Promoters of the Cause of Liberty and
The Freedom of the Press
Tacitus, the great
Roman Historian, writing of the early Germans in his famous book "Germania," declared one of their noblest characteristics to be their independent spirit, lauding their strong love for nature and
liberty. Grown up among majestic forests and breathing the pure air of the mountains they regarded towns as prisons and refrained from building them. So great was their love of freedom that it
frequently led them to suicide rather than surrender into captivity.
Unconquered by the Romans this spirit survived throughout the many centuries following the famous battle in the Teutoburgian
Forests. Many thousands of Germans were moved by it to emigrate to America, in order to escape intellectual or bodily servitude, threatening during the Thirty Years' War. So also during the raids of
the French into the Palatinate and other borderlands of the Rhine.
Picture then the dismay of the Germans, who, hoping to find freedom and liberty in America, became aware of the fact that many of the
detested institutions of Europe had been transplanted to the New World and had become firmly rooted. Favorites of the British king, after squandering their money in gambling and high living, were entrusted
with the government of the colonies and assumed office merely to recoup their lost fortunes. The colonies were overrun, too, by hordes of impoverished aristocrats, cunning adventurers and unscrupulous
speculators, all incited by the mad desire to get rich quickly.
By bribing the governors and other officials many of these questionable gentlemen had succeeded in obtaining valuable privileges or
securing titles to large tracts of land, where they lived in the luxurious style of lords.
The common people found small protection against the insolence of these drones of society, who looked with
disdain upon "the rabble." Immigrants, who could not speak English fluently, were often treated worse than slaves, these insolent officials and aristocrats holding the view, that the English were
the cream of creation, and that an imperfect command of their language meant defectiveness. Irritated by their arrogance and Oppressions, the people resented their disdain with illconcealed hate.
The antagonism between the two classes grew to bitter party-strife and revolt during that stormy period, when the crown of England passed from the Catholic King James II, to the Protestant William 111.
Amidst the upheaval, caused in the colonies by this sudden change, Sir Edmond Andros, Governor-General of the combined colonies of New England, New York and New Jersey, was seized by the people of Boston and
together with fifty of his followers sent to England. His representative in New York, Francis Nicholson, a most unpopular official, fled to the fort at the Southern point of Manhattan Island, but he was
captured, as the people had been aroused by the alarming rumor, that he intended to burn the city and deliver the colony to the French. The majority of the people being Protestants, they resolved to hold the
colonies for the new King William.
To save New York from greater disorder and defend it against an invasion by the French, it became necessary to elect a temporary governor. It was then that the
people chose a German, Jacob Leisler, a native of Frankfort-on-the Main, who, upon coming to New York in 1660, had attained great success as a merchant. A man of great energy, high spirits and of noted
integrity, he was senior captain of the Militia. By marriage he was connected with he Dutch aristocracy of the town. Thus Leisler appeared to be the right person, to save the colony from further unrest
However, the people's party had under-estimated the hatred of the Aristocrats. From the moment Leisler assumed charge of affairs, the latter began to denounce him as a
demagogue. In connection with the rest of the officials, who had fled to Albany, they started a regular campaign of secret intrigue and open hostility. Flooding the government in London with
complaints, they decried Leisler and the members of his council as foreign-born Plebeians, mutineers and tyrants, falsely alleging that they had seized their offices only to enrich themselves and to defraud the
government of its taxes. At the same time they declined to acknowledge Leisler and his councilors, and incited all colonists to refuse obedience.
To remain silent under such calumniation and
provocation was impossible. Leisler commissioned a company of soldiers under command of his son-in-law, Major Jacob Milborne, to go to Albany to compel the aristocrats to acknowledge him and to occupy the
fort, as at the Canadian border hostilities by the French and their Indian allies were imminent. Unfortunately the company was not strong enough to capture the fort, the Aristocrats being on their guard and
defending Albany successfully, so that Milborne had to withdraw. Soon afterwards, however, the nearby town of Schenectady was surprised by the French and Indians, while the unsuspecting inhabitants were
asleep. The whole settlement was burned, 60 people killed and 90 carried away as prisoners. When the news of this assault reached Albany, the frightened aristocrats fled to Massachusetts, leaving the
defense of the city to Leisler, who once more proved himself equal to the emergency.
