Freedom has many faces, but a single soul. The fight to preserve and extend it, as we can see clearer than any crusading editor or any slaveholder could have seen a hundred and more years ago, is the central impulse of our time. The battleground and the target change, adversaries discover their errors and become allies. As our civilization grows more populous and more complex, the sovereign necessity for all the basic freedoms for all peoples becomes more and more essential to survival, and the peril in the loss of any one of them by anybody more acute. THE SLAVES were freed.
It would be a misunderstanding of history to assume that they were freed simply, or even chiefly, because of a military victory by the Union over the Southern Confederacy. Force alone has never conquered the impulses of tyranny. To mention only two of many factors, the end of slavery was already approaching because of the maturing humanism of those who had inherited the science and technology which would have made slavery obsolete.
The will to hold fellow beings in bondage was weakening and the day of emancipation was becoming inevitable because of the valor, the logic, the articulate spirit of men like Elijah Lovejoy.
Lovejoy died, not only for the freedom of human beings and the freedom of the press, but because deep in him was a dynamic concept of Freedom itself, the longsighted certainty that men would lose everything if they surrendered or compromised their personal dignity and self-respect.
As the editor of a religious publication he did not have to espouse abolition against the sentiments of his community. His church did not require him to do it. As one of his presses after another was destroyed by angry mobs, he could in all reason have bowed to the weight of public feeling and tempered his condemnations.
Few utterances in all the literature of freedom have expressed so clearly, with such calm passion, the compulsion of the martyr as did his speech to a hostile mass meeting just before his second press arrived in Alton. He said: “If I leave here and go elsewhere, violence may overtake me in my retreat, and I have no more claim upon the protection of any other community than I have upon this. I have concluded, after consultation with my friends, and earnestly seeking counsel of God, to remain at Alton and here to insist on protection in the exercise of my rights.
“If the civil authorities refuse to protect me, I must look to God; and if I die, I have determined to make my grave in Alton. I have sworn eternal opposition to slavery and by the blessing of God I will never turn back.
“I can die at my post but I can never desert it.”
Three presses later a mob set fire to the building in which his new machinery was housed, and when he attempted to protect it himself he was shot to death.
Irving Dilliard the distinguished editor of the editorial page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has recorded all these events dramatically and authentically in the October issue of the Quill, the magazine of the journalistic fraternity Sigma Delta Chi. Mr. Dilliard, adopting the technique of his craft, has told Elijah Lovejoy’s story in the form of a contemporary news dispatch, with the dateline, “Alton, Ill., Nov. 9, 1837,”–the day of his funeral.
On Sunday, to complete the Lovejoy cycle which once more begins in Maine and ends in Illinois, Sigma Delta Chi will place a bronze plaque on the spot in Alton where he died for freedom of the press.
Today, freedom of the press in our country has become almost an invulnerable institution. It has grown slowly, with but minor setbacks, into an indispensable concept, an essential of the relationship between citizen and government so deeply imbedded in our minds as to be taken largely for granted. Not even the boldest politician would attack it openly, and only a few here and there continue any serious efforts to undermine it.
Since it is a peculiar and unqualified right guaranteed in our Constitution, it has come to be the chief ingredient, along with freedom of speech and religion, of the very atmosphere of our national life. If it were reduced our citizens would react as violently as if their oxygen were drained away.
In a case brought by the Corona Daily Independent, the California Supreme court said:
“The Four Freedoms–of speech, of religious worship, of the press and of assembly–are to be considered as a class of rights apart from and above any and all other rights an individual might have. They are placed upon a pedestal above the power of any governmental agency to require a license before they might be exercised.”
Anybody has the right to print a handbill, a book, a circular, a pamphlet, or a 500-page Sunday paper and say in it what he pleases. The right to do this is guaranteed, not to protect an industry but to insure that all citizens (who in a democracy possess original power) will have access to a variety of information and opinion free of influence by any public official temporarily exercising some of this power by assignment.
This is a majestic right–so majestic that for much too long most of us in the newspaper field were blinded by it. When I became chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, I found we had another fight on our hands. I suspect it is historically true that whenever a basic human right is dedicated, frontal attacks upon it cease and flanking movements begin.
In this case the flanking movement was a far-flung denial within all our governments–national, state and local–that the people had inalienable rights of access to the news of these governments. Almost undetected there had emerged a doctrine that public information belongs not to the public but to the custodians of public office, and that it is dangerous for the people to get information about the actions of their servants in any direct, unprocessed, uncolored form.
