mr. Attorney's innuendos, that the Governor was the person meant in every period of that newspaper. I was inclined to believe that they were written by some who, from an extraordinary zeal for liberty, had misconstrued the conduct of some persons in authority into crimes; and that Mr. Attorney, out of his too great zeal for power, had exhibited this information to correct the indiscretion of my client, and at the same time to show his superiors the great concern he had lest they should be treated with any undue freedom.
But from what Mr. Attorney has just now said, to wit, that this prosecution was directed by the Governor and the Council, and from the extraordinary appearance of people of all conditions, which I observe in Court upon this occasion, I have reason to think that those in the administration have by this prosecution something more in view, and that the people believe they have a good deal more at stake, than I apprehended. Therefore, as it is become my duty to be both plain and particular in this cause, I beg leave to bespeak the patience of the Court.
I was in hopes as that terrible Court where those dreadful judgments were given, and that law established, which Mr. Attorney has produced for authorities to support this cause, was long ago laid aside as the most dangerous Court to the liberties of the people of England that ever was known in that kingdom — that Mr. Attorney, knowing this, would not have attempted to set up a star chamber here, nor to make their judgments a precedent to us. For it is well known that what would have been judged treason in those days for a man to speak, has since not only been practiced as lawful, but the contrary doctrine has been held to be law.
In Brewster's case for printing that subjects might defend their rights and liberties by arms in case the king should go about to destroy them, he was told by the Chief justice that it was a great mercy he was not proceeded against for his life; for to say the king could be resisted by arms in any case whatsoever was express treason. And yet we see since that time, that Doctor Sacheverell was sentenced in the highest court in Great Britain for saying that such a resistance was not lawful. Besides, as times have made very great changes in the laws of England, so in my opinion there is good reason that [other] places should do so too.
Is it not surprising to see a subject, upon receiving a commission from the king to be a governor of a Colony in America, immediately imagining himself to be vested with all the prerogatives belonging to the sacred person of his princes? And, which is yet more astonishing, to see that a people can be so wild as to allow of and acknowledge those prerogatives and exemptions, even to their own destruction? Is it so hard a matter to distinguish between the majesty of our sovereign and the power of a governor of The Plantations?' Is not this making very free with our prince, to apply that regard, obedience, and allegiance to a subject, which is due only to our sovereign.
And yet in all the cases which Mr. Attorney has cited to show the duty and obedience we owe to the supreme magistrate, it is the king that is there meant and understood, although Mr. Attorney is pleased to urge them as authorities to prove the heinousness of Mr. Zenger's offense against the Governor of New York. The several Plantations are compared to so many large corporations, and perhaps not improperly. Can anyone give an instance that the head of a corporation ever put in a claim to the sacred rights of majesty? Let us not, while we are pretending to pay a great regard to our prince and his peace, make bold to transfer that allegiance to a subject which we owe to our king only.
What strange doctrine is it to press everything for law here which is so in England? I believe we should not think it a favor, at present at least, to establish this practice. In England so great a regard and reverence is had to the judges that if any man strikes another in Westminster Hall while the judges are sitting, he shall lose his right hand and forfeit his land and goods for so doing. Although the judges here claim all the powers and authorities within this government that a Court of King's Bench has in England, yet I believe Mr. Attorney will scarcely say that such a punishment could be legally inflicted on a man for committing such an offense in the presence of the judges sitting in any court within the Province of New York. The reason is obvious. A quarrel or riot in New York can not possibly be attended with those dangerous consequences that it might in Westminster Hall; nor, I hope, will it be alleged that any misbehavior to a governor in The Plantations will, or ought to be, judged of or punished as a like undutifulness would be to our sovereign.
From all of which, I hope Mr. Attorney will not think it proper to apply his law cases, to support the cause of his governor, which have only been judged where the king's safety or honor was concerned.
It will not be denied that a freeholder in the Province of New York has as good a right to the sole and separate use of his lands as a freeholder in England, who has a right to bring an action of trespass against his neighbor for suffering his horse or cow to come and feed upon his land or eat his corn, whether enclosed or not. Yet I believe it would be looked upon as a strange attempt for one man here to bring an action against another whose cattle and horses feed upon his grounds that are not enclosed, or indeed for eating and treading down his corn, if that were not enclosed.
Numberless are the instances of this kind that might be given to show that what is good law at one time and in one place is not so at another time and in another place. So that I think the law seems to expect that in these parts of the world men should take care, by a good fence, to preserve their property from the injury of unruly beasts. And perhaps there may be a good reason why men should take the same care to make an honest and upright conduct a fence and security against the injury of unruly tongues.