Imagine that in November of 1837 you were a SCUBA diver and you were exploring the bottom of the Mississippi River near Alton, Illinois, just across that mighty river from St. Louis, Missouri. If so, you might have come across a bizarre sight — four printing presses, all similar, and all lying near each other as if they had been pitched into the water one after the other.
Which, in a way, they had. They all belonged to the same man, the abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy, who had moved to Alton to publish his fiery anti-slavery newspaper because it was no longer safe to do so in pro-slavery Missouri.
His reception in Alton, alas, was no improvement. In fact, upon his arrival the first of his printing presses was thrown into the Mississippi by an angry mob as a warning that abolitionist ideas were no more tolerated in Alton than in St. Louis.
Lovejoy was then given another printing press by the more tolerant citizens of Alton, who had decried the mob actions of their fellow citizens, but who had nevertheless made Lovejoy promise he would tone down his anti-slavery rhetoric. When he ignored that promise, the Alton mob tossed his second printing press into the Mississippi.
His third press was paid for by abolitionists nationwide, who were outraged at the attempts to silence Lovejoy’s voice, but the Alton mobsters — seeing even less reason to tolerate a printing press paid for by “outsider” abolitionists than the one previously paid for by their fellow citizens — tossed number three into the river alongside the others.
When Lovejoy’s fourth printing press arrived in Alton, he placed it in a warehouse for safekeeping, but that same Alton mob soon surrounded the warehouse and demanded that Lovejoy hand over his newest press. When Lovejoy refused, the mob set the warehouse on fire, and one of them fired a shotgun blast at Lovejoy, who died as a result, this week (Nov. 7) in 1837. His fourth printing press subsequently joined its predecessors on the bottom of the Mississippi River.
And so Elijah Lovejoy became a martyr, not only for the cause of freedom versus slavery, but also for the rule of law versus mob rule, as a young politician named Abe Lincoln pointed out in his first major public speech, delivered two months later at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln’s message, inspired by Lovejoy’s death, was that no one had the right to take the law into his own hands, including, he would later make clear, the rebellious Confederate states with whom he fought our Civil War.
Lovejoy’s death was also, not incidentally, a freedom of the press issue. Or in this case, presses.