Since 1725, a newspaper had been printed in New York, but William Bradford, its printer, was in the pay of the government, and no item in opposition to the governor or his friends was to be found in its pages. In November, 1733, appeared the first number of the New York Weekly Journal, printed by John Peter Zenger, and devoted to the support of the party of the people, at the head of which were Lewis Morris and Rip Van Dam. It soon began to make itself felt. It was eagerly read, its sarcastic, reflections on the government, and its biting criticisms, furnishing a weekly entertainment to the public, which drove the governor and his friends almost to madness. Its effect was so keenly felt that it was resolved, in council, that Zenger’s papers, Nos. 7, 47, 48 and 49, and also two certain printed ballads, as containing many things tending to sedition and faction, to bring his majesty’s government into contempt, and to disturb the peace thereof, should be burned by the common hangman or whipper, and that the mayor and magistrates should attend the ceremony. This they refused to do and forbade the whipper, who was in the employ of the city, to obey the order. His place was supplied by a negro slave of the sheriff. Attempts were made to have Zenger indicted, but the grand jury refused to bring in a bill.
In November, 1734, Zenger was arrested and imprisoned, by order of the council, for printing seditious libels, and, for a time, was denied the use of pen, ink and paper. In January, 1735, the grand jury not having indicted him, the attorney-general filed an information against him. In the meantime he was editing his paper through a hole in the door of his cell. At the April term of court his counsel, James Alexander and William Smith, the two ablest lawyers of New York, filed exceptions to the legality of the commissions of the two judges. For this they were silenced, and John Chambers was appointed by the court counsel for Zenger.
When the trial came on, in July, 1735, Andrew Hamilton, of Philadelphia, a lawyer of great reputation, who had been secretly engaged, unexpectedly appeared by the side of the prisoner. He was capable, eloquent and audacious, and, in conjunction with Chambers, managed the case with so much ability and skill that the jury, after being out only ten minutes, returned with a verdict of Not Guilty, which was received with shouts and cheers. The judges threatened the leaders of the tumult with imprisonment, when a son of Admiral Norris, who was also a son-in-law of Lewis Morris, declared himself the leader and invited a repetition of the cheers, which were instantly repeated. Andrew Hamilton was hailed as the champion of liberty. The corporation of New York shortly presented him with the freedom of the city in a gold box, “for his learned and generous defence of the rights of mankind and the liberty of the press.” Zenger was released from prison, after having been confined for more than eight months. After the trial was concluded, the enthusiasm and demonstrations of satisfaction centered at the Black Horse Tavern, where a splendid dinner was given to Andrew Hamilton in celebration of his great victory. At his departure, next day, “he was saluted with the great Guns of several Ships in the Harbour as a public Testimony of the glorious Defence he made in the Cause of Liberty in this Province.” Governeur Morris stated to Dr. John W. Francis his belief that “the trial of Zenger, in 1735, was the germ of American freedom — the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.”