My committee’s reports to our Society are filled with case-studies, with details of instances of suppression we had permitted to multiply without any united challenge. At long last we realized a sobering truth: the authors of the American Bill of Rights, conceiving only of a small and fairly open national governmental establishment as against one that employs 2,500,000 civilians today, had spelled out freedom of the press while its twin, freedom of information, they had taken for granted. They must have, for neither is self-sufficient. If government by and for the people requires the right to speak out and to publish, it requires implicitly the right to know. We may be sure the founders of our republic had heard these words, already over a century old:
Give us liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all other liberties.
It was not by chance that John Milton had put first the liberty to know. Of what value is the right to criticize and to vote if based on false or flimsy knowledge? If people are the real source of power, how can this power be exercised wisely out of ignorance or part-truth?
Surely if the First Amendment means anything it means that all the news at every level of government belongs to the people; and it can never be a broad privilege of their elected and appointed agents to determine how much the people shall know.
Our committee soon reached the conclusion that the right to publish, existing alone, can become an empty one. To fulfill the true concept of this freedom, the government must keep its hands not only off of the press but off of the springs and channels of information that feed the press. We learned that vast areas of public information were being hidden behind a red-tape curtain. And it was at this point that we realized our fight could have no ending. You can never establish freedom of information as a functioning principle in any nation as firmly as you can establish freedom of the press. When you get the right to publish an important phase of the battle is over. But what you then face is the perpetual cold war waged by these public officials who from timidity or for personal or political gain do not want the voters to know just exactly what they are doing.
Thus you have the spectacle — which surely would surprise Elijah Lovejoy because it surprises us — of editors in the United States, enjoying a degree of freedom of the press so enormous that to others it sometimes seems excessive, engaged now in a major and continuing struggle for the raw material without which free publication becomes a mockery.
For our fresh insight into the psychology of suppression and its legal pretexts, we have to thank a neighbor of yours, a distinguished newspaper lawyer of New York City who had retired to live in Skowhegan — Harold L. Cross. At least he thought he had retired, until we drafted him back into the front lines.
It was Harold Cross who discovered for us the innocent federal statutes upon which the pretense of official ownership of information was being based. As he said:
“In the early days of the Republic, Congress, apparently as a sort of housekeeping measure for safety and preservation, authorized the executive departments to make regulations . . . for the custody, use and safekeeping of their records, papers and property. . . . Regulations have so tortured the statutes that, in the absence of a general or specific statute creating a clear legal right to inspect a particular record, there is no legal right to inspect any record of any executive department.”
Another statute–the Administrative Procedure Act–is so cluttered with “ifs” that its practical effect, says Harold Cross, is to bar access to records of administrative agencies. As the American Law action of the Library of Congress aptly puts it, these qualifications “have enabled the agencies to assert the power to withhold practically all information they do not see fit to disclose.”
Thanks to warnings such as these, Congress has bestirred itself. There is a Senate committee appointed to study the information policies in the administrative departments, and a group of Washington newspapermen headed by Roscoe Drummond, of the Christian Science Monitor, is advising this committee.
It has dawned on members of Congress that they live in a goldfish bowl as compared with their administrative colleagues. Individual senators and representatives are writing legislation to restore to the people some of their lost right to know. To one of these Harold Cross wrote: “Determination of public interest has become, in effect, an official monopoly.”
This democratic phenomenon was manifested most clearly, perhaps, when the U. S. Board of Parole first refused, and then under pressure released to the Courier-Journal, the names of the endorsers of a parole for a notorious tax-dodger in Louisville. The head of the Board wrote our committee: “In the future . . . desired information will be supplied if, in our opinion, such information would be compatible with the welfare of society.”
This condescending concept we challenged immediately. There are many countries, we pointed out, where the State decides what is compatible with the welfare of society. This is not one of them.
What are the results of secrecy in government. We have only to look at the Department of justice and the Bureau of Internal Revenue under its former leadership to find an answer.
