He died in defense of free speech


WATERVILLE, Maine — He was born on a pi­o­neer farm 14 miles east of here, and grad­u­ated first in his class from the tiny Bap­tist col­lege planted pre­car­i­ously on a bar­ren bank of the Ken­nebec River.

He set out west to be­come a river-town school­teacher, pre­pared for the min­is­try, drifted into jour­nal­ism, but al­ways re­mained true to the teach­ings of his church and his fam­ily: His job on Earth was to cleanse the world of sin.

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.

On Nov. 7, 1837, Eli­jah Par­ish Love­joy be­came Amer­ica’s first mar­tyr to free­dom of the press. His story is barely known out­side Al­ton, Ill., where he died, and Wa­ter­ville, where his alma ma­ter, now Colby Col­lege, is cel­e­brat­ing his leg­acy.

His is an Amer­i­can story of her­o­ism, no­ble­ness of char­ac­ter, and en­dur­ing moral gran­deur. It bears re­peat­ing on to­day’s 175th an­ni­ver­sary of his death.

Mr. Love­joy’s life was up­lift­ing and his death bru­tal. His abo­li­tion­ism trans­formed tucked-away Al­ton into a fi­ery cen­ter of the slav­ery de­bate.

His news­pa­per 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, Mr. Love­joy ad­dressed the town: “While I value the good opin­ion of my fel­low cit­i­zens as highly as any­one, 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.”

Four days later, Mr. Love­joy ar­ranged for a fourth press to be trans­ported stealth­ily by riv­er­boat to Al­ton. It was placed in a stone ware­house. Word leaked out. A mob ap­peared. Epi­thets and rocks were hurled. Shots rang.

The mob pre­pared to set the roof­top afire. Mr. Love­joy ran out to pre­vent it. He was shot dead, two days short of his 35th birth­day.

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.

Mr. Love­joy said: “There is no way to es­cape the mob but to aban­don the path of duty, and that, God help­ing me, I will never do.”

Mr. Love­joy did not aban­don his duty, and Colby did not aban­don its one­time 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.

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,” Mr. Wood­ward says. “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. Even fewer re­mem­ber or quote them. But like al­most ev­ery­thing else about Mr. Love­joy, his stands out.

This is what he told the six other mem­bers of the Class of 1826: “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.”

It turns out that al­though Mr. 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.

David Shrib­man is ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Pitts­burgh Post-Ga­zette.

Con­tact him at: dshrib­man@post-ga­