Vermont Royster

Editor Emeritus, The Wall Street Journal

1976 Convocation Address

I hardly need to say that I am deeply honored to be here at Colby and to receive the Elijah Lovejoy Award. It is now very nearly a quarter of a century since Colby established this memorial for one of her song who had the courage to stand up to a mob and to give his life for the cause of one of our most precious freedoms, the freedom to speak our minds and to publish our thoughts for all to hear or read. But as I look over the list of those who in my journalistic craft have previously received this award, I confess to some uneasiness. Merely to mention a few of them–J. Russell Wiggins of the Washington Post, Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution, Carl Rowan of the Chicago Daily News, Erwin Canham of the Christian Science Monitor, James Reston of the New York Times, and of course Bernard Kilgore, the great and moving spirit of my own newspaper, the Wall Street Journal …

… merely to call such names and others like them is enough to intimidate any speaker who follows in their steps.

For all of them have spoken on one or another aspect of the struggle to obtain, and to retain, the liberty of the press, which is fundamentally the liberty of the mind. And all of them have paid eloquent tribute to the son of Colby for whom this award is named, Elijah Lovejoy, who refused to be silenced. Indeed, Elijah Lovejoy speaks more loudly now, and is known by more people, than when he was alive, proving once again Tennyson’s words “that men may rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things.”

Thus my uneasiness that I can add anything useful to what has been said here before on like occasions.

As a free citizen, you are free to speak your mind, and, if you wish, to denounce our whole political system and urge that the whole of the social order begun in 1776 be swept away and another put in its place.

All I can do is ask your patience while I share with you some thoughts about the nature of political liberty, about how It took root in the past, and what is required to preserve it. So doing, we will see how what happened to Elijah Lovejoy at the hands of a mob shows how narrow is that edge upon which liberty is balanced between preservation and destruction.

I hope you will forgive me if I begin by stating the obvious. Last month we held an election for President of the United States. It was a free and open election. Every citizen over the age of 18–white or black, male or female, rich or poor–had the privilege of a vote. There were no elitist requirements of education, position or wealth.

In that election campaign every citizen was free to say whatever he wished about the character, ability and political philosophy of any of the candidates. All were free to criticize every aspect of our national policy, foreign and domestic. A student here at Colby was as free to speak his mind as the most learned professor.

A great many people exercised that privilege. Some of them said things which in my opinion, and perhaps in yours, were unfair, unwise and even untruthful. No matter. As a free citizen, you are free to speak your mind, and, if you wish, to denounce our whole political system and urge that the whole of the social order begun in 1776 be swept away and another put in its place.

What may not be so obvious is that this is the only country in the world where all of this is true. In the greater part of the world–much of Europe, Africa and Latin America, in almost all of Asia–men can speak and write only what is authorized by authority. Even in England, which is the well-spring of our liberties, there remain restrictions upon what can be printed and published. There are extremely strict libel laws. There is an Officials Secret Act which prohibits publishing what the government says is injurious to the public safety.

As we will note in a moment, there are still good and thoughtful men who debate the wisdom of such untrammeled freedom of speech and of the press. But that the extent of that freedom in America is unique, that is uncontrovertible.

Let me now mention, briefly, some other obvious liberties we enjoy. We may each worship God in our fashion or, if we choose, deny Him. We may assemble peaceably to protest any actions of our government. We nay sign and collect petitions for the redress of grievances. We may close the door to our home and no policeman may lawfully enter upon whim; he must first show cause to a magistrate to obtain a search warrant and specify for what purpose he searches.

If we are arrested, the authorities cannot let us languish without bringing specific charges; the writ of habeas corpus is our great protection against arbitrary arrest. Once arrested and charged, we cannot be found guilty and sentenced by an arbitrary judge. We are entitled to a public trial by a jury of our peers. We can be subjected to no cruel and unusual punishment. If we are found guilty, we have the right of appeal. If we are acquitted, we cannot be harassed by being tried again upon the same charge.

This list could be much multiplied. And all of these things seem obvious to us as necessary to liberty. So obvious, indeed, that we rarely think about them. These rights are simply there; they exist. They seem to us the self-evident components of political liberty.

If I seem here to belabor the obvious, it is because to most of the world these things are not obvious at all. The arguments for them are not at all self-evident to many people.

But it is precisely because they are obvious to us that they are taken for granted. We are hardly aware of the roots from which they came, of how long it took them to bloom. And so, perhaps, hardly aware of how fragile they are, of how easily they could be lost if we forget that they all rest upon one fundamental liberty–the liberty of the mind to think and to express what it thinks. Without that, we would have none of these other liberties.

