ABOUT THE BOOK
Published 2016 by W.W. Norton & Co.
THE LIBERTY OF WRITTEN and spoken expression has been fixed in the firmament of American social values since our nation’s beginning – the government of the United States was the first to legalize free speech and a free press as fundamental human rights. But when the British began colonizing the New World, strict censorship was the iron rule of the realm; any words, true or false, that were thought to disparage the government were prejudged as a criminally subversive and duly punishable threat to law, order, and the peace of the kingdom. Even after Parliament lifted licensing requirements for all printed material late in the seventeenth century, publishers did not escape the crown’s strict scrutiny and prosecution if they dared criticize their rulers.
So in 1733, when a small newspaper, The New-York Weekly Journal, printed scathing articles that assailed and mocked the new British governor, William Cosby, as corrupt and abusive of his power, colonial New York was scandalized – but hardly displeased. The paper’s publisher, a previously impoverished print shop owner named John Peter Zenger, with a wife and six children to feed, in fact had no hand in his paper’s vitriolic content; he was only the front man for Codby’s two most impassioned adversaries, New York Supreme Court Chief Justice Lewis Morris and his collaborator James Alexander, a shrewd and highly successful attorney.
While Morris and Alexander,
with fame and fortune to lose if convicted for
seditiously libeling the colony’s royal
governor, bankrolled the paper but remained in
the shadows, Zenger became the venture’s
courageous fall guy when Cosby brought the
full force of his high office down upon the
Journal and its publisher. Jailed for
the better part of a year, Zenger faced a jury
in New York’s City Hall on August 4, 1735, a
court proceeding matched in importance during
the colonial period only by the Salem witch
In Indelible Ink,
social historian Richard Kluger re-creates in
rich and engaging detail the dramatic clash of
powerful antagonists that marked the beginning
of press freedom in America and its role in
vanquishing colonial tyranny. Here is an
enduring lesson that redounds to this day on
the vital importance of free public expression
as the underpinning of true democracy and the
key to an informed electorate.
THE CRITICAL RESPONSE
* THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW (Bill Keller): “Kluger’s last venture into the history of American journalism was The Paper, his 1986 monumental autopsy of the New York Herald Tribune, and he brings the same gifts…to this book: vivid storytelling, built on exacting research, a knack for animating the context, and an exquisite sense of balance that honors this country’s essential press freedom without romanticizing its champions.”
* LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS (Amy Brody): “Kluger tells the complex and thoroughly engaging history leading up to…Zenger’s trial for seditious libel of a government figure…. Zenger’s trial does not unfold until the final chapter. But Kluger writes with such vivid detail and brisk pacing that the rather tortuous history that leads there is packed with drama…. Fascinating, too, is Kluger’s analysis of the rhetorical strategies employed…by the Journal….In the age of internet publishing, printed news has reduced resources, and original investigative journalism increasingly shares digital space with speculative ‘hot takes.’ Kluger’s illuminating history makes clear the far more restrictive circumstances of the press in the 18th century, and it stands as a cautionary tale of what might happen if we let history repeat itself.”
* BOOKLIST: (starred review by Bryce Christensen): “Kluger recognizes a need to assess such exposés (like the Pentagon Papers, Wikileaks, and Edward Snowden’s) in a much broader historical context…. Event by compelling event, readers follow Zenger through the drama that eventually landed him in hail on libel charges – before a liberty-loving jury freed him in a 1735 verdict signaling a clear American commitment to the unfettered reporting that can check abuse of power. [This book is] a much-needed prologue to today’s headlines.”
* THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (Mark G. Spencer): “Mr. Kluger develops his account in layers without revealing his conclusions too soon…. One of Kluger’s conclusions is that the birth of an American free press had as much to do with factional politics and economic interests as ideology. Another conclusion is that Zenger’s affair sowed the seeds of the rising call for independence from Britain a generation hence.”
JOURNALISM, a Media History Journal (David
“Meticulously written…this book is the
most extensive source yet on the Zenger
case. Once Kluger begins offering the
intricacies of the 1730s political situation,
Indelible Ink is a captivating read….
As a means of understanding colonial politics
and the budding power of the press, it is an