David Shribman: Elijah Parish Lovejoy died in defense of free speech
WATERVILLE, Maine — He was born on a pioneer farm 14 miles east of here, graduated first in his class from the tiny Baptist college planted precariously on a barren bank of the Kennebec, set out West to become a river-town schoolteacher, prepared for the ministry, drifted into journalism — always remaining true to the teachings of his church, his family and the hymns they sang around a crude Maine country hearth: His job on Earth was to cleanse the world of sin.
It was for that reason that, fired by idealism about the divine mission of the young country and full of revulsion over its stain of slavery, he became an outspoken abolitionist. In his reckoning, he was but a sentinel of the Lord. In the reckoning of his enemies in frontier Missouri, a slave state, and abolition opponents in Illinois, a free state, he was a symbol of northern arrogance and ignorance.
On Nov. 7, 1837, Elijah Parish Lovejoy became America’s first martyr to the freedom of the press. His story is barely known outside Alton, Ill., where he died, and Waterville, where his alma mater, now known as Colby College, is preparing to celebrate his legacy. But his is an American story of heroism, nobleness of character and enduring moral grandeur, and it bears repeating at this week’s 175th anniversary of his death.
Lovejoy’s life was uplifting and his death brutal. His abolitionism transformed tucked-away Alton into a fiery center of the slavery debate, and his paper emerged as a booming voice against bondage in a town that devoutly preferred serenity to sermons. Three times his press was destroyed by his opponents. On Nov. 3, 1837, Lovejoy addressed the town:
“While I value the good opinion of my fellow citizens, as highly as any one, I may be permitted to say that I am governed by higher considerations than either the favor or the fear of man. I am impelled to the course I have taken, because I fear God. As I shall answer it to my God in the great day, I dare not abandon my sentiments, or cease in all proper ways to propagate them.”
Like Martin Luther King Jr., whose remarks eerily foreshadowed his death in April 1968, Lovejoy acknowledged the risk he was taking in November 1837:
“If the civil authorities refuse to protect me, I must look to God, and if I die, I have determined to make my grave in Alton. I have sworn eternal opposition to slavery, and by the blessings of God I will never turn back. With God I cheerfully rest my cause. I can die at my post, but I cannot desert it.”
Four days later, Lovejoy arranged for a fourth press to be transported stealthily by riverboat to Alton, where it was placed in a stone warehouse. Word leaked out. A mob appeared. Epithets and rocks were hurled. Shots rang out. The mob prepared to set the rooftop afire. Lovejoy ran out to prevent it. He was shot dead two days short of his 35th birthday.
Moments later, members of the mob entered the warehouse, rushing past his body in their zeal to dismantle the object of their fear, the press itself. They dropped its parts from windows. Then they smashed what remained.
But they did not silence him. Today the name of the shooter and the identities of the mob members are unknown, but the words of the martyr endure, if only to a small band of scholars and journalists. Here are some of those words:
“There is no way to escape the mob but to abandon the path of duty, and that, God helping me, I will never do.”
Lovejoy did not abandon his duty, and Colby did not abandon its one-time star student. Since 1952, the college has presented the Lovejoy Award to a journalist of courage selected by a group of editors. (I have served on this committee for several years, an homage to Lovejoy and to my two brothers, who hold Colby degrees.)
The winners have included such press icons as Murray Kempton, John Seigenthaler and Daniel Pearl, along with recent veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (The New York Times’ John F. Burns), upheaval in the Middle East (NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson) and drug-related violence in Mexico (the Dallas Morning News’ Alfredo Corchado). This year’s winner is Bob Woodward, one of the principal Washington Post investigators of Watergate.
“Lovejoy’s life is a lesson right out of Reporting 101,” says Woodward, who next Sunday will present an address in Colby’s stunning white Lorimer Chapel. “The things we revere go back more than a century. There’s a straight line between what he did and what we are trying to do today.”
Hardly anybody listens to valedictory addresses at college commencements and even fewer remember or quote them. But like almost everything about Lovejoy, his stands out. This is what he told the six other members of the Class of 1826 (no worries about huge lecture halls in those years):
“Let us pursue with unwavering aim the course we may determine to pursue. Let it not be said of us that our alma mater has sent us forth into the world in vain. Let us cherish those kindred feelings which have so often been awakened over the pages of classic eloquence or under the still purer influence of the Muse — and when called to give up our account for the talent committed to our case, may it not be found that we have buried it in the dust.”
How we might wish that some member of the Class of 2013 at Colby, or at its dreaded rival Bates, or anyplace in this green and pleasant land might deliver such a valedictory address, and live to serve out its purpose.
It turns out that Lovejoy’s death occurred 25 years before the Battle of Antietam, the deadliest day in American history. That Union victory gave Lincoln the opening to issue his Emancipation Proclamation.
It also turns out that, though Lovejoy was buried in the dust of Alton, all of us in the profession he ennobled are, as he would put it, called to account. Let us hope that, though battered and beleaguered by the crisis of the contemporary press, we have not been sent forth into the world in vain. And to the cry of “Remember the Maine!” we might add this: Remember this son of Maine!
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.