Take a look behind the scenes at the creation of “The Birth of the First Amendment,” with insights from author Donna Griffin.
What does creating this graphic novel mean to you?
A. I am so privileged to be a part of the journalism profession where every day people are talking about principles, ethics and impact. I believe journalists do get a bad rap and this country takes the media for granted. The First Amendment is not an afterthought; it is the centerpiece of our democracy and what truly defines America. The real American Revolution in Zenger’s time and now are the ideas, the words and the principles in our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. But those documents would NOT have withstood the force of the British government, or the societal, cultural, political and technological changes that followed without a free press. In teaching journalism history over the last two decades, I have talked about the Zenger trial. On the surface, it was just a blip on the radar screen of history. But it wasn’t. Moments like Andrew Hamilton’s closing speech in the Zenger trial change our country forever. That’s what the “In The Moment” series is all about.
Talk about your thought processes and why you decided to be a part of this project.
A. As a teacher for the last 20 years, this story had always spoken to me. But only after months of research and writing did I realize how little I knew and what significant parallels there were to the current political, legal and cultural climate. Zenger was truly just a poor printer, but this country has always advanced when it is held accountable by individuals who take a stand. But as with Zenger, defending the individual freedoms is not a battle you can win on your own. The best part of this story for me was the partnership between Zenger and his wife. How did we not know about that? Even now some historians discount her contributions, but with Zenger stuck in a jail cell for eight months, the Journal did get printed and he gave full credit to his wife. She became the first woman printer and publisher in the Colonies and continued to publish the New York Weekly Journal after her husband’s death.
How has it evolved over the last months?
A. I think the biggest evolution for me was in realizing that all of the key players in this moment had no idea of the impact of their actions. Yes, Zenger had the judge and lawyers who funded the Journal and supported him in his trial. He had the best legal mind in the Colonies. But he was still in jail with bail he couldn’t pay, facing the most powerful government on the earth and a corrupt and crazy governor in charge. His future really did hang in the balance. Even with the victory, the Zengers and Hamilton returned to their real lives, and all died two decades before the Declaration of Independence. But you can trace a solid path from that moment to the Constitutional Convention and adoption of the First Amendment. The Founding Father who wrote the final draft of the Constitution called the Zenger Trial, “the morning star of liberty.”
My hope is that “The Birth of the First Amendment” will continue to have an impact long after its publication.