Saturday, March 11, 2023

Elijah Lovejoy, an Abolitionist and Newspaper Publisher, Murdered in Alton, Illinois, on November 7, 1837.

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  • The use of old commonly used terms, disrespectful today, i.e., REDMAN or REDMEN, SAVAGES, and HALF-BREED are explained in this article.
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Silhouette of Elijah P. Lovejoy
Elijah Parish Lovejoy (1802-1837), owner and editor of the Alton Observer Newspaper, accepted the delivery of his third new printing press on November 7, 1837, at 3:00 AM. 

In the 1820s, Elijah Lovejoy was a reform-minded northeastern transplant to the Midwest. Americans uncomfortable with the transformation wrought by the Market Revolution turned to various reform movements in the early 1800s. The temperance movement emerged alongside many others, including mental health reform and Transcendentalism (character, thought, or language). At the same time, other Americans formed utopian communities that challenged mainstream views, like individual property ownership and monogamy. All were trying to come to terms with life in a modern industrial society, and Lovejoy was no different.

The first attempt to organize a national movement for women's rights occurred in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848. Women's suffrage movements began in Illinois as early as the 1860s, although attempts to grant women the right to vote as part of the 1870 Illinois constitution failed. In 1873, a statute was passed giving women the opportunity to run for any school office not created by the Illinois Constitution.

Elijah's father, Rev. Daniel Lovejoy, was a Congregational minister. His mother, Elizabeth Pattee, was the daughter of respectable parents in one of the adjoining Maine counties where Elijah had grown up in Albion, Maine.

Congregationalism in the United States consists of Protestant churches in the Reformed tradition that have a congregational form of church government and trace their origins mainly to Puritan settlers of colonial New England. Jesus Christ alone is the head of the church.

Lovejoy threw himself into civic life in Alton. Among other activities, he started a lyceum, an institution for popular education providing discussions and lectures for the public regarding important issues. His paper's circulation steadily increased, from fewer than 1,000 subscribers to the first issue to more than 2,000 by early 1837. At the same time, Lovejoy was becoming more actively involved with the organized anti-slavery movement and becoming still more absolute in his views. On February 9, 1837, he sent a letter to Asa Cummings of the Portland, Maine-based "Christian Mirror" newspaper. Lovejoy wrote one of his most potent descriptions of slavery. To be a slave, Elijah wrote:

Is to toil all day … with the bitter certainty always before me, that not one cent of what I earn, is, or can be my own. … My first-son, denied even the poor privilege of bidding his father farewell, is on his way, a chained and manacled victim, to a distant market. … It is to enter my cabin, and see my wife or daughter struggling in the lustful embraces of my master, or some of his white friends, without daring to attempt their rescue.

After five years of running his school, Lovejoy's life changed. 

Lovejoy drew public wrath in St