Something over a century and a quarter have passed since a young man left these college precincts, a graduate by the name of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, to build a career in what was then the remote frontier town of St. Louis, Missouri. He taught school there, and he seems to have been afflicted with that urgency to express himself which has driven thousands to poetry or to prose. Lovejoy began, as have many before and after him, with writing pieces for the papers. In 1829 he launched his own political sheet for support of Henry Clay for President. Child of the manse himself, he decided to become a minister of the gospel and prepared himself for that calling at Princeton Theological Seminary.
The year 1833 saw him back again in St. Louis where soon he became concerned over the issue of human slavery. He founded a religious paper in which he began to denounce this evil thing. Naturally, since Missouri was a slave state, this stirred up opposition, so he moved his publication across the Mississippi to the free soil of Illinois. His foes pursued him and destroyed three of his presses one after another. When a fourth was unloaded and placed in a warehouse a mob gathered to destroy it. In the ensuing struggle Lovejoy was killed by a bullet fired by a member of the mob, and his fourth press was dumped into the river.
That was in 1837, well over a hundred years ago. In our history books Lovejoy’s name was attached more closely to the movement for abolition of slavery than for the preservation of press freedom. It has been only in comparatively recent years that Lovejoy has been hailed primarily as a martyr in the cause of the free press. At this college very appropriately friends of the free press to provide a permanent memorial to Lovejoy, and this annual Lovejoy lectureship has been established.
Still another pioneer in the battle for liberty of the press has, only lately, received recognition by way of memorial, that is John Peter Zenger, whose acquittal on a charge of libel by a New York jury is hailed as one of the first and finest victories for the free press in America. A century before Lovejoy, in 1735, Zenger’s paper published what the royal governor called “Scandalous, Virulent and Seditious Reflections upon the Government.” Now an award has been set up in the name of John Peter Zenger to be used in recognition of those making significant contributions to society through the means of the free press.
I have wondered over this late glorification of men who after all played rather minor roles in the history of our country. Freedom of the press was guaranteed in the first amendment to the constitution. That guarantee appeared to be securely fixed, and only occasionally episodes were reported where attempts were made to deny it. They were usually local and were promptly disposed of by the courts.
I presume that one incentive to this fresh concern over press freedom came from what was observed abroad: the complete suppression of press freedom in countries ruled by dictators. This was particularly alarming in Germany, a country long devoted to full liberty of thought and expression, whose press with little show of resistance became the spineless instrument of the Nazi rulers. Fears were aroused that “it might happen here.” We had in Louisiana our own example of Kingfish dictatorship which sought, without success, to muzzle the press of the state. During the war we had the experience of censorship, and after that the continued rash of stifling of information at its source. We have also had frontal or flank assaults on other civil rights guaranteed in the constitution. On the theory that the best defense is attack, leaders of the American press have moved aggressively to educate the public and the journalistic profession itself, on the vital importance and permanent value of that freedom we thought was made secure in the first amendment to the constitution. Hence the elevation of Zenger and Lovejoy to sainthood of the press.
Lovejoy wasn’t the only victim of a mob bent on destroying a newspaper press and its product. Twenty-five years before in the city of Baltimore an editor by the name of Alexander C. Hanson ran a paper called the Federal Republican. That was in 1812 and his sheet drew fire because it violently denounced the Madison administration. In June a mob destroyed his printing press. Like Lovejoy he got another, and as at Alton another mob gathered to destroy it. As with Lovejoy, friends of the editor, among them James M. Lingan and Gen. Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee of Revolutionary War fame, came to the defense of Hanson and his press. When the rioters drew up a cannon to bear on the house the authorities induced the defenders to take refuge in jail. The mob broke into the jail. Lingan was killed and Lee died later of wounds received in the melee. As in Illinois justice did not catch up with the murderers. In fact the Attorney General expressed the wish that every defender of the house had been killed. I know of no memorials to Lingan and Lee for their sacrifice in defense of the free press. One reason may be that the paper they were defending was in violent opposition to the administration in time of war, and in such crises the sanctity of press freedom has not infrequently been violated. Zenger fought the royalists who soon were driven out of the country, and Lovejoy fought for the freedom of the slaves, causes highly approved in the appraisal of history.
