Stephen Baker

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First to Fall: Elijah Lovejoy and freedom of the press

May 31, 2021General

In the 1830s, a minister from Maine named Elijah Lovejoy ran a religious newspaper in St. Louis, Mo.  At that time, St. Louis was a small settlement with French roots, and also the primary port for Missouri, a slave state. Slavery and free-thinking newspapers, Lovejoy soon learned, were a lethal mix.

Like many New Englanders at the time, Lovejoy had always opposed slavery. But he was a gradualist. Slavery was evil, and it should fade away, was his thinking. Maybe some of the enslaved millions could sail back to African enclaves, such as Liberia. The fear he shared with many was that to push for the immediate freedom of people in bondage would lead to disruption, chaos, perhaps civil war. During this period, abolitionists represented only a wild fringe of public opinion. They were bound to make trouble, moderates like Lovejoy believed.

But when Lovejoy found himself in a slave state, the atrocity of the "peculiar institution" became all too clear. Lovejoy saw it as a heinous sin against the founding principles of the United States, and against God. He became an abolitionist, and started to evangelise in his newspaper, The Observer.

In his new book, First to Fall, Elijah Lovejoy and the Fight for a Free Press in the Age of Slavery, Ken Ellingwood guides us through Lovejoy's short and turbulent life. With impressive reporting, from diaries, letters and newspapers of the time, Ellingwood brings alive these western frontiers, where in following decades much of the battle over slavery would erupt. The writer, a longtime foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, doesn't need to draw the parallels to America today. Sadly, they're all too clear.

The issue, then and now, centered around the rights of people in a democracy. Slavery not only deprived an entire people of their freedom. It also poisoned the body politic by stirring up fear and torment among white people in the south. In 1831, shortly before Lovejoy moved west, a slave rebellion in Virginia led by Nat Turner claimed 62 lives, including 55 whites. It was the premonition of similar revenge on a continental scale that terrified southern whites, tightening their emotional grip to slavery in those decades before the Civil War.

Words, as they saw it, could incite revolt. And Lovejoy didn't hold back on them. That at least was the justification for the pro-slavery mobs that stormed Lovejoy's offices, first in St. Louis, and two more times after he moved up the river, to Alton, a small port in the technically free state of Illinois. The final time, in 1837, the mob not only broke his printing press, dropping the pieces of it in the MIssissippi River. They firebombed the building and killed Elijah Lovejoy.

It may be that recent history weighs too much on my analysis. But reading Ellingwood's book, it was hard not to think of the more recent mob breaking into the Capitol last January, and the people shouting, "Hang Mike Pence!"

In both cases, the mobs feared that they might be losing their country. In January, it was because the wrong candidate won the presidential election. In Lovejoy's case, it was that freedom for slaves threatened doom for the antebellum south.

This book, while inspiring, is no hagiography. Lovejoy, in Ellingwood's telling, was a human being with all sorts of faults. He railed against immigrants, and distrusted Catholicism. He made strategic blunders and communication gaffes. And yet, for a few tense months, he acted heroically, defending his truth and American democracy. He was ready and willing to give his life for it.

Just as Nat Turner's rebellion galvanized the forces of slavery, Lovejoy's martyrdom transformed the nation's view of abolitionism. As word of his death spread east, it became clear to many not only that slavery was incompatible with American democracy, but that it threatened Constitutional rights, such as freedom of the press, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. The abolitionists weren't so crazy after all.


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