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'First To Fall': Tells The History Of Abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The journalist Ken Ellingwood took a break some years ago from journalism. He went to live in China and was hired to teach a university class about the ethics of American journalism and also some American journalism history.

KEN ELLINGWOOD: It was in the course of teaching about abolitionism and slavery that I introduced them to Elijah Lovejoy

INSKEEP: Elijah Lovejoy - a newspaper editor in the 1800s who wrote against slavery and was killed for it. Telling that American story in an authoritarian country so affected Ellingwood that he wrote a biography of Lovejoy. "First To Fall" tracks a New Englander who moved in the 1830s from the free state of Maine to the slave state of Missouri. He became a minister, edited a religious journal and lived in St. Louis amid enslaved people, an experience that gradually tugged at his conscience.

ELLINGWOOD: He was kind of an accidental abolitionist, or a reluctant one, at least. He was at first very antagonistic toward abolitionists, toward the antislavery movement. He was opposed to slavery on moral grounds. He believed it was a curse on American society. But he was reluctant to rock the boat. He believed that it was in the hands of slave owners to decide whether to emancipate or not. And he gradually - and I really stress this, it was gradual - he shifted his tone to worry not only about the slaves' souls and their religious training but also their lives and how they were being treated. And he began to write quite eloquently in his newspaper, The Observer, about those realities.

INSKEEP: How did people respond?

ELLINGWOOD: It wasn't long before people in St. Louis began to ask him to be quiet about slavery. He was beginning to anger people in elite positions in St. Louis, and he was attracting the kind of notice that could result in real trouble.

INSKEEP: And eventually a mob comes and smashes his press. And there's this, I want to say comical if it wasn't so tragic, sequence where he writes something, his press is smashed, he fixes the press, the press is smashed again.

ELLINGWOOD: He's chased from St. Louis, and he goes across the river to Alton, Ill. And there, he's supposed to be in a free state now. And yet in Illinois, his press is attacked several times. It's smashed; he replaces it, or his friends help him replace it. In addition to that, he faces physical threats. He's waylaid on a road and threatened with tarring and feathering. He's facing any number of threats and continues, in spite of all of this, to insist on his right to publish.

INSKEEP: How was he killed?

ELLINGWOOD: After the third press was destroyed, it was a moment of reckoning for Lovejoy and his supporters, and it was a question for all of them to decide whether to continue this - in trying to publish his newspaper or not. And Lovejoy, in spite of all the attacks that had happened already, in spite of the threats that had occurred and the terror that his family had endured, wanted to continue. The fourth press was delivered to Alton by steamboat in November of 1837, and his friends spirited it up to a warehouse that was owned by a supporter and a friend of Lovejoy's. And in that warehouse, the press sat in an attic while Lovejoy and his friends gathered below to defend it against the attack that they were fairly certain was going to come. And it did come. The riot that occurred at the warehouse lasted for some hours. Eventually, the mob set the warehouse on fire, and Lovejoy and a couple of friends were shot by gunmen who were waiting outside that door when they came out.

INSKEEP: What did people make of that murder in 1837?

ELLINGWOOD: John Quincy Adams, the former president, who was a congressman from Massachusetts, described it as being like an earthquake when Lovejoy was killed because of the shock of an editor falling to the lawless, you know, acts of a mob. And so this killing was a wake-up call in the North in that it signaled to people that the defense of slavery by the South, the lengths that they would go to to defend this institution, endangered also the rights of free whites in the North.

INSKEEP: Was he influential, then, in death?

ELLINGWOOD: I would say that he was. It would be wrong to say that he had a giant impact on the antislavery movement, but it would not be wrong to say that he influenced and directed, helped steer the definition of press freedom in the modern era. We - our conception, our modern conception of a free press owes much to Elijah Lovejoy, to the notion that we have a right to publish, even if those opinions are unpalatable to people around us in the community, that all opinion is part of the public discourse and belongs in a democracy.

INSKEEP: This is a very dark story that shows a dark side of America. Yet it's inspiring in a way, his stubbornness and getting one printing press after another.

ELLINGWOOD: Yes, his principle in this, his courage is remarkable to me. As a journalist myself, I understand that, you know, a lot of what makes us work well as journalists is what we're willing to do when we're alone, you know, when it's just us deciding how far do I dare go on this story?

INSKEEP: When you laid all this out in that classroom in China some years ago, how did your students, your Chinese students, respond?

ELLINGWOOD: Well, I could see it in their - in the essays that they wrote, you know, comparing Lovejoy to, you know, heroes in their own lore and to see this reaction in them - remember, of course, we know, you know, China is a place where press freedom doesn't really exist. It was very inspiring to me to see just how well they got it. And I found their reaction to be really quite moving.

INSKEEP: Ken Ellingwood's new book is called "First To Fall: Elijah Lovejoy And The Fight For A Free Press In The Age Of Slavery." Thank you very much.

ELLINGWOOD: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID GOODRICH'S "CODA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.