At the moment I think this campaign for making our press freedom secure has largely been won. The Nazi menace has been overthrown. Even Pravda is starting to print some news–it told the other day about the party the Russian leaders gave to diplomats, and later that Bulganin was ill. There is no visible threat to freedom to publish in this country. While reporters are in a running battle with bureaucrats and top level executives in government over the withholding of information, that will always be. In fact it adds zest to the reporter’s occupation.
May we not look for a moment at the other side of the picture? I fear that in our zeal as editors and publishers to defend the precious right of freedom to print we have been inclined to ignore our own abuses of that right. The mantle of press freedom has been stretched to cover many sins. Defenders of the free press find themselves at times in scaly company. The printing press itself is just a machine. It may print books and magazines and newspapers for the edification, enlightenment and entertainment of the people. Or it can be subverted for the printing of false propaganda or of banalities, or prostituted for commercial ends.
We are familiar with charges against the American newspapers as a “one party press”; also that they are subservient to the business viewpoint either because of the pressure of advertisers or by some process of osmosis through association of publishers with men of wealth. The criticisms have some validity, but even more serious are other shortcomings of the American press. Henry Luce, editor of Time-Life-Fortune, set them out quite accurately in an address before the Oregon Press Conference in 1953 when he said that “freedom we so uncritically demand is often nothing more than the freedom to pander. If we pander to sensuality that is bad enough. But there may be an even greater danger in the fact that freedom of the press is freedom to pander to ignorance, to pander to mediocrity, to pander to group passions and prejudices, to pander to hatred and meanness, to pander to all that is unlovely in a democracy.”
Editors themselves are aware of ease with which press freedom may be abused. The selection of news to be published or omitted, the treatment of the facts in the news story, the placing of the story in the paper, the headlines given it, the twist applied by a descriptive adjective or action verb-all offer daily opportunities for distortion of the truth by the press. The sin committed may not be one of intent, it may be one merely of ignorance or of carelessness, but the result is the same.
Journalism suffers from another grave deficiency, and that is in the quality of the work performed. We have heard often in late years that the present world conflict is one for control of the minds of men. Those minds are going to be influenced and in large degree guided by what they read on the printed page. Yet there is no recognized standard, legal or professional, for the journalist. Those who treat the ills of the body must first undergo special training and qualify in examinations. Those who want to practice law to defend the rights of others are subject to similar requirements. Qualifying examinations are required of barbers who trim the hair, beauticians who pretty the faces of women, chiropodists who care for ills of the feet; but no examination or license is required of one who as a journalist sets about operating on the minds of men. Anyone who can run a typewriter may get a job as reporter or type off an article for a magazine. If he can’t run a typewriter but can use an adding machine he may get a job as publisher!
I am not proposing any system for the licensing of journalists any more than for the licensing of publications. We never had the former, and the requirement of the latter in this country was short-lived. The first genuine American newspaper, theBoston News-Letter, carried the imprint “Published by Authority”; but when James Franklin successfully launched the independent New England Courant in 1721 the requirement of a government license to print was doomed. Our only test is the test of survival. Admittedly that is a poor one, for the boneyard is full of the skeletons of publications launched with high purpose and competently edited which failed to make the financial grade. But it is the only test for the paper and for the writer.
If we do not have and do not want any legal control over the press, save for the laws of libel, and if we fix no qualifying standards for those who make journalism a career, is there any protection against the abuse of press freedom? Since our country is under a democratic form of government where the people have the power of decision in political affairs it is of the highest importance that their channels of communication be kept clear and clean. Where then lies the public security?
For answer I turn back to Elijah Lovejoy. During his Alton troubles a mass meeting was held, which Lovejoy attended. The mayor of the city laid down this proposition:
“Without desiring to restrain the liberty of the press in general it is indispensable that Mr. Lovejoy should not be allowed to conduct a paper and that he should retire from the charge of the Alton Observer.”
