Paper Money

Patriot printers: Hero editor John Peter Zenger prints paper money

Many of the craftsmen who printed our nation’s Colonial, Continental and early American currency were patriots who risked life and liberty in the quest for freedom before, during and even after the Revolution.

Some were imprisoned; others were forced to evacuate their presses as British forces took over their cities. At least two participated in the Boston Tea Party. One was a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

These are their stories.

John Peter Zenger, 1696 to 1746

New Yorker John Peter Zenger, who died 30 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, provided the foundation for our First Amendment right to freedom of the press.

In late 1733 Zenger branched out from printing pamphlets on his Broad Street press to publishing a newspaper — the New York Weekly Journal, the only paper printed between Philadelphia and Boston.

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From the start, Zenger attacked the corrupt Colonial administration. On Dec. 3, 1733, he printed that Gov. William Cosby had permitted the French to spy on the city’s defenses and allowed only favored people to attend council meetings. Cosby was not amused and charged Zenger with “scandalous, virulent and seditious reflections upon the government.” However, neither the grand jury nor the council would indict him. 

Undeterred, Cosby convened a select group of sympathetic councilmen who accused Zenger of “raising sedition.” Zenger was arrested Nov. 17, 1734, and imprisoned for several months awaiting trial. 

At his trial, which began Aug. 4, 1735, Zenger pleaded not guilty. His lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, astonished the jury by admitting that Zenger had printed the offending words but said he had “committed no crime.”

Under British law at the time, the mere printing of anti-government information was a crime. The truth of the information was irrelevant. Hamilton maintained otherwise.

Hamilton, who was a member of the committee that oversaw construction of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, told the court: “I hope it is not our bare printing or publishing a paper that will make it a libel. You will have something more to do before you make my client a libeler. For the words themselves must be libelous — that is, false, malicious and seditious — or else we are not guilty.”

Addressing the jury, he said, “Men who injure and oppress the people under their administration provoke them to cry out and complain; and then make that very complaint the foundation of new oppressions and prosecutions.”

In urging the jury to free his client he told them “every man who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you.” The jury found Zenger innocent, helping establish truth as an absolute defense against libel.

Two years later New York hired Zenger to print the Dec. 10, 1737, bill or credit issue of £48,350. Of the total, £8,350 was retained by the colony for general expenses and the remaining £40,000 was loaned out a 5 percent interest. Only a handful of the 32,700 uniface bills survive.

 


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