One of the most important court cases in the annals of American history was tried on August 4, 1735. More than any other event, that trial began the process toward the American Revolution.
At the center of it all was Andrew Hamilton, the foremost attorney in America's greatest eighteenth-century city, Philadelphia.
Andrew Hamilton was born in Scotland in 1676 and arrived in Virginia at the age of twenty-one. He lived for a while under the assumed name of Trent (it was rumored that he had killed a man in Scotland), but by 1706 he was known as Andrew Hamilton.
In 1708 he married a wealthy widow, took up the practice of law, and purchased a six-thousand-acre estate in Kent County, Maryland. In 1715 the Maryland Assembly (legislature) called a convention to codify the law, and Hamilton was chosen to represent Kent County. The forty-six chapters of that code formed the foundation of Maryland law for centuries to come.
Hamilton then moved to Philadelphia, the intellectual and commercial center of the colonies. Between 1717 and 1724 he was attorney general of Pennsylvania. He was elected speaker of the Assembly in 1729, a post he held until his retirement in 1739. A member of the committee charged with constructing a new building for the Assembly, Andrew drew up the plans and supervised the construction of the building that came to be known (after the American Revolution) as Independence Hall.
Andrew Hamilton's lasting fame rests on the part he played in the trial of John Peter Zenger in 1735. The story begins in 1732 when William Cosby, "a boisterous, irritable man having little understanding and no sense of decorum" was sent to be governor of the colony of New York.
The previous year, in the absence of a governor, the president of the ruling council, Rip Van Dam, had been given the governor's salary. Governor Cosby sued Van Dam to get the money back, but the chief justice of the Supreme Court of New York refused to accept jurisdiction for the case. Governor Cosby dismissed the judge.
At the time the only newspaper in New York City was simply a tool of the governor. Then, in 1733, John Peter Zenger started a new newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal, "containing the freshest advices foreign and domestic," in which he regularly criticized the governor "with great severity and not a little literary skill."
As the law stood at the time, it was seditious libel to say anything bad about the government whether the statement was true or false. On November 17, 1734, printer John Peter Zenger was arrested. When the members of the grand jury refused to indict him, the attorney general issued an information charging him with seditious libel.
The most prominent New York lawyers were ready to defend Zenger, but the leaders of a political society called the "Sons of Liberty" called for the great Philadelphia lawyer, Andrew Hamilton. The case was tried on August 4, 1735.
If the American concept of free speech can be said to have had a birthday, then it was that day.
The jury retired for a short time and returned with a verdict of "not guilty." American juries would hear similar pleas in the centuries to come, but none more eloquent than that made by Andrew Hamilton at the trial of John Peter Zenger.
Andrew Hamilton died at his Philadelphia estate at Bush Hill exactly six year later (to the day), on August 4, 1741.