Convinced that the colonies would never be safe unless the French were driven from Canada, and that for an
effective resistance against the formidable foe co-operation on the part of all colonies was essential, Leisler invited the governors of all the other colonies to a council at New York. It was the first ever
held, and by this act Leisler aroused the colonists to a sense of common interest, which kept on increasing and was destined to culminate in the Continental Congress of 1776.
That memorable council
took place on May 1, 1690 attended by delegates from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Plymouth, New Jersey and Maryland. It was resolved, that 855 men, assisted by an auxiliary force of 1600 Mohawk
Indians, should attack Canada by land, while at the same time a fleet of 32 vessels should ascend the St. Lawrence River and bombard Quebec. The campaign was undertaken by the colonies at their own cost and
responsibility, without the aid of the mother country.
Unfortunately its aims were not realized, as the leaders of the two expeditions, lacking energy, were not victorious in their attacks.
Leisler himself, however, gained a success by capturing six French vessels, which had dared to come to the vicinity of New York.
The campaign, undertaken on Leisler's recommendation, burdened the
colonies with considerable expense. Its failure way of course used by his enemies to make a scapegoat of him and to undermine his reputation by malicious slander.
This was the situation, when in
January 1691, a vessel from England brought the news, that the home government had appointed a new governor for New York in the person of Colonel Henry Sloughter. It was stated that this official had set out
with several vessels and many troops to take charge of the colony.
By misadventure a heavy storm separated his vessel from the fleet and compelled him to a delay of several weeks at the
Bermudas. In the meantime the fleet, with Major Ingoldsby the second in command, arrived in the harbor of New York. The aristocrats at once set out to win the favor of the new arrival and to influence
him against Leisler. These efforts proved successful when Ingoldsby's demand, to surrender the fort at once, was answered by Leisler with the request for documentary proof of Ingoldsby's authority. As
such document was not at hand, Leisler refused to give up the fort. Ingoldsby, feeling himself aggrieved in his honor as an Officer, ordered his soldiers to take the fort by force, but was repelled and lost
several of his men. Ingoldsby now laid siege to the fort for several weeks; meanwhile Leisler's enemies continued their slanderous activity with renewed vigor.
On March 19 the vessel of Governor
Sloughter finally hove into sight. Ingoldsby delivered his report. Amplified by the complaints of the aristocrats, who hurried to pay their respects to the new governor, it so enraged Sloughter that he
demanded immediate and unconditional surrender of the fort. Although Leisler immediately complied, he and the members of his council were placed under arrest, and thrown into prison.
attention to Leisler's side of the story Sloughter next instituted a court martial, appointing several personal enemies of Leisler as judges. These acts sealed the fate of Leisler. Charged with
rebellion and high treason, he as well as Milborne were condemned to be executed.
In view of the manifest injustice of this decision Slougbter hesitated to sign the death warrant. But the
aristocrats, having invited him to a banquet, procured his signature while he was intoxicated. Even before he could regain his sober senses, the two condemned men were dragged to the place of execution,
where, on March 16, 1691, they were hanged and their bodies beheaded.
Thus died Jacob Leisler, the first martyr in the long struggle of the American people for liberty, the first of the men chosen by
the people in their efforts to wrest the right of self-government from the hands of their oppressors.
While the aristocrats rejoiced in triumph, their villainous acts aroused bitter resentment in all
parts of the colony, and a popular uprising was imminent.
From the tombs of the murdered men arose the spirit of revenge. To perpetuate the memory of its former leader, the people's party now
named itself "The Leisler Party," henceforth steadily gaining ground. In the elections of 1699 this party cast 455 votes, while its opponents had only 177; it gained 16 seats out of the 21 in the
assembly. Resistance to the insolence and domination of the aristocrats became stronger and stronger and spread to all the other colonies.
About that time a German lad, thirteen years of age, arrived in New York. His father, one of those unhappy Palatines who were driven from their homes by the French, had died at sea. But the
name of this helpless orphan: Johann Peter Zenger, has gone into history and it behooves every lover of American liberty to remember it.