If one goes seeking in antiquity for the roots of liberty, one could begin with Aristotle and Plato, who debated the nature of man and of government. We are heirs of them both, but in politics more Aristotelian than Platonist. It was Plato, after all, who would have the state lay down rigid rules for philosophers and poets, who would have had their works submitted to magistrates to decide whether they were fit for the people.

Aristotle, though he defended the slavery of his time and was fearful of pure democracy, did broach the thought that the citizens exercising their collective judgement had the right not only to choose their leaders but to call them to account. The echoes of this are heard in that Declaration of 1776.

If one goes seeking in antiquity for the roots of liberty, one could begin with Aristotle and Plato, who debated the nature of man and of government.

But for centuries this idea took no roots. It was the Reformation, with its revolt against the authority of the Church, that more immediately opened the Pandora’s box and let escape the idea that each man had a right to make “free inquiry” with his own mind. The inquiry began about God. It was not long before it extended to the State.

Not long, but slowly all the same. In England, which is the principal source of our political heritage, the 16th Century ended with absolutism triumphant. By the end of the 17th Century, having suffered the absolutism of Cromwell, England was a ferment of liberal ideas.

One of those ideas was that the king should not “be absolute in his power. This had been first advanced in the Magna Carta, but in that document it was only the nobles–not the people generally–who asserted rights against the king. That did not come until, in 1689, William of Orange and Mary Teck were jointly offered the throne.

The English had learned from Cromwell that dictators were as dangerous as kings. After James II had come to throne, renewed the religious strife between Catholic and Protestant, and been forced to flee, all factions agreed there should be no more absolute sovereigns. So in order to gain the throne, William and Mary had to sign a “Declaration of Rights.”

This Declaration of Rights in 1689 is a key document in the history of political liberty. Among other things these sovereigns agreed: That the making, or suspending of law without the consent of Parliament was illegal. That ecclesiastical courts should try no criminal cases. That there should be no taxes levied without the consent of Parliament. That it was lawful for the citizens to petition the crown for a redress of grievances. That it was lawful for the people to keep arms. That all criminal trials should be trials by jury, and that no excessive bail should be required.

You will see in all these fore-shadows of both our Declaration of Independence and of our Bill of Rights.

But perhaps the most Important provision in that Declaration of Rights was the provision that there should be “freedom of debate” in Parliament. That is, that a member of Parliament might express what ideas he would in that House without fear of reprisal afterwards.

This was, to be sure, freedom of speech only for members of Parliament, not for the citizens generally. But it was the first recognition in any official document that there should be anywhere such a thing as freedom of speech.

It was this provision which later permitted such men as Edmund Burke and Charles Fox to defend the rebellious colonies and criticize the government as our Revolution was brewing.

It had other effects. Once you acknowledge that there is such a thing as freedom of speech it becomes very difficult to draw a line where it stops. If for members of Parliament, why not for those standing for Parliament? If for candidates for Parliament, not themselves officials, why not for other citizens?

And so by degrees, the concept broadened. By 1765, a decade before Bunker Hill, Sir William Blackstone wrote his famous commentaries codifying the common laws of England. And in it he laid down as an established principle of that Common Law that “the liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state … Every free man has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public.”

This was the view seized upon by the rebels in the colonies–or the patriots, if you prefer. It opened the way for the inflammatory oratory of Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams and all those Committees of Correspondence which exchanged political views before and during the Revolution.

And I think it fair to say that our Revolution was made as much by words as by arms. Obviously it took arms to win the war. But it took ideas to start it and to keep the people resolute to continue it. Without ideas and without the freedom to speak them, Washington would never have reached Yorktown.

But perhaps the most Important provision in that Declaration of Rights was the provision that there should be “freedom of debate” in Parliament.

Winning the Revolution, we won not only our independence from England but many other liberties. We won them and put them in our Constitution because our Founding Fathers could think about them, talk about them, argue about them. When some of these liberties were left out of the original Constitution, the people could complain, could petition for their inclusion and by argument win them as the First Ten Amendments to that Constitution.

In short then, of all our freedoms, freedom of speech is the first freedom. It is the first freedom not because of itself it is necessarily the most important one to liberty but because it is the freedom that made all others possible. We could not have such rights as trial by jury, free elections and all the rest if men were not free to argue their merits and to demand them from governmental authority.

Here then, is the first root of all our liberty.

I wish I could tell you that this was universally recognized by all our revolutionary forebears, that the people of the colonies held a single-minded devotion to this principle of freedom of speech and of the press. But it was not so.

