Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Scot and Freedom of the Press

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 emigrated 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 what 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.

(The above information was taken from the Scottish American Hall of Fame, maintained by the Illinois St. Andrew and located in North Riverside, Illinois a suburb of Chicago. The Hall of Fame was the work of James C. Thomson, former editor of the "Prairie Farmer." He was a friend and greatly missed.)

Wayne Rethford
President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society

Upcoming Events:

The Annual History Tour is scheduled for July 20. Our chartered bus will leave the Scottish Home at 10:30 a.m. First stop will be St. James church at the Sag Bridge where we will pay our respect to James Michie, president of our Society in 1847.

Second stop will be at the Wheatland Presbyterian Church, established in 1848 by Scottish immigrants. We will have our lunch at the church, visit the church cemetery and hear from direct descendants of those pioneer families.

Our last stop will be at the Na-Au-Say cemetery, 12 miles west of Plainfield. In this country cemetery Thomas C. MacMillan, president in 1906 and 1907, is buried. Tina Beaird will meet us at the cemetery and she is an expert on this entire area. Tina is the Reference Librarian at the Plainfield Public Library. She is also a Blackhawks fan.

Cost $30.00 per person includes a box lunch. You can register using our secure website, call 708-447-5092 or my home office at 630-629-4516. Don’t be Scottish and wait til the last day. Call now!

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