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  • Press
  • Marcy J. Dinius

press, printing, printing press, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, abolition, slavery, mob, Elijah P. Lovejoy, Henry Highland Garnet, David Ruggles, William Lloyd Garrison

On the night of November 7, 1837, a violent mob marched on a warehouse in Alton, Illinois, where a new printing press for Elijah Lovejoy’s newspaper the Alton Observer had been shipped for delivery. They shot and killed the abolitionist editor as he attempted to stop them from seizing and destroying the press, thereby ensuring that neither the man nor his machine would ever publish another word against slavery. This was the fourth and last time that violent defenders of slavery attacked a printing press that Lovejoy was using—or, in this case, was going to use—to publish an antislavery newspaper, both in St. Louis and across the Mississippi in supposedly friendlier Alton.1

By 1837 Lovejoy had become nationally known for his refusal to be silenced; after his murder, those who carried on the cause memorialized him in antislavery periodicals, pamphlets, and books that poured forth from other presses; newspapers carried the story of the mob action, framing their pages with heavy black mourning borders. Among these print memorials, Joseph C. Lovejoy and Owen Lovejoy’s 1838 Memoir of the Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy is remarkable for its personification of the fated press in their account of that night’s violence in Alton:

It was landed about sunset, or a little after, and surrounded by quite a number of friends, who had been apprised of its coming; was conveyed to the warehouse of Gerry and Weller. As it passed along the streets cries were heard, “there goes the Abolitionist press, stop it, stop it;” but no actual violence was offered. The mayor, apprised of its arrival, and also of the threats of its destruction, gave positive assurance that it should be protected; and expressed a wish that its friends should leave it in his hands. They did so. He posted a constable at the door, with orders to [End Page 747] remain till a certain hour. As soon as he left, ten or twelve “respectable” ruffians, disguised with handkerchiefs over their faces, broke open the store, rolled the press across the street to the side of the river, broke it into pieces, and threw it in.2

While the Lovejoys do not give the press its own agency, they describe it and how it was treated as more like a person than a machine. Specifically, they characterize the press as an unjustly accused prisoner who was “surrounded by friends” upon arrival in town and whose movement through town became a spectacle before a hostile mob, and who was finally surrendered for protection to a mayor who sided with the mob that stole and effectively lynched the press before it could be tried in court. Put simply, in the Lovejoys’ account of that fateful night, the press itself was a fellow abolitionist who was murdered along with their brother.

The Lovejoys’ personification of the press not only is a literary device; it also typifies the human qualities that pro- and antislavery activists alike commonly attributed to these increasingly efficient machines for their role in bringing unprecedented attention to chattel slavery, its practices, and its moral, economic, and political implications for the United States. That antebellum American whites would endow machines with humanlike capacities while arguing over whether people of African descent were human beings was neither a coincidence nor a contradiction. With technological determinism coming to dominate thinking about social change in Industrial Age America, the freedom of both the press and the slaves grew increasingly and inextricably complicated.3

The term the press typically serves as a metonym: it stands in for not just all the nation’s periodicals and printed texts (and in our time, other forms of media), but also the living people who write, edit, and produce them. The OED dates the metonym’s first use as 1649 during the English Civil War and its vigorous political pamphleteering.4 In the wake of the war, the English government regulated printers, their presses, and the work of both [End Page 748] with the 1662...


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