The view of colonial America as a society that everywhere cherished freedom of ideas and expression is a romantic one. There was indeed an enormous diversity of political and religious ideas among the various colonies, due to their origins and geography, and this diversity was ultimately to have an enormous effect.

But each colony, sometimes different counties within a colony, had its own orthodoxy and guarded it jealously, being quite willing to suppress the dissidence of the non-orthodox. In John P. Roche’s phrase, “Colonial America was an open society dotted with closed enclaves.”

We can see this during the Revolution itself. The patriot, or rebel, newspapers had indeed thrown off the yoke of Crown governors and made the most of it. Loyalist papers, of whom there were a few, did not fare so well. Those patriots were no more anxious to extend freedom of the press to them than the Crown had been to extend it to the seditious patriot press.

The Boston Evening Post, the New York Packet, the Maryland Journal, all loyalist papers, were silenced. The New York Gazeteer, another Tory paper, was attacked and destroyed by a mob.

In every faction, freedom of the press meant freedom for us, not for them. Nor should you suppose that even those wise and liberty-minded Founding Fathers were fully devoted to the idea of a completely unfettered press. That First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” The key word is “Congress”–that is the national government was to be prohibited from abridging the press. This was acceptable because the Founding Fathers were suspicious of the power of any distant government, which the national government was thought then to be, and were anxious to limit its power in every way possible.

But what was to he done under state governments was to be left to the states. They were not prohibited from regulating the press.

It is the first freedom not because of itself it is necessarily the most important one to liberty but because it is the freedom that made all others possible.

Indeed, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790 and the Delaware Constitution of 1792 expressly imposed liability for abuse of free speech. Thomas Jefferson, the father of much of our liberty, explained: “While we deny that Congress have the right to control the freedom of the press, we have ever asserted the right of the states, and their exclusive right to do so…”

In other words, the freedom of speech and of the press guarded in the First Amendment was not then the sweeping doctrine it has since come to appear.

There lay ahead a long struggle–which is not yet ended. You will recall the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 which made it a crime to publish any “false, scandalous and malicious writing” bringing into disrepute the government, the Congress or the President. Victims among the newspapers of this law included the New York Argus, the Boston Independent Chronicle, theRichmond Examiner. The editor of the Reading Weekly Advertiser was prosecuted merely for calling President John Adams “incompetent.”

During the Civil War even President Lincoln, in plain defiance of the First Amendment, arrested the proprietors of the New York World and the Journal of Commerce. In peacetime, in this century, President Theodore Roosevelt tried and failed to convict the World and the Indianapolis News of what he called “a string of infamous libels,” even sending a special message to Congress on the subject.

So the struggle has gone on over two centuries, right up to the Pentagon papers case. It is hardly surprising then that those of us who labor in this craft should come to feel that we must be ever vigilant against the efforts of those In authority to curb the flow of information to the people and the free expression of Ideas.

But it is a mistake for those of us in the press to think that the only threat is from government. The danger to a free press lies also among the people, who are by no means all convinced that it is the root of all liberty. They are often angered by it, and sometimes find it dangerous.

It was not government, let us take note, that silenced Elijah Lovejoy. it was the people.

Lovejoy was a Maine man who graduated from Waterville College–now Colby–in 1826, the year in which both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the fourth of July. The next year he moved to St. Louis where he became both a Presbyterian minister and school teacher. He also began journalistic writing and six years later became the editor of the St. Louis Observer, a Presbyterian weekly.

From the very beginning he condemned slavery and began arguing for gradual emancipation. This was not a popular idea in the St. Louis of the time, and a group of leading citizens demanded that he moderate his opinions. His reply was an even stronger editorial reiterating his views and his right to publish them.

“As long as I am an American citizen,” he wrote, “and as long as American blood runs in these veins, I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, to write and to publish whatever I please.” He also said, “I cannot surrender my principles though the whole world would vote them down–I can make no compromise between truth and error, even though my life be the alternative.” In the end his life was the alternative. Threatened by mob violence he moved his press across the Mississippi to Alton, Ill., and continued to speak his mind. The mob followed, attacked his plant several times and finally in November, 1837, they burned it down and killed him.

Today, in retrospect, there are none to condemn his ideas. His Ideas are now shared by us all. And he has become a martyr to the cause of wisdom and justice.

But I ask you to remember that his views were not no seen In his own time. His was a voice, and very small one at that, against the prevailing view of his neighbors, of the community, even of the nation at large. The Civil War lay yet a quarter-century in the future.

I also ask you to remember that it was not government that silenced Elijah Lovejoy. It was the people who thought him dangerous. It was they who denied him the right to speak his mind. It was they who silenced him.