Soon after his arrival Zenger became an apprentice to
William Bradford, a printer, who had been allowed by the government to establish a printing office in New York. This permission had of course been granted under great restrictions, as the British government
did not look with favor upon the great invention, made by Johannes Gutenberg in Mayence. The crown regarded it as a dangerous means of distributing unwelcome political news, and apt to inform people about
incidents and transactions of which it wanted them to remain ignorant. For this reason the few printers who had drifted to the colonies, when attempting to publish newspapers, incurred disfavor and were
discouraged at the start. The "Public Occurrences," edited on September 25, 1690, by Benjamin Harris of Boston, were at once stopped. In Virginia and Maryland it was strictly forbidden to set
up a printing press. In Philadelphia William Bradford was ordered, in 1692, to close his office. Moving to New York, he succeeded, after many petitions, in getting permission to publish "The New
York Gazette." Of course this paper was the organ of the governor's party and promoted his interests and those of the aristocrats only.
Having served as an apprentice in Bradford's office
for several years, Zenger later on became Bradford's assistant and partner. In 1733, however, he left the partnership, probably because his political views were in too strong a contrast with those of
Bradford, who remained a devoted instrument of the government. Zenger, on the other hand, had become an active member of the people's or Leisler's party.
His first step after his separation from
Bradford was to start an independent newspaper, the "New York Weekly Journal." First issued on November 5, 1733, it voiced the sentiments of the people. Among its supporters and contributors were
some of the ablest men of the colony, lawyers and judges, who took up all grievances of the public against the government and discussed them in bold and sometimes satirical manner.
To give an idea of
the articles that found their way into the columns of the "Journal," we quote the following sentence of one of the contributors, a former judge. "We see men's deeds destroyed, judges
arbitrarily displaced, new courts erected without the consent of the legislature, by which it seems to me trials by jury are taken away when a governor pleases; men of known estates denied their votes contrary to
the recent practice of the best expositor of any law. Who is there in that province that can call anything his own, or enjoy any liberty longer than those in the administration will condescend to let them,
for which reason I left it, as I believe more will."
Such plain speaking had never before been heard in the colonies. No wonder the governor became highly incensed at the
"Journal" and directed the Grand jury to indict Zenger, the Publisher, for libel. At the same time he ordered that four numbers of the offending paper be publicly burned by the hangman, "as
containing many things derogatory of the dignity of His Majesty's Government, reflecting upon the legislature and tending to raise seditions and tumults in the province." The mayor and the city magistrates
were requested to be present at the burning of the papers.
But the Grand jury failed to see any cause for the accusations against Zenger, nor was the Colonial Assembly willing to concur in a
resolution of the council, that the objectionable numbers of the "Journal" be burned by the hangman. The burgomaster and the magistrate also refused to be present at the act and prohibited the
hangman, who was subject to their jurisdiction, from executing the mandate of the governor.
Wild with rage, the governor now caused the four issues of the "Journal" to be burned by a negro
slave, in the presence of the sheriff and the recorder of New York. Not content with this action he ordered the arrest of Zenger, and had him confined in prison, denying him all writing material. To
prevent his release, his bail was fixed at eight hundred pounds, a sum so high at that time, that it was impossible for the printer's friends to raise it. Nevertheless Zenger continued to edit his paper,
dictating instructions to his employees through a crack in the prison door.
The Grand Jury again in January, 1735, found that no cause for indicting Zenger existed, whereupon the Attorney General
filed an Information for Seditious Libel against him, and arraigned him for trial before the court he had censured. Zenger's lawyers attacked the constitutionality of the court, but by this objection so
enraged the president of that court, that they were at once disbarred for contempt of court and the case adjourned.