The motives of secrecy vary; they are not always bad. But the effects are almost invariable–incompetence, corruption, and some degree of despotism. Within recent weeks we have heard members of a St. Louis grand jury charge that Justice Department officials duped them into releasing a report that whitewashed St. Louis tax scandals. (This is the department voted most sphinx-like by a group of Washington correspondents.) We have heard a sworn deposition by a Missouri federal judge that the Department of Justice obstructed a grand jury investigation of income-tax cases. We have even heard the official integrity of a former Attorney General, who now is a Supreme Court justice, questioned by a Congressional committee.
The Bureau of Internal Revenue was shaken by scandals. Under Commissioner James B. Dunlap it has greatly liberalized its regulations. Those citizens who pay all their taxes honestly now for the first time can read the names of those who do not. Under this new policy, for which Mr. Dunlap deserves full credit, we learned that “Greasy Thumb” Gusik settled $900,000 in federal tax claims and penalties for $100,000. Many similar cases, of which the public knew nothing, now are coming into the open.
In our files are the records of an appalling number of cases where official bodies, with great power or controlling huge sums of public monies, said to the public, “You shall not know a school board in Connecticut and a tax abatement authority in Rhode Island; a city council in Maryland and a county commission in Georgia; a highway patrol in California and a sheriff in Texas.” In all these cases publicity was the weapon that routed secrecy, as light always destroys darkness.
Naturally, no sensible American wants access to information kept secret to protect our nation from its enemies. Herbert Bayard Swope revealed a profound misunderstanding of our committee’s work in a letter to the New York Times which questioned whether freedom of information might not jeopardize security. The press proved its capacity to safeguard national security by effectively operating a completely voluntary censorship in World War II.
But this does not mean that all military and diplomatic intelligence should be kept secret. Many thoughtful Americans — including Senator Benton and Stuart Symington — have pointed to dangerous abuses of the privilege of classification, which simply means the power to suppress government information. These abuses exist on an absurd scale even in the offices which classify constantly and should be able to draw a reasonable line–the Departments of State and Defense.
There probably are thousands of documents in the files of those departments containing information the public needs, and which have lost any security value.
President Truman himself demonstrated this in somewhat startling fashion two days before the elections. Because he thought it had a political bearing, he declassified a “top secret” document. Now “top secret” is defined officially as “Information and material, the security of which is paramount to the interest of national security, and the unauthorized disclosure of which would cause exceptionally grave damage to the nation.”
Did President Truman for political reasons put the security of this nation in jeopardy? We cannot think so. We must assume that he declassified a document which bore the stamp “top secret” because it no longer contained any military dangers.
But what does this suggest? That we will never know what is hidden away under classification stamps until some high official of government finds it expedient to declassify? If there are documents with the sacred “top secret” legend on them which have lost their potency, how many uncounted nameless papers are there in the three lower classifications which are sealed away from the people of the United States for no reason except that perhaps they have no political value?
The truth is that classification is a vast continuous movement of suppression, and declassification is a sluggish, or indeed almost a non-existent process.
How can our people be expected to judge the prudence and necessity of military measures, or indeed be expected to understand their own unfolding history when the bulk of its documentation is buried in the deep-freeze of official inscrutability?
Now what does this battle between governmental light and darkness mean to you?
I want to suggest to you that for all our new military alertness, for all our ripening maturity as a nation which until 1940 had no more than a child’s concept of world relationships (and not too bright a child at that), for all our fierce defensiveness and pride–despite all these I am afraid we have not yet recognized our chief, most dangerous enemy.
It is not Soviet military gangsterism. It is not the loss of a gadget to spies now and then. It is not, despite the impassioned warnings of the past few months, either of our major political parties.
Our first and fateful enemy is ignorance.
We still are essentially, as democratic citizens charged with the fearful responsibility of controlling our mushrooming governments, an ignorant people. We learn fragments of facts and we catch momentary glimpses of truth. But truth remains a flying saucer uncaptured and unrevealed.
We hear savage snarls from our great leaders about the defects of their political opponents, but how many of our staggering riddles of national and international policy have they really mastered?
Even on the highest levels, the basic necessity for freedom of information to implement our great natural wealth of popular judgment, to discourage graft in government, is little understood. One clear evidence of this was the contention in the recent political campaign that corruption is a result, not of official complacence, but of public apathy and indifference.
That simply is not true. What could have been said was that public apathy (paced for many years I am afraid by newspaper apathy) has been to blame for enduring secrecy in government. And secrecy breeds corruption.