Lovejoy himself declared:
“For we distinctly avow it as our settled purpose never while life lasts, to yield to this new system by attempting to destroy by means of mob violence the right of conscience, the freedom of opinion and of the press.”
You note what Lovejoy put first: “the right of conscience.” He was driven by a moral imperative. The same social evil of slavery which prompted Abraham Lincoln to swear that if he had a chance to hit it he would hit it hard, compelled Lovejoy to exercise his citizen’s right to denounce it. Though he stood on his constitutional right it was hardly that in the abstract which constrained him to risk his life in its defense. It was rather the revolt of his conscience against the moral evil of slavery that was the driving force. The press was merely a tool for waging war on that evil. Freedom to use the press for this purpose was the right he died for.
The press then is merely the symbol of what we are fighting for. Too many however exploit their press freedom without a sense of moral responsibility. To them it becomes license, with only a few restraints as for libel and recognized indecencies. What we need therefore is less generalized agitation about freedom of the press and greater indoctrination in how the press should be used, less concern over Canon 35 and picture taking in courtrooms and more concern over fair and full reporting.
Of course in applying the “moral imperative” to current journalism the term requires a broader definition than is exemplified in the career of Lovejoy. Both he and William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown were zealots, dedicated to a cause. The abolitionists were troublesome radicals, unpopular even in the North. Lovejoy’s paper, and Garrison’s were tracts. Our general publications of today, magazines and newspapers, can indulge in no such concentration of attention. They must exercise greater tolerance, at least in their manner of expression, to appeal to a mass audience. Yet the impulse of the “moral imperative” is needed even with general publications. I found a very good statement of my thesis in an editorial with which the Manchester Guardian on July 2nd, 1955 reviewed its century as a daily newspaper. It concluded:
“The press is free and one would not wish to be self-righteous. But it is still permissible to wonder whether in spite of all the immense progress in technique, much of English journalism today is not losing the moral purpose that until recently it took for granted.”
“Moral purpose” is the authentic impulse for the proper employment of press freedom–moral purpose in its broad sense. I do not mean to convert the press into a moral tract, heavy with homily. What I mean is that every one working through the medium of print should strive to serve his public with sincerity, with fidelity to truth, with inner integrity whether in the reporting of events, the presentation of opinion or the provision of entertaining features. I know this sounds like a platitude; probably it is. But I know of no better way of setting forth the obligation which must be assumed by proprietors and workers in journalism if they are to be fit stewards of the press freedom which has been guaranteed to them.
What stirred Lovejoy to action was his perception of slavery as a canker eating away the moral fibre of the nation. His death served his cause perhaps better than his life, for it roused the people to combat the evil he denounced. The struggle culminated in the Civil War, and the victory, bought with great sacrifice, resulted in the emancipation of the Negroes from slavery. Thus the great challenge of the mid-19th century was met successfully, though even today we are wrestling with the residue of race discrimination inherited from the days of slavery.
What then are the challenges of our own time? Since this audience includes many college students and a number of young journalists, men and women who will have the burden of decision in coming years, it seems appropriate to outline current issues which appear vital.
Let us look first at the home scene. Our major problem is to make the institutions framed at the time of our country’s birth fit the United States of today. These institutions were cast pretty much in the mold of 18th century liberalism. Our republican form of government represents the substitution of the revolutionary doctrine of the right of people to govern themselves for the old idea of the divine right of kings. The root of our system of free, competitive enterprise may be found in the writings of Adam Smith who argued against the mercantilism which had dominated British economic thought and political practice.
Consider our country as it is at present. Its population has grown from a few million hugging the Atlantic seaboard to some 165 million spread over a wide continent. Our social organization has been transformed from a rural to an urban (and suburban) industrialized society. Agriculture has been revolutionized through the application of science in technology and in chemistry and plant genetics. Even more striking has been the evolution of business, with the growth of colossal corporate enterprises, which now are countered by big organizations of workers.
