Foster provides historical context for the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, suggesting that harsh action against press outlets was far from unique in 19th century America.
In this article, Craig L. Foster argues that the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor fits well in the volitive environment of mid-19th century America, showing a number of examples where presses were destroyed or editors attacked. This includes examples of newspaper type being “pied”, indicating the specific practice of mixing and jumbling an otherwise sorted set of type, a practice common enough to be defined in the 1828 Webster’s dictionary. After providing the historical details of the fateful event in Nauvoo, including contemporaneous descriptions of it as “unparalleled”, Foster demonstrates a number of cases that indeed appear to be close parallels. He first describes press-destruction by extralegal mob action, including the following (organized here chronologically):
- The destruction of anti-slavery mailings by a mob of 2,000 people in Charleson, South Carolina in 1835.
- The silent acquiescence of government officials in citizen meetings where the destruction of an abolitionist press in Cincinnati, Ohio was planned and implemented in 1836.
- The 1837 murder of an abolitionist editor and the destruction of his press by a mob in Alton, Illinois.
- The breaking of a press and scattering of type in 1840 in Paoli, Indiana, blamed on the Whigs.
- The 1841 destruction and pieing of a press in Rockford Illinois after an article condemning vigilante action against horse thieves.
- The arson of a printing office in Lancaster Ohio by a mob in 1842.
- Reference in 1844 to the reconstruction of a paper in Stamford Connecticut following mob action.
- The destruction of Cassius M. Clay’s press in 1845 in Lexington Kentucky.
- The single-handed destruction of a press and printing office by an ex-Senator in Eaton, Ohio in 1846.
- Vandalism in the office of a Louisville, Kentucky newspaper in 1848 that destroyed the press.
- A pro-Spanish press in New Orleans destroyed in 1851.
- The 1855 resolutions declaring a paper in Parksville, Missouri a public nuisance, after which a mob of two hundred threw the press into the river (and threatened to do the same to the editors).
- An 1856 destruction of a press in Salem, Indiana, after the editor applauded women’s mobbing of liquor stores.
- Destruction of a Republican newspaper in 1859 in Newport, Kentucky (which Foster also appears to be referring to here).
- Reference to eleven separate newspapers destroyed over a period of weeks in the summer of 1861.
- Reference to three newspapers destroyed during the “bleeding Kansas” period of conflict between pro- and anti-slavery settlers.
- Additional attacks on editors, of which Foster provides ten examples.
- A press destroyed in Richmond, Virginia in 1823 in which a police officer reportedly declined to interfere.
- The 1835 destruction of a press in Toledo, Ohio by order of authorities in Michigan.
- A man who filled offices of “high trust and responsibility” destroying a press in Hudson, Ohio in 1836 to prevent the publication of rumors about him.
- A mob led by Democratic candidate John A. Wentworth in 1843 that stole a press in Juliet, Illinois.
- An 1846 attempt to have a paper removed and declared a public nuisance by a Whig delegate to the Maryland House of Representatives.
- The 1859 destruction of an abolitionist newspaper by Democratic candidate Sylvanus B. Lowry in St. Paul, Minnesota.
- The suppression of four newspapers by military authorities in the opening months of the Civil War in 1861.
- A press destroyed by a Missouri state militia in 1866 for inciting violence.
Though he is clear that he is neither condemning or condoning the actions in Nauvoo, Foster argues that mob violence was viewed as commonplace, citing figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Cassius M. Clay. Whether these acts were condemned or lauded generally depended on the political persuasion of those involved. The irony is that mobs usually believed they were being hypersensitive to the law instead of in conflict with it, a fact that aligns with the intense legal deliberation of the Nauvoo City Council—the Council appeared to genuinely believe that they were within their legal rights to destroy the press, a belief which, though likely mistaken in their specific claims, may have ultimately had merit.
As Foster recognizes, it’s possible to frame the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor as relatively unprecedented—all you have to do is split enough hairs. If one wants to count only the successful destruction of a press under a city’s own legal authority, then Nauvoo does appear to be the first. But it seems odd to me that “unprecedented” somehow implies “worse.” If a mob had risen up on its own to destroy the Expositor, as suggested by Thomas Ford, then perhaps Joseph or the City Council might have been shielded from some of the blame, and one could claim a substantial amount of historical precedent. But, like John Taylor, I have a hard time seeing that as the better alternative. That the Nauvoo City Council is unique in its attempt to align with the law of the land, rather than engage in extralegal vigilante justice, strikes me as a substantial point in their favor. That some instead see it as a special indicator of villainy, in the context of the examples cited by Foster, may tell me more about them than about conditions in Nauvoo.