Some 180 years ago in Alton, Ill., while guarding his fourth printing press—his three prior presses having been destroyed—fervent abolitionist, reverend, and journalist Elijah Parish Lovejoy was murdered by a pro-slavery mob.
His death made Lovejoy a revered martyr. In life, Lovejoy was passionately committed to journalism and freedom of expression.
Just weeks before his murder, he wrote, “we will never yield the sacred rights secured to us by our fathers of freely speaking, and publishing our opinions various and diversified as we know them to be.”
Born in Albion, Maine, in November 1802, Lovejoy was valedictorian of his Colby class, then known as Waterville College, in 1826. His callings were religion and journalism; Lovejoy found fame, or infamy to some, as a leading anti-slavery editor and orator. Colby’s first president, Jeremiah Chaplin, was among those who helped financially support Lovejoy’s publications.
His unyielding dedication to the ideals of free speech, and a free press, were rooted in his religious beliefs, which were the wellspring of his political and social opinions, particularly about slavery. But since his death, Lovejoy’s key influences have been felt more on the American state than the church.
Lovejoy has become known as the first American martyr to the freedom of the press, and for generations has been honored as a symbol of freedom and righteousness against forces that try to silence the free exchange of ideas.
His murder changed America and influenced some of our greatest leaders. Abraham Lincoln, an Illinois politician at the time of Lovejoy, called his “tragic death” the “most important single event that ever happened in the new world.”
Lovejoy is honored across the country, but nowhere more than at Colby. In our collection, the College has volumes from his library, items constructed from the remnants of his last printing press, and earth from his family’s homestead in Albion.
And since 1952, Colby had bestowed one of its highest honors in his memory. The Lovejoy Award is given annually to a journalist who has demonstrated fearlessness, character, integrity, intelligence, and courage in their work. Past recipients have included titans of American journalism such as Bob Woodward, Abe Rosenthal, the cartoonist Herb Block, and David Halberstam.
Lovejoy has been, and will always continue to be, a symbol of Colby’s daring history and a beacon on our northward path.
By upholding his values, and remembering his sacrifice, we stay committed to our true north of supporting academic freedom, open dialogue and expression, just and civil discourse, and the bedrock principles of a free, just, and equal society.