First to Fall: Elijah Lovejoy and the Fight for a Free Press in the Age of Slavery

Written by Ken Ellingwood
Review by Kristen Hannum

This eye-opening look at the world of U.S. newspapers and the anti-slavery movement in the decades before the Civil War is an important resource for any novelist writing about that era. It’s also a great read.

Elijah Lovejoy, abolitionist, ordained Presbyterian minister and newspaperman, was murdered in 1837 as he and a small group of supporters tried to save his printing press and the warehouse that housed it from an Alton, Illinois, mob. Lovejoy had fled to Alton in the free state of Illinois after mob violence threatened him and his press in St. Louis, Missouri. Ellingwood writes about each step of Lovejoy’s journey with just enough information about the wider issues inflaming the mobs and inspiring Lovejoy.

It doesn’t take many words to describe the sorry fate of Lovejoy’s widow. Single mothers didn’t fare well in those years, especially if they were burdened with delicate health.  As much as First to Fall is about slavery, it is even more about the free press, a shifting and malleable concept in Lovejoy’s time. Did a free press have the right to publish articles that enraged a majority (or even a violent minority) of its readers? Lovejoy’s death helped the American answer become “yes.”

Newspapers were a prominent feature of American life in the early decades of the 19th century, Ellingwood writes, “unlike anything back in the Old World.” I was especially interested in learning that many of these early newspapers were religious publications that shamelessly borrowed entire articles from one another, crowding every page with print.  Recommended.