Before the Civil War, running a newspaper could be pretty dangerous if an editor ran pieces against slavery. Basically, you had to accept that violence was part of the job: There were more than 100 mob attacks against abolitionist newspapers, including one 1837 riot that killed editor Elijah Lovejoy.
This was not Lovejoy’s first brush with mob violence. In 1833, he’d become the editor of the St. Louis Observer in his home state of Missouri and started publishing anti-slavery editorials. Missouri was a slave state, and these editorials quickly made him a target. Threats of mob violence forced him to flee to the city of Alton in the free state of Illinois, just across the Mississippi River. There, he began publishing the Alton Observer and resumed his support of abolition in his editorials.
However, the fact that Illinois was “free” didn’t mean white citizens were necessarily against slavery’s existence; and it certainly didn’t mean they were in favor of emancipated Black people living freely throughout the U.S. On November 7, 1837, armed rioters stormed Lovejoy’s warehouse and destroyed his printing press. This was actually Lovejoy’s fourth printing press because mobs had destroyed his previous three. It was also his last—he died in a shootout.
“This was the most violent of these actions to date” says John Nerone, a communications professor at the University of Illinois and author of Violence Against the Press.
It was also a calculated political move. One of the mob organizers was Usher F. Linder, the anti-abolitionist attorney general of Illinois. Before the rise of corporate advertising and the professionalization of journalism, newspapers aligned themselves with political parties or groups to cover issues in a way that was mutually beneficial. For anti-abolitionist papers aligned with political parties, this involved framing abolitionists in a negative way and even staging events.
“The party editors wanted to represent [abolitionists] as a bunch of lunatics who were not only in favor of abolishing slavery, but were also in favor of women’s rights and women wearing pants, free love and vegetarianism,” Nerone says.
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In contrast, “when crowd actions happened against abolitionists…the party newspapers would generally represent them as respectable orderly meetings,” he says. “And just like any other political meeting, they elected a chair, passed resolutions and then they’d go take the printing press and dump it in the river.”
All this created an atmosphere of violence for people who wrote in favor of abolition, especially if you were a Black writer like David Walker. After Walker published a pamphlet urging enslaved people to fight for their freedom in 1829, there was a price on his head: $1,000 to kill him, $10,000 to capture him alive.
Other editors and writers who supported abolition, or even wrote something about a politician that he didn’t like, were egged, robbed, or shot at. In 1852, General James W. Denver challenged Edward Gilbert, the editor of Alta California, to a duel for accusing the general of corruption. The general won, and the editor died.
Because editors were the face of the newspapers they printed, and since the majority of their readers lived in their area, editors were somewhat easy to locate and target. Regular threats of violence against white editors lasted until the 1870s and ’80s. Yet for Black journalists like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, threats of violence continued to be part of the job.
Nerone says he can’t authoritatively speak to whether attacks on journalists in the U.S.—the most violent being the fatal shootings at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis—have increased in the past few years. But he does see parallels between the chaotic media environment of the pre-Civil War era and today. These parallels include partisan alignment in media, a “revolving door” between people who work in politics and media, high levels of public distrust in journalists, and technology that quickly circulates attention-grabbing stories. (Before, it was the telegraph; now, it’s the Internet.)
That isn’t to say that conditions are exactly the same now, or that we’re heading toward a civil war.
“Slavery was a fundamental issue that needed to be resolved—I don’t see anything quite as compelling as slavery in today’s political environment,” Nerone says. “Nevertheless, when you have this kind of volatile political environment, you anticipate that there’ll be a certain amount of violence. And you hope that it’ll be resolved through discussion, which is what the press is supposed to be about.”