Anna Zenger: Romance or history?

1733 NYWeeklyJournal Jan7

These two episodes from Calvacade of America fall into a journalism category we might call “stories too good to check,” but they are still fascinating.

The historical-drama Cavalcade series featured a number of women journalists, some of whom may have been slighted by a “great men” approach to history. When history books mention Anna Zenger, it is usually as a wife who kept The New York Weekly Journal going while her husband was in prison, rarely in the detail presented in these two versions of the Cavalcade of America script. (The casting of the 1949 version is brilliant, featuring Rosalind Russell, the actress who played one of Hollywood’s most celebrated fictional women journalists, Hildy Johnson.)

Anna’s husband was John Peter Zenger, whose name ranks high in the annals of freedom of the press in America. Zenger went to jail in 1734 for publishing allegedly libelous material, and the courtroom drama that freed him is famous for developing the concept of truth as a defense against accusations of libel.

For a more conventional account, see this, from the U.S. Department of State publication, Historians on America: The Trial of John Peter Zenger and the Birth of Freedom of the Press by Doug Linder.

The Historical Society of the Courts of the State of New York also has a history site on The Trial of John Peter Zenger, including a copy of the 1736 pamphlet, A Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger, Printer of the New York Weekly Journal.

For another dramatic interpretation, see The Trial of John Peter Zenger, a play in five scenes by Michael E. Tigar, Thomas Watt Gregory Professor of Law at the University of Texas, Austin.

1953: Seldes and Albert as the Zengers

To my knowledge, the Zengers’ story has never been a feature film, but it was a very early (1953) made-for-TV movie, “The Trial of John Peter Zenger,” starring Eddie Albert and Marian Seldes. (Seldes, coincidentally, was daughter and niece of two well-known writers, the critic Gilbert Seldes and journalist George Seldes.)

At best, these accounts of the case identify Anna Zenger as the wife who kept her husband’s press running during his eight months in jail — quite an accomplishment by itself. Zenger is generally agreed to have been the printer of the paper, not author of the articles attacking Governor William Cosby and his crowd. Cavalcade, however, makes Anna not only the one who kept publishing, but the author of the articles — and the one who came up with the idea of publishing an opposition newspaper in the first place!

James Alexander, a young lawyer, is more often identified as a probable author of the material, as well as one of Zenger’s original defense attorneys, until he and his colleague William Smith were disbarred — the lucky stroke that brought one of the American colonies’ most distinguished lawyers, Andrew Hamilton, all the way from Philadelphia to defend Zenger. (Cavalcade has Anna herself going to Philadelphia to obtain his services.)
book jacket for Kent Cooper's "Anna Zenger, Mother of Freedom"

So where did the Cavalcade version of the tale originate? It was a novel by one Kent Cooper, whose name was not associated with fiction or flights of fancy: He was executive director of the Associated Press. Why did he make Anna Zenger the heroine of his version of the tale of her husband’s trial?

Cooper speaks for himself at the end of the “Mother of Freedom” production, but does not reveal his sources for his Anna-centric view of the Zenger case. I’m waiting to get my hands on copies of his novel and his autobiography to see if they shed any light.

The two Cavalcade adaptations of his story have significant differences. The Rosalind Russell version skips the earlier production’s opening conversation between the author and the spirit of Anna Zenger, as well as a closing invocation of Ben Franklin, who bestows upon Anna the “mother of freedom” title. I don’t know whether that conversation has any basis in Franklin’s writings, or was Cooper’s invention, but I intend to do further research — if my students don’t beat me to it.

Meanwhile, for a general debunking of Cooper’s version of the story, see The Myth of Anna Zenger by Vincent Buranelli, in The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Apr., 1956) (pp. 157-168), which may be available through your university library’s subscription to the JSTOR service.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in cavalcade, historical figures, journalism, newspapers, women. Bookmark the permalink.

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