As there were no other advocates in New York who dared to defend the printer, his
case seemed hopeless. The trial, however, had become more than a personal matter; the cause of all the people being at stake. The friends of Zenger succeeded in summoning to his aid the most famous
advocate in the Colonies, Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia. This gentleman presented his arguments so adroitly, and pleaded the cause of his client so eloquently, that the jury could do nothing else but set
Admitting at the outset, that Zenger had published the articles, Hamilton maintained that the question for the jury to decide was not whether or not the articles had been printed, but
whether or not the articles which he had printed were a libel. These articles had been described as "false, scandalous, malicious and seditious." Hamilton explained that there was nothing false in
these articles, but that they were statements of true facts and that the unreserved expression of opinion, on such true facts, was the undeniable right of every free British citizen. If the paragraphs,
published by Zenger, gave nothing but true facts, they could not be condemned as a libel. In conclusion Hamilton said: "The question before the court, and you, gentlemen of the jury, is not of small nor
private concern, it is not the cause of a poor printer, nor of New York alone, which you are trying. No! It may in its consequences affect every Freeman that lives under a British Government on the
main of America! It is the best cause, it is the cause of Liberty, and I make no doubt but your upright conduct, this day, will not only entitle you to the love and esteem of your fellow-citizens, but every
man who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you as men who have baffled the attempts of tyranny; and by an impartial and uncorrupt verdict have laid a noble foundation for securing to
ourselves, our posterity and our neighbors, that, to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right the Liberty, both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power by speaking and writing Truth!"
When the jury returned with their verdict of "Not guiltyl" the entire population of New York indulged in wild demonstrations in honor of both Hamilton and Zenger, as the heroes of a trial,
whereby one of the highest privileges - the freedom of the press
- became established in America. Encouraged by this success to a realization of its inherent power the people aimed now to free themselves from material oppression by the government and from the greed of English merchants. While the governors always strove to curtail the colonies in those privileges which had been guaranteed to them by their charters, the merchants in London had succeeded, after the French war, in influencing Parliament to pass certain laws, which were in their own favor, but gave not the slightest consideration to the needs and welfare of the colonists. By these laws the latter were forbidden to manufacture any articles that could be procured in England, especially cloth and articles composed of iron. No hats, no paper, no ploughshares, no horse-shoes were allowed to be made in the colonies. Whatever they required of European goods, the colonists were obliged to buy in England, and to have brought over to America in English vessels. Thus the English merchants might set the price to suit themselves, while English ship owners might wax fat on freights. Another law forbade the selling of products, such as tobacco, cotton, hides and furs to any country other than England. This meant that prices offered by the English merchants, although much lower than might have been obtained in international trade, had to be accepted. And worst of all, the colonists were burdened with heavy taxes without the right of representation in Parliament.
No vigorous, self-respecting people would submit to selfish measures of this sort for any length of time. Of men, grown up in the freedom of the American forests and mountains, such servile
submission could not be expected, and least of all of these citizens of foreign birth, who had no reason to be loyal to a king because of national ties.
It is therefore not surprising that the Germans
in America stood in the front ranks of the patriots who protested against unjust oppression. As early as 1765 many Germans signed a manifesto in which the merchants and traders of Philadelphia threatened to
boycott all English goods, in case the government did not repeal the stamp-act. Several years later, in 1772, the Germans joined "The Patriotic Society of the City and County of Philadelphia," to
defend those rights and privileges, which had been granted to the province in former times. It is recorded also that they took part in a mass-meeting, to protest against the threatened closing of Boston
Harbor on account of the tea episode. This mass-meeting was attended by 8000 persons, and a "Correspondence Committee" was elected for the purpose of consulting with all other colonies about
concentrated action for an energetic repulse of English encroachments.
The Germans living these other colonies also held mass-meetings and adopted resolutions of strong protest. A meeting held
on June 16, 1774, in Woodstock, Virginia, with Rev. Peter Muehlenberg as chairman, passed a resolution, bolder in language than any other. The following passages show the spirit pervading it:
"Resolved, that we will pay due submission to such acts of government as His Majesty has a right by law to exercise over his subjects, and to such only.
That it is the inherent right
of British subjects to be governed and taxed by representatives chosen by themselves only, and that every act of the British Parliament respecting the internal policy of America is a dangerous and unconstitutional
invasion of our rights and privileges.
That the enforcement of said acts of Parliament by a military power will necessarily have a tendency to cause a civil war, thereby dissolving that union, which
has so long happily subsisted between the mother country and her colonies; and that we will most heartily and unanimously concur with our suffering brethren in Boston and every other part of North America, who are
the immediate victims of tyranny, in promoting all proper measures to avert such dreadful calamities, to procure redress of our grievances, and to secure our common liberties."
The spirit of
rebellion was also active among the Palatines of the Mohawk Valley, in the province New York. On August 24, 1774, they united in a declaration, never to become slaves, but to defend their liberty at any
That these were not empty words, they proved, when the great struggle for independence began.