There is here, I think, no small lesson for our own time. There are today many voices questioning the wisdom of an untrammeled press, or at least questioning the uses to which the freedom of the press is sometimes put. It is criticized for being prejudiced, biased, unfair, sometimes untruthful. There are people, some within the press itself, who say some restraints should he put upon its freedom for the protection of society.

Those who say so are not all foes of liberty, and the arguments they advance are not all unreasonable. For it is perfectly true that when men are free to speak their minds, what they speak may be falsity as well as truth.

There is no doubt that freedom of speech, and of the press, can be dangerous. The freedom to appeal to reason can also be the freedom to appeal to public passion and ignorance, vulgarity and cynicism. Libel, obscenity, incitement to riot, sedition, these have a common principle. Their utterance can invade vital social interests.

In other words, the freedom of speech and of the press guarded in the First Amendment was not then the sweeping doctrine it has since come to appear.

Furthermore, no man is free if he can be terrorized by his neighbor, whether by swords or words. Nor can a citizen be truly informed if falsehoods come masquerading as truth. It is also true that the liberty of the citizen depends upon the stability of society, which is why governments exist, and society has a right to protect itself against the predatory.

So we are confronted with a dilemma. The liberty of speech and of the press, as Blackstone observed, is indeed essential to a free society. But this liberty can be abused. It can, in fact, sometimes collide with other liberties, such as the right to trial by a jury that has not been prejudiced by inflammatory publicity. It can even at times put in danger the stability of society.

How are we to resolve this dilemma? The Blackstonian answer was to say that while freedom of the press meant no prior restraint upon what may be said or published, if anyone published what is “Improper, mischievous or illegal, he must take the consequences.” That is, he could be punished afterward.

This is still the accepted legal view, as for example in our libel laws. Even in the Pentagon papers case the Supreme Court, while refusing to let the government stop publication, suggested that if injury could be proved by their publication the government might have a case for damages against the newspapers.

The Blackstonian answer to the dilemma is reasonable enough when the injury is clear and direct, as in libel or slander. Yet I do not find it wholly satisfactory. What Elijah Lovejoy wrote was certainly inflammatory. He was certainly attacking the established and Constitutional order of things. He certainly ruffled the stability of society. So a jury of his contemporaries might well have found him guilty of publishing what was improper and mischievous.

But the verdict of history is not the same as the verdict of his contemporaries. And even with the utmost care for due process, we can never be sure at any given moment that the passions of the time might not punish a man for saying what history would judge blameless.

All the same, the dilemma is there. The liberty of speech can be abused, and that accounts for the fact that from time to time the people themselves grow uneasy about it and begin to ask if there should not be some restraints upon it.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I have never been fearful of the power of government to silence the press. I know that governments will try; they always have. But the First Amendment stands squarely In their way–so long as it stands there in the Constitution.

What I do fear sometimes, when a bleak mood is upon me, is that the people themselves in a moment of high emotion will abandon their devotion to this freedom of thought, of speech, of the press. We need always to remember that this “right” of free speech, and of the press is not some right handed down by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It is a civil right only, granted by the people in a political document. And what the people can grant, the people can take away.

So let me offer a thought for your consideration whenever in the future you are disturbed by what you think are abuses of freedom of speech and of the press.

There is no liberty that cannot be abused. The right to bear arms can become a license to violence. All our legal safeguards to protect the innocent can become shields for crime. The right to trial by jury does not mean that juries will always be just. The guarantee of free elections is no guarantee that the people will choose wisely; they are free to vote out good governments and put bad ones in their place.

So too with our liberty to speak, what we will. There can he no assurance that what is spoken will be wise and truthful; it can an well be false and deceitful–or merely foolish.

But I suggest that if the people cannot be trusted to find their way amid all these abuses then there is no hope for the American Experiment.

For that Experiment is based less upon logic than upon a faith that the danger of unbounded liberty is not so great as that of putting liberty in bondage. And it is a faith so far justified.

In our two hundred years we have been better served by our freedoms, including most especially our freedom of speech and of the press, than we would have been served without them. That is the answer–perhaps the only answer–to those who would no longer trust those freedoms.

The best proof of that, I think, is that we are met here today to pay tribute to a once lonely and obscure man who dared to speak what those of his own time thought wrong and dangerous thoughts. So whenever there is a clamor to restrain this liberty of speech and of the press–as there always will be from time to time–I ask you to remember that we can never be sure whom we have silenced. If the day comes when we do that, we risk all liberty because we will have lost faith in the American Experiment.

Anyway, I am grateful for the honor you do me. And I thank you for listening.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award

About the Lovejoy Award

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