But the people manifestly are not apathetic to corruption once they learn of it. They cannot be charged with indifference to conditions that were unknown to them. To prove this you have only to look at what happened when the mess in Washington became public knowledge–the hurried efforts to dismiss some culprits and to show a cleaner face to the voters.
Newspapers have sometimes been apathetic about corruption, to the extent that they let it remain in the vague realm of rumor and conjecture, giving the people nothing tangible upon which to form an opinion. But they are never insensitive to exposed corruption. If they are, public officials certainly are confused about it, as witness their prompt reaction to any story on page one. To me it seems foolish to deny that knowledge is the nemesis of corruption. And no office-holder, from the President of the United States down, can guarantee clean government unless he recognizes this.
In a Gallup poll taken after the two conventions, only 45 per cent of our citizens could name the Republican candidate for vice president, and only 32 per cent the Democratic candidate. Many other polls have revealed a widespread ignorance about the leaders upon whom we have blandly relied to solve our problems.
We are fighting not only brute force, but the weaknesses, the muddle-headedness of our own society, our own leaders. We are controlled to a shocking extent by shibboleths, by catch-phrases, by distorted words, by false gospels–and the educated have seemed as hopeless as any other group to repel these mental bullets.
We are spoken to in riddles; we are trapped into debating them as if they were radiant statements of principle, thereby compounding confusion.
From far-away India, from the mind of one of our great thinkers, Prime Minister Nehru, comes this warning:
“Slogans are apt to petrify man’s thinking . . . every slogan, every word almost, that is used by the socialist, the communist, the capitalist. People hardly think now adays. They throw words at each other.”
Our hope of finding truth, it seems to me, lies chiefly in two allied forces of education: an alert and fully informing press to bring understanding of the world of today, and the truly liberal college which equips the mind to understand the world of yesterday and of tomorrow.
In your Colby College Bulletin I found these words:
“According to the best authorities, the “liberal” arts are those worthy of the free man. Colby is a college of liberal arts in the sense that it tries to provide an education worthy of the man or woman who is free from the narrowing effects of provincialism and prejudice. It is dedicated without reservation to the aims of unrestricted inquiry and to the task of seeking the truth wherever it may be found.”
“Seeking the truth wherever it may be found.” There is the plan of battle for the triumph of all the freedoms. And it is a battle that belongs not to the leaders or even to the martyrs; it belongs to you, and you cannot escape it. But the fruits belong to you also. If you acknowledge the danger of ignorance then you will win your share of information, knowledge, truth. Freedom is never easy, either to win or to hold. That’s why the words in your bulletin are bold words.
Trying to make the dream of a democratic society come true is not a soft and intermittent task. Citizens of a democracy are supposed to be a hardy lot. And from what do these hardy citizens have to be shielded by the man they place in office? Why is knowing the truth a threat to the public welfare?
Edward Livingston said:
“No nation ever yet found any inconvenience from too close an inspection into the conduct of its officers, but many have been brought to ruin and reduced to slavery by suffering gradual impositions and abuses.”
That was the truth discovered anew by Elijah Lovejoy. He might have lived to see the slaves go free if he had suffered a gradual imposition on his own freedom of conscience. But that surrender would have put him in slavery. So he gave his life to illuminate the principle that freedom is indivisible, that if you break it into fractions you are on your way to zero.
The least we can do for him is never to forget that principle, because while most of us talk of our freedoms not many of us die for them.
Colby College remembers alumnus Elijah Parish Lovejoy through the annual Lovejoy Award, which honors journalists who demonstrate courage, integrity, and craftsmanship.
Born in Albion, Maine, Lovejoy graduated from Colby in 1826. On Nov. 7, 1837, in Alton, Ill., the newspaper editor and publisher was killed after he refused to stop publishing anti-slavery editorials. He was called America’s first martyr to freedom of the press by John Quincy Adams.
Current Lovejoy Selection Committee Members include Matt Apuzzo ’00, reporter and investigative correspondent, New York Times; Nancy Barnes, senior vice president and editorial director, NPR; Sewell Chan, editorial page editor, Los Angeles Times; Marcela Gaviria, producer, PBS FRONTLINE; Neil Gross, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, Colby College; Martin Kaiser, former editor and senior vice president Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Mindy Marqués, vice president and executive editor, Simon and Schuster, former editor, Miami Herald; and Ron Nixon, global investigations editor, Associated Press.
For more information, visit colby.edu/lovejoy