The Press Asserts Its Freedom

Cambridge, Massachusetts, boasted a printing press, and in 1704 Boston's first successful newspaper was launched. Several others soon entered the field, not only in New England but also in other regions. In New York, freedom of the press had its first important test in the case of Peter Zenger, whose New York Weekly Journal, begun in 1733, was spokesman for opposition to she government. After two years of publication, the colonial governor could no longer tolerate Zenger's satirical barbs and had him thrown into prison on a charge of libel. Zenger continued to edit his paper from jail during his nine-month trial, which excited intense interest throughout the colonies. Andrew Hamilton, a prominent lawyer defending him, argued that the charges printed by Zenger were true and hence not libelous. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty, and Zenger went free. This landmark decision helped establish in America the principle of freedom of the press.

In all phases of colonial development, a striking feature was the lack of controlling influence by the English government. During their formative period, the colonies were, to a large degree, free to develop as circumstances dictated. The English government had taken no direct part in founding any of the colonies except Georgia, and only gradually did it assume any part in their political direction.

The fact that the King had transferred his immediate sovereignty over the New World settlements to stock companies and proprietors did not, of course, mean that the colonists in America would necessarily be free of outside control. Under the terms of the Virginia Company and Massachusetts Bay charters, complete governmental authority was vested in the companies involved, and it was expected that these companies would be resident in England. Inhabitants of America, then, would have no more voice in their government than if the King himself had retained absolute rule.