America’s First Martyr to Freedom of the Press
Elijah Parish Lovejoy was born in Albion, Maine, Nov. 9, 1802, the son of a Congregational minister. He graduated in 1826 from Waterville College (now Colby), where he was valedictorian and class poet.
At age 29 he entered the Princeton Theological Seminary. While there he was persuaded to return to Missouri to launch a religious newspaper, the St. Louis Observer. He was named editor. Lovejoy wrote moderately about slavery, and his views were at first acceptable in Missouri, a slave state. As fear of slave uprisings increased, an incident occurred during which a freed man was trapped and killed. When the mob leaders were freed by the court, Lovejoy vehemently criticized the decision. His press was destroyed and his home burglarized.
He moved across the river to the free state of Illinois, where he believed he could write without fear. When his press was shipped to Alton, however, thugs smashed it at the dock. Local citizens raised money for a new press, and Lovejoy published successfully for a year.
His position on slavery hardened, and on July 6, 1837, he published another editorial condemning the practice. That night his press was again destroyed. He bought another, which was also destroyed. Friends then organized a militia and secretly bought and installed another press.
On the night of Nov. 7, 1837, a mob attacked the new press. The militia fought back, killing one. The mob eventually set fire to the building, drove out the militia. Lovejoy was shot and killed as he attempted to extinguish the blaze.
He was buried Nov. 9, his 35th birthday. John Quincy Adams called him the “first American martyr to the freedom of the press and the freedom of the slave.” On Sept. 29, 2000, Lovejoy was inducted into the Maine Press Hall of Fame.
The Lovejoy Award
The Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award of Colby, established in 1952, honors a member of the newspaper profession who continues the Lovejoy heritage of fearlessness and freedom.
The recipient may be an editor, reporter, or publisher who, in the opinion of the judges, has contributed to the nation’s journalistic achievement. The selection committee makes its decision using criteria including integrity, craftsmanship, character, intelligence, and courage.
The purpose of the award is threefold: to honor and preserve the memory of Elijah Parish Lovejoy; to stimulate and honor the kind of achievement embodied in Lovejoy’s own courageous actions; and to promote a sense of mutual responsibility and cooperation between a journalistic world devoted to freedom of the press and a liberal arts college devoted to academic freedom.