Alton abolitionist

Rev. Lovejoy: No, not ‘The Simpsons’ preacher, but the first martyr to the First Amendment

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By Ted Cox

It’s not a story widely known in the state — mainly because it’s not a story that leaves Illinois unscathed — but Alton, on the Mississippi River, was once home to a man who became “the first martyr to the First Amendment.”

The Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy was a Presbyterian minister who printed abolitionist newspapers in the 1830s. Chased out of slave-state Missouri after his press was ruined time and again by mobs, he resettled across the Mississippi, where be began publishing the Alton Observer.

“Lovejoy thought he would be safe moving from St. Louis — which was not free — to the free state of Illinois, that he would be OK with his philosophies and ideas over here,” said Jim Shrader, publisher of the Alton Telegraph, which has displayed Lovejoy’s final printing press in its lobby for decades as what Shrader called “kind of an homage to the first known martyr to the First Amendment.”

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"Lovejoy thought he would be safe moving from St. Louis — which was not free — to the free state of Illinois."

Alton Telegraph Publisher  Jim Shrader (One Illinois/Zach Sigelko)

“This is the fourth press that was destroyed by vigilantes,” Shrader said while standing next to a massive iron “yoke,” the weight that would be brought down on the newsprint and press it to the inked type to make a paper. According to Shrader, Lovejoy took possession of the press on Nov. 6, 1837, but “he heard tell and there was a buzz around town that vigilantes were coming to destroy it.” Lovejoy and friends set up shop in a nearby warehouse on the waterfront, but were tracked there the following day.

“Depending on different news accounts, either the first shot rang out inside the warehouse or from outside the warehouse. There are varying stories,” Shrader said. “What exactly happened was Elijah Lovejoy was murdered and they proceeded to throw the press in the river anyway.”

Lovejoy’s murderers are usually described as a pro-slavery mob, but Shrader took pains to call them “vigilantes.” As it turned out, Illinois was not entirely blame-free.

“What he forgot was that the packet boats coming up and down the Mississippi River, their labor pool was slave labor,” Shrader said. Some of the Alton city fathers owned those boats, when “all of a sudden this Presbyterian preacher comes in and starts meddling around saying, ‘Your labor pool over here, even though they don’t belong to you, we’re going to get rid of them.’ And guess what happens to your costs for operating these packet boats and shipping your goods.”

Twas ever thus, it would seem. News media remain dependent today on the commercial forces that sustain them through advertising. They’re buffeted as well by political forces labeling any inconvenient facts as “fake news.” The latest global rankings in a study by Reporters Without Borders show the United States dropping to 45th worldwide in the level of press freedom.

Reporters have been shouted at and bullied at U.S. political rallies, and while they rarely face actual death here, Shrader pointed out that it’s not unheard of in Mexico, Russia, Pakistan, and other troubled spots on the globe.

“There are still reporters who are martyred and killed throughout the world every year,” he said. “It just doesn’t make as much press unless it happens to be somebody who’s known to be working for NBC or CNN.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported just this week that more than 1,300 have been killed worldwide since 1992.

In case you were wondering, Lovejoy is not suspected of being the inspiration for the Rev. Lovejoy on “The Simpsons.” Creator Matt Groening has always maintained that the character was inspired by Lovejoy Street in his native Portland, Ore., named after Asa Lovejoy, one of the town’s founders.

“Matt named a lot of the characters after streets in Portland,” said Larry Doyle, a University of Illinois graduate and former Daily Illini Campus Scout who went on to write for “The Simpsons.” “I doubt there is a connection unless there is a connection between the street and Elijah.”

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Not the same Rev. Lovejoy

(Fox Television)

Yet Alton came to embrace its history as one of the prime Illinois stops on the Underground Railroad. Old buildings still standing in the town and looking down on the riverfront are said to have tunnels used by runaway slaves before the Civil War.

According to Shrader, the “yoke” of Lovejoy’s last press was discovered in 1915 during excavation work on a riverfront mill. (The grain silos are still standing, and create a welcoming arch as one drives into town from the north along the Great River Road.)

“They knew what they had,” Shrader said of the Sparks Milling Co., which found the press. “They had this sitting out in front of their building for many years, just displayed out there with a plaque.”

When the mill company decided to move it in the 1960s, the Telegraph seized on it and placed it in its lobby, where it still stands. Unfortunately, the Telegraph too has been buffeted of late, and has recently moved into a new building down the street.

“We are moving it,” Shrader said. “We’re not sure if we’re going to keep it in our building. There are several places that want it,” including the town library and history museum.

None other than President John Quincy Adams called Lovejoy “the first American martyr to freedom of the press and to freedom of the slave.” While Lovejoy’s story might have been forgotten by many in journalism, he has long been celebrated in Alton.

There is a magnificent monument erected by “the state and citizens of Illinois” in his memory in Alton’s main cemetery, dedicated on Nov. 6, 1897, on the 60th anniversary of his murder. The 93-foot-high column is topped by a statue of Winged Victory, although with its trumpet it could also be interpreted as the archangel Gabriel, a familiar figure in African-American spirituals.

Chiseled into its base is a passage from the Rev. Lovejoy: “As long as I am an American citizen and as long as American blood runs in these veins, I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, to write, to publish whatever I please on any subject being amenable to the laws of my country for the same.”

Lovejoy is described as “a martyr to liberty” as an abolitionist publisher who died at the hands of a mob. But chiseled elsewhere in the base of the monument is another final account: “No one was ever convicted for any act committed during this event.”

 The Lovejoy monument in Alton. (One Illinois/Zach Sigelko)

The Lovejoy monument in Alton. (One Illinois/Zach Sigelko)