Elijah Lovejoy: Freedom of Speech and the FBI by Chris Mahin

[The following article by independent scholar and historian Chris Mahin illuminates a crucial moment in American history and shows that the fight for freedom of speech has its roots in a great tradition of activism.  Newspaperman Elijah Lovejoy’s anti-slavery press was torched and Lovejoy himself murdered, in order to drown the abolitionists’ cause  in blood.  The recent FBI raids places the struggle to suppress freedom at the highest levels of government.  A government which really wanted to suppress terrorism today would raid the offices of the bankers, the pharmaceuticals manufacturers, the oil conglomerates to uncover their conspiracies against the people.  Instead, to use the current political idiom, they protect Wall Street and attack Main Street.  Those who remain silent, hoping not be targeted, will be isolated one by one.  Let’s not let that happen.  —  Lew Rosenbaum]

Elijah Lovejoy and the FBI

The death of a 19th century abolitionist has much to teach us about defending freedom of speech

November 7, 2010

Exactly 173 years ago, a murder took place in southern Illinois which shocked the conscience of America. Although it is now barely mentioned in most schoolbooks, the brutal killing of anti-slavery editor Elijah Lovejoy on November 7, 1837 is considered by many scholars to be one of the key events which helped push this country toward the Civil War.

Lovejoy’s death was also a pivotal moment in the fight to defend freedom of speech in the United States. That is especially important to remember now. Events which took place this year just weeks before the anniversary of Lovejoy’s martyrdom provide vivid proof that freedom of speech today may be just as vulnerable as it was during Lovejoy’s too-short lifetime.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy was born in the free state of Maine, the son of a minister. In 1828, he moved to St. Louis, located in the slave state of Missouri. He became a partner in a St. Louis newspaper. Lovejoy’s early articles dealt with subjects like the evils of tobacco, whiskey, and breaking the Sabbath. However, his priorities changed after he went to study for the ministry at Princeton University. There he came under the influence of America’s leading opponent of slavery, the impassioned Boston editor William Lloyd Garrison.

Lovejoy returned to St. Louis in 1833 and became editor of the St. Louis Observer. His position was uncompromising: Slavery is sin and should be abolished. When the newspaper’s office was destroyed by a mob, he was forced to flee across the Mississippi River to Alton, in the free state of Illinois.

When Lovejoy’s printing press arrived in Alton, the crate was tossed into the Mississippi River by a mob. Although some of Lovejoy’s friends begged him to refrain from discussing slavery, he continued to do so. Twice more, presses used to print his newspaper were destroyed. Then, on the evening of November 7, 1837, a drunken mob of 200 people attacked the office of the Alton Observer.

Five slugs from a double-barreled shotgun killed Elijah Lovejoy as he tried to protect his printing press. Lovejoy’s assassins were freed by the local authorities.

The death of this 34-year-old editor and minister shocked the conscience of the country and set off a chain of events which ultimately led to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.

Former President John Quincy Adams called Lovejoy America’s first martyr to freedom of the press. Mass public meetings were held throughout the Northern United States to condemn the murder of Lovejoy. (At one of those meetings in northeastern Ohio, a man stood up and solemnly pledged to dedicate the rest of his life to the fight to end slavery. The man’s name was John Brown.)

The brutal killing of Elijah Lovejoy contains some sober lessons for today. Certainly one of the most important is how critical it is to respond to attacks on civil liberties as soon as they begin. Lovejoy’s death in 1837 followed earlier instances of mob violence of a lesser degree against other opponents of slavery, acts which were not roundly and immediately condemned by the general public in the Northern United States. That indifference helped set the stage for the deadly violence of November 7, 1837, and almost certainly gave the mob which gathered that night confidence that its acts would be treated with impunity.

That lesson has a special significance this year. Just weeks before the anniversary of Lovejoy’s death, the same Midwest region where Lovejoy died was the scene of an ominous attack on civil liberties which personified the worst in the history of this country. On Sept. 24, FBI agents raided the homes and an office of anti-war activists in Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan, confiscating many boxes’ worth of documents, artwork, photographs and personal effects.

This year, one sure way to honor the memory of Elijah Lovejoy and all the brave participants in the anti-slavery movement who endured ridicule, threats, and violence in their time would be to speak out against the recent FBI raids against anti-war activists. We can pay our best homage to the struggles of the past by demanding that the repression of today’s activists cease, that their belongings be returned, and that no grand jury proceedings be instituted against them.

We should convey that message strongly to our elected officials. And there is one newly elected official in Illinois with a special connection to the Elijah Lovejoy tragedy. Perhaps the most comprehensive short biography of Lovejoy is a volume called “Freedom’s Champion: Elijah Lovejoy.” It was written in 1994 by former U.S. Senator Paul Simon, a man who was fascinated by the Lovejoy case, and wrote his first book on the subject in 1964.

Simon had a special interest in the story of Lovejoy because he had been a professional newspaper publisher and editor in Madison County, Illinois, where Alton is located. (Simon took over what would eventually be a chain of 13 southern Illinois newspapers at the age of 19.) Simon always liked to portray himself as a man willing to champion unpopular causes, like his fellow editor in southern Illinois, Elijah Lovejoy.

Just days before the anniversary of Lovejoy’s murder, Paul Simon’s daughter, Sheila Simon, was elected the lieutenant governor of Illinois. Just as Paul Simon claimed to be cut from the same cloth as Lovejoy, so Sheila Simon portrayed herself during the campaign as embodying the values of her father.

With the 2010 election campaign now finally over, all of us have the right to demand that the elected officials who are promising to “get down to business” speak out forcefully in defense of civil liberties. That should be especially true of those officials who ought to know full well where attacks on civil liberties can ultimately lead.

— Chris Mahin


One Response to “Elijah Lovejoy: Freedom of Speech and the FBI by Chris Mahin”

  1. Mark Douglas Says:

    Lovejoy was killed because thugs had no laws in which to torture him. SO they just killed him.

    Thugs in the Southern states had laws against free speech, so the law would arrest and torture those who spoke out against slavery. But in Illinois, they still had free speech, so the thugs had to do it themselves, and could not do it legally.

    The Southern States, from 1820 on, violently suppressed free speech by the very cruel “anti-incendiary” laws, which provided for physcial torture and then jail (if you survived the torture) for people who simply owned the wrong book.

    This is why the good people in the South could not defeat slavery on their own.

    Slave power knew very well that their slavery was doomed if free speech, real elections, and the US Constitution was followed. So they outlawed free speech, stopped real elections, and shit all over the US constitution.


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