New Book Puts Elijah Parish Lovejoy’s Work in Historical Context

Ken Ellingwood’s First to Fall tells a renewed, vivid account of America's first martyr to freedom of the press

Ken Ellingwood
Journalist Ken Ellingwood (Photo by Pranish Pradhan, Courtesy of Ken Ellingwood)
By Kardelen Koldas ’15
December 3, 2021

Journalist Ken Ellingwood has written a new book, First to Fall: Elijah Lovejoy and the Fight for a Free Press in the Age of Slavery (Pegasus Books, 2021), about America’s first martyr to freedom of the press, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a member of Colby’s (then Waterville College) Class of 1826. Lovejoy, an editor who published anti-slavery editorials, was killed in 1837 protecting his press from an angry mob. From his home in Vermont, Ellingwood responded to questions from Staff Writer Kardelen Koldas ’15 about Lovejoy and the parallels between his story and current times.  

What inspired you to write a book about Lovejoy?

After a long career at the Los Angeles Times, we moved to China in 2012 for my wife’s job, and I became a fellow at Nanjing University’s journalism school. Teaching history of American journalism, we talked about Lovejoy. There were other editors who opposed slavery and used newspapers to criticize it, but Lovejoy was alone in having sacrificed his life. My students were very moved by his story and the power of his deeds, of the courage in standing up to forces much larger than he was in a place where he was certain to lose. Their reaction inspired me to consider the universality of his story and how it transcended borders and cultures. It made me wonder what else could be done on Lovejoy.

And what did you find you could do?

There hadn’t been much written about Lovejoy in a book-length story in quite some time, and none employed what I’d consider a modern narrative technique. As a journalist, I like to tell stories, and I like them to feel like a movie—lively, rich, and textured. I just thought this was ripe material for that. And even as a journalist, I didn’t know the details of his life and story. That would certainly be true of ordinary Americans. So I felt I could rescue a great tale from the footnotes of history and bring him back out of the shadows. 

You shed light on Lovejoy by placing him in the larger historical context. Why do that? 

I wanted the story to reflect the temper of the times, the amazing flux that was going on in American society. There was a broad, very effective campaign of suppression in the 1830s to make sure Americans didn’t criticize slavery. There were laws passed in the South criminalizing the publication of any material deemed to create slave insurrection or disrupt society. A rule in the U.S. House of Representatives prohibited discussion of slavery for eight years. The postal system attempted to intercept abolitionists’ mails. So if you look across the society during this period, you can place Lovejoy as this lonely crusader up against this titanic force aimed at making sure Americans just didn’t discuss this topic.

“Lovejoy’s belief in press freedom, in essence, created his freedom to publish. Because he believed the press was free, he acted as if it were.”

Ken Ellingwood, author of First to Fall

That’s very powerful. How did you piece together such a complex story? 

When I started this project in 2014, I found an absolute trove of useful materials that were digitized. In my dining room in Nanjing, I read letters between Lovejoy and his parents written in feathery script. Remarkable stuff. We’d come back to the U.S. every summer, and I’d stockpile books and visit libraries and archives. The first library that I went to was Colby’s. In later stages, I drove out to the Midwest and also made it to Alton, [Ill.], where I could see the town, the Mississippi River, the surrounding limestone bluffs that line the river. Of course, it didn’t look the same, but it gave me a much greater feeling for what his life might have been like in color. So it was a long period of fact-gathering and collecting acorns. By 2019, I was ready to write. 

During that reporting period, did your intentions about the book change at all? 

My intention at first was just to tell a story of a little-known, underappreciated American hero in a lively and textured way. But as I continued to work on the book, the climate around the issue of press freedom began to change. Or at least the climate of press freedom became an issue in and of itself. We can certainly say that with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the press became a much more divisive point of debate in American society. And suddenly, when I told people what I was working on, the reaction went from being, “Oh, that sounds interesting” to “Wow, that’s really timely.” 

What are some timely lessons we can learn from Lovejoy’s story? 

There are just so many. If you look at the mob insurrection of January 6, [2021], you can draw a line to the 1837 mob that killed Lovejoy. I’m not trying to say their motivations were the same, but what gets overlooked from January 6 is that those insurrectionists attacked the press before the U.S. Capitol. They destroyed equipment, intimidated journalists trying to cover the events, and seemed lethal in doing so. It’s not an abstraction when we say that insurrection was a blow to our democracy. It was a direct blow to the press and their freedom. So, Lovejoy’s story is very instructive in the modern era because it does two things. It reveals the sacrifices real Americans made to defend and expand the rights of the press. And it points out that these rights weren’t fully baked at the time of the country’s founding and had to be fought for, and they’re still fragile. 

 “Lovejoy didn’t create the modern press, but his heroism and the stands he took for press freedom really helped push Americans’ understanding toward what a modern press would eventually become.”

Ken Ellingwood, author of First to Fall

As a journalist, did you draw any personal lessons from Lovejoy?

To me, one of the most dramatic things about him is his courage. Journalism, by its nature, is a profession that requires personal courage. I don’t necessarily mean that every day one puts their life at risk. But I can tell you as a former foreign correspondent that one does from time to time. What’s so remarkable about Lovejoy’s show of courage is his isolation. He was out on the frontier without an infrastructure of safety. He had some friends, fellow Presbyterians, and others, who supported his newspaper and right to publish, but for the most part, he was on his own to decide some very important questions. For example, do I quit this business? He has a wife, a small infant. His wife was living in such abject terror that she was bedridden because of fear. So here’s a guy who chooses to continue publishing, even though no one in authority is protecting him. I find that remarkable when it’d have been so much easier just to quit. 

Ken Ellingwood is a writer and longtime former correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. During his newspaper career, Ellingwood wrote stories from more than a dozen countries, including from armed-conflict zones in Iraq, the Gaza Strip, and the Israeli-Lebanese border. He has covered earthquakes in Iran and Haiti, a papal visit to Cuba, street protests in Lebanon, and a devastating drug war in Mexico.

He has won a number of journalism awards and is the author of Hard Line: Life and Death on the U.S.-Mexico Border, an account of his years covering immigration. He currently lives in Burlington, Vt.

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