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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersBecoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Theme: GrowthTheme: PeoplesTheme: EconomiesTheme: IdeasTheme: American
Theme: American

3.
Remarks on Zenger's Tryal
Rights
- Religion: On preaching without a license, 1707 (PDF)
- Religion: On paying taxes for a minister, 1753 (PDF)
- Press: On printing "seditious libel" against the governor, 1738 (PDF)
- Press: On printing a "profane poem" against the legislature, 1751 (PDF)
- Women's Rights: Two poems, mid 1700s (PDF)


When reviewing the pre-revolutionary history of colonists' drive to assert their rights as English subjects, several events appear front and center—William Penn's 1701 Charter of Privileges, the 1726 trial of newspaper editor John Peter Zenger for seditious libel, and the explosive protests against the Stamp Act of 1765. Amidst these headliners are many unheralded short-lived campaigns for rights, some successful, some not. We will sample several here, as well as Zenger's famed trial. How similar and dissimilar are these rights campaigns from those of our times? (15 pages.)
  • Religion: On preaching without a license. In colonies with an "established religion," i.e., an official Christian denomination as proclaimed by the legislature and supported by residents' taxes, clergymen of other denominations had to apply for a license to preach in the colony. Francis Makemie, a Presbyterian minister, was arrested in 1707 for preaching in New York, where Anglicanism was the official religion. He was jailed, tried, and acquitted, and soon published an account of his "unusual American imprisonment."
    • - Rev. Francis Makemie, A Narrative of a New and Unusual American Imprisonment of Two Presbyterian Ministers . . . , 1707, excerpts.

  • Religion: On paying taxes for a minister. By Massachusetts law in the 1700s, each town selected one Protestant clergyman who would be paid with colony taxes. To protest the "spiritual tyranny" of such a law, an anonymous writer published A Letter to a Gentleman, appealing for the right of conscience. "Can such Compulsion be reconciled to the Rules of Equity and Justice?" he asks.
    • - "A Dissenting Protestant," A Letter to a Gentleman, Containing A Plea for the Rights of Conscience, in Things of a Religious Nature, 1753, excerpts.

  • Press: On printing "seditious libel" against the governor. No event is more associated in the popular vision of colonists' struggle for citizen rights before the Stamp Act as the trial of John Peter Zenger, editor of the New York Weekly Journal, for "seditious libel" after he printed an article critical of the governor. His attorney was Alexander Hamilton who successfully argued that publishing the truth could not be deemed libel or sedition. His skilled rationale is included Zenger's Brief Narrative, published soon after his acquittal. How does he craft his rationale?
    • - John Peter Zenger, A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger, Printer of the New York Weekly Journal, 1736, excerpts.

  • Press: On printing a "profane poem" against the legislature. "Old Tenor" was a nickname for paper money issued by the Massachusetts Bay colony. In 1751, the legislature ordered the currency removed from circulation. Paper money had been a divisive issue for decades, as is apparent in a ballad published anonymously as a broadside: "A Mournful Lamentation for the sad and deplorable Death of Mr. Old Tenor." The ballad infuriated the governor who issued a proclamation ordering the arrest of the two men who published the broadside. The ballad and the proclamation are presented here, followed by the affidavits of two men who assert that they heard one of the men deliver the verses from memory. The archival track of the "Old Tenor" affair ends here; no further documentation has come to light that records the outcome.
    • - Documents relating to the "Old Tenor" paper currency controversy, Massachusetts Bay, 1751.

  • Women's Rights: Two poems, mid 1700s. What we label "women's rights" in the mid 1700s reflect issues that would not have been addressed in a public forum or expressed in a broadside or resolved through legislative or judicial action. Often they were expressed privately in poems, to be shared with other women or kept secure in a diary. Presented here are two poems from the mid 1700s in which women express the frustrations of being "protected" as vulnerable beings who cannot reason or act virtuously on their own. They do not shy from alluding to the colonists' struggles with Great Britain—"Forgive, dear sire, if an Offence it be / For British Fair to sue for LIBERTY."
    • - Susanna Wright, "To Eliza Norris—at Fairhill," ca. 1750; Anonymous, "Carolina, A Young Lady," n.d.

Discussion questions
  1. Overall, what impressions do you get from the readings about the rights and privileges of white male and female colonists in the 1700s?
  2. Summarize the two freedom of religion cases. What is the general cause and outcome of both cases?
  3. How do the writers use the press to publicize their stands on the issues?
  4. Are they effective? Why or why not?
  5. Summarize the two freedom of press cases. What is the underlying issue in both cases?
  6. How do the writers use the press to publicize their stands on the issues?
  7. Are they effective? Why or why not?
  8. Would similar violations of rights occur today? Would similar cases be brought to court today?
  9. What, if any, evidence exists in these selections of the colonies "becoming American"? How are you defining "American" in order to reply to the question?

Framing Questions
  •  How did the political relationship between the colonies and Great Britain change in this period?
  •  How did individual colonies and colonists influence and respond to these changes?
  •  To what extent were the colonies and colonists "becoming American"?


Printing
Religion:  4  (preaching without a license)
Religion:  2  (paying taxes for a minister)
Press:  2  (printing "seditious libel")
Press:  4  (printing criticism of the governor)
Women's rights:  3  (poems on women's status)
TOTAL 15 pages
Supplemental Sites





Images: Frontispieces from Early American Imprints, American Antiquarian Society. Permission pending.


*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.







AMERICAN
1. Empire   2. Power   3. Rights
4. Union?   5. Independence?








TOOLBOX: Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Growth | Peoples | Economies | Ideas | American


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