Under the impact of these changes in conditions the character of our government has undergone substantial change. The observation of Thomas Jefferson that the least government is the best government seems strangely out of date, though it is now quoted approvingly by those who are in line of political descent from Jefferson’s bitter foes. Jefferson’s other observation that if we are to be told from Washington what to sow and when to reap “we shall soon want for bread” sounds quite hollow in these days of overproduction even under the restrictions of Washington’s acreage controls and marketing quotas.
In the economic field government has become a powerful factor itself because of its own buying and employing power, its writing of laws and regulations covering business and labor relations, its authority over credit. It seeks sometimes to enforce competition as through the Sherman anti-trust law, or again to deny it, as in “fair trade” legislation. Its labor laws go far to void the old doctrine of freedom of contract.
The altered conception of government is noted also in the descriptive term, “welfare state.” No longer is the individual cast on his own resources. Government intervenes to protect him from certain economic hazards: unemployment, destitution in old age, etc., and is urged to go farther and provide general health insurance, improved housing and better schools.
These changes mark a genuine constitutional revolution. They were resisted strenuously, and extensions of the change are strongly opposed. We are aware of how vast our bureaucratic leviathan has grown, and many are fearful of its further expansion. Walter Lippmann in his recent book, “The Public Philosophy” paints a dark picture of the menace of Jacobinism, in which the populace sacrifices the long-term good of the nation for what seems their immediate advantage. This may sound like an echo of the outcries of the Federalists, but the danger is real. The drain on public credit may pass tolerable limits. The expansion of government may lead to paralysis in its mechanics. And building of rigidities into laws may destroy the delicate political and economic balance which is essential to a healthy, democratic society.
Have we reached a plateau in political evolution, or will the process of transfer of political, social and economic burdens to a central government soon be resumed? How far may we safely go in augmenting the powers of the central government without injurious effect on the individual for whose sake the state is called into existence?
In another area our nation functions with some difficulty under the forms prescribed in our constitution, namely management of foreign affairs. Normally conduct of foreign relations is held quite firmly by the executive. In this country the power is divided, the executive having authority to negotiate treaties but they require the assent of the Senate by a two-thirds vote. Frequently the gears of this machinery have clashed. The classic example is the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles with its Covenant of the League of Nations in 1920.
As a bridge to unity a bipartisan foreign policy was developed during the Second World War which worked with considerable success. But this may prevent an adequate debate over international policy. Moreover, instances have occurred when foreign policy has seemed to be controlled not by the executive, nor yet by a majority of the Senate, but by a noisy and radical minority of the Senate. If the Bricker amendment were adopted the resulting division of powers would most certainly cripple the conduct of our international relations.
The United States has had world leadership thrust upon it. Can it exercise that leadership with promptness and firmness under our present division of powers? For that matter can our type of democracy function successfully in the discharge of world leadership? Britain has succeeded admirably, permitting parliamentary debate even in wartime, but the British government is organized differently from our own, and its people have longer traditions of interest in global affairs. Here we have the added complication of ethnic and religious groups which seek to influence foreign policy in terms of their group sympathies.
Turn now to our very precious bill of rights. This too was a product of 18th century thought, though its roots go far deeper in human history. Some of its guaranties are now subject to great strain, and are interpreted and applied with difficulty. Freedom of speech, Justice Holmes said, does not extend to crying out “Fire” in a crowded theatre, so the theory of “clear and present danger” was evolved. On the other hand Justice Murphy wrote an opinion for the court majority which stretches the guaranty of free speech to cover almost any kind of peaceful picketing.
The second amendment confirms to the people the right to bear arms. It was born of the pre-Revolution experience and the need for defense against Indians. In these days of gangsters and city mobsters the free exercise of this right becomes dangerous to society. So we have the Sullivan law in New York and other laws elsewhere to restrict this right, also prohibitions against concealment of weapons.
The fourth amendment with its guarantee of freedom from unreasonable search and seizure is a source of continuing controversy. For example, is wire-tapping “unlawful search”? If so, evidence derived therefrom is inadmissible. Peace officers in their constant effort to combat crime feel frustrated when its use is denied. But what about “bugging,” which is the overhearing of conversation by electric induction-is this “unreasonable search”? Criminals seize on the latest devices in pursuit of their occupation. Should law enforcing agencies be cramped by the denial of use of some of them because of the fourth amendment?
The fifth amendment is much in the news. Historically this amendment is one of the most vital in the catalog of civil liberties. It grew out of the injustices of Star Chamber court proceedings when witnesses were forced to testify against themselves. Recently it has been used as a screen not merely for avoidance of self-incrimination but at times apparently to show contempt for the inquisitorial body. But we have seen the accusation–“Fifth Amendment Communists”–hurled against those who have exercised their constitutional right under the fifth amendment. And this has resulted in loss or denial of employment.
Constitutional rights have been subject to serious abrasion in the name of national security. Just where is the dividing line which will protect the individual in his rights without jeopardy to the stability and the very existence of our form of government?
What I have sought to point out is that in our dynamic society government is subject to change as well as other institutions of society. Even the sacred principles of the bill of rights keep calling for fresh interpretations to keep alive their spirit without the sacrifice of the wider national interest. New occasions teach now duties, as Lowell wrote, and time makes some ancient good uncouth. The success of the American experiment has been due to the fortunate balance between conservatism as embraced in a written and binding Constitution, which holds to traditional values, and a flexibility which permits adaptations to social changes. America is a continuing experiment. Hence the need for constant vigilance to conserve the good we have and constant effort to enlarge and expand that good.
These are matters of daily and general concern. The issues call for public enlightenment, and the responsibility for providing that enlightenment rests primarily on the press of America. This involves first, getting the facts and printing them freely and fully and accurately. And this, I may say by way of parenthesis, is the chief duty of the newspapers of the country: the supplying of information to the public. That is what we mean by the “free flow of news.” We who are in the newspaper business fight for press freedom not for ourselves but for the public. Besides furnishing the flow of information there rests on the press, on editors in particular, the obligation of analyzing issues on the basis of facts, and of voicing opinions for the public guidance. All this demands, as you can see, the employment of fine intelligence and a high degree of moral dedication.
There are other issues of greater depth and width than those I have just discussed. I should like now to call these to your attention.
We Americans have lived serene in the assumption that we occupy the best of all possible worlds, that we enjoy the best of all forms of government, that our economic system is far superior to all others, that our religion is the divinely revealed truth. We have wrapped them all up in what we call the American way of life. Yet within the past half-century our supreme self-satisfaction has suffered severe shock.
We fought one war to make the world safe for democracy, only to find that democracy failed to function in most of the countries to which it was exported. It succumbed to dictatorships which proved far more vicious than monarchies had been for a thousand years.
We found in the 1930s that our prized economic system came to the verge of collapse.
We have found that a new and alien philosophy or ideology challenges our religion, our principles of government, our whole conception of human values. Christianity itself has been put to rout in large and important areas of the world.
At present we are quite fully engrossed in what is called the cold war. We have mustered our forces for defense of our form of government, our system of free enterprise, our philosophy of life and religion. We have undertaken to fight propaganda with propaganda in behalf of our way of life. But have we faced up to the philosophic competition in which we are involved? Have we engaged in any self-analysis to test our assumptions of the superiority of our systems? Granting the validity of these assumptions have we projected our own way of life much farther than providing for increased material abundance?
One American journalist, the late Russell W. Davenport, wrestled with the problems involved in the competition with Communism and set down his analysis and his conclusions, which are somewhat tentative, in a book published after his death: The Dignity of Man. The Communist doctrine of Dialectical Materialism has become, says Davenport, “one of the great intellectual and moral forces of history.” With its claim to scientific validity and its promise of social and economic satisfactions Communism has been developed into a secular religion in sharp competition with the western conceptions of Man and Society and God.
Davenport found his faith in the western philosophy to rest not in the fruitfulness of the system of free enterprise nor in the methodology of science, whose ultimate criteria, he said, are “statistical, amoral and purposeless,” but in discovering man as a spirit. To quote: “This thought suggests that a task lies ahead of America of truly overwhelming proportions: the task, namely, of learning how to inquire into the nature and destiny of man in a new way, of which our current spirit of inquiry has not yet dreamed. It suggests the possibility of knowledge that we do not yet have, of vistas that we have not yet opened up. And it intimates, finally, that in this knowledge and these vistas we might find not merely the solution for the American dilemma, but the foundation for an Idea of Free Man.”
Suppose we consider this from another angle. The world has been abruptly introduced to energy in a new and vastly larger dimension. Alternately men are warned to be ready to run to eaves which they may seal against radiation, or they are transported to the ecstasy of an age previously thought attainable only in paradise. True enough, the powers for good or for evil in the energy deriving from atomic fission and fusion are overwhelming. Ignore the potential of physical destruction and consider only the revolution promised through the harnessing of atomic energy and the accompanying marvels of electronics: what will be the effect on the mind and the spirit of man? Are we to have the surfeit of our possessions vastly increased? Are we to be allowed to luxuriate or vegetate in the idleness that results from a one-day work week? To what purpose do we harness the energy of the cosmos?
One may say, these questions are remote, why bother with them? Or, they deal with philosophy and what does the press have to do with that? Those are questions for the seers.
We dare not dismiss them so lightly or so cavalierly. They are pressing on us. The answers are not to be found by diligent laboratory research but through the play and interplay of ideas, in the free commerce of the mind.
Elijah Lovejoy engaged in a revolt against the slavery of men’s bodies. As Russell Davenport suggests we must press for the emancipation of the mind and spirit of man. The struggle is thus not for the control of men’s minds but for the freeing of the minds of men. The process will be slow, for men must be educated for intellectual freedom just as they must be educated for the safe exercise of political freedom. Otherwise a form of anarchy would follow. The educators will be those leaders who are skilled in the arts of communication. The free press thus becomes an entryway to the free mind.
The best talent we have must undertake this task of thinking and of communicating. Martyrdom may not be the final crown, and then again it might be. The opportunity and responsibility are open for informing and guiding the minds of the public. I cannot emphasize too strongly the need for adequate preparation on the part of those who are going to be carrying major responsibilities in the field of journalism. They need to have a thorough grounding in history, geography, politics, language, ethics, contemporary thought, with a general comprehension of science. Men with such broad preparation need to be widely distributed through the literary world, for writing and printing will continue to be the most effective medium of communication as far as we can now foresee.
In closing I want to come back to my theme of the “moral imperative.” Whence came the moral imperative that drove Elijah Lovejoy to persist in writing anti-slavery editorials? It was the compulsion of a lively conscience, to be sure. But how was it cultivated? Lovejoy grew up in a Presbyterian manse, and so by inheritance and environment he must have acquired something of John Calvin’s stern sense of duty. I feel safe in saying that his sense of moral responsibility was also nurtured in the college halls of Waterville. If there is anything the liberal arts colleges have fostered it is the union of intellectual achievement and moral obligation. Lovejoy carried with him to the frontier a certain fund of knowledge, talent for writing, and a well developed conscience. They flowered in Lovejoy, the abolitionist editor. He became a martyr not merely to the principle of the free press but to his own “right of conscience.”
Our colleges still are fountains both of learning and of loyalty to truth. You who are educators have a mission to perform if we are to keep our channels of communication clear and governed by honest purpose. Hence it is most fitting that the Lovejoy Memorial is being established here. It will serve as a tribute to one of this college’s most distinguished alumni, as a beacon of light for faculty and students in this institution, and as an inspiration to working journalists all over the country.
The greatest teacher once said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” One now despised of men asked of Him the question, “What is truth?” Ours is the quest for the truth which leads to the ultimate emancipation. This is the supreme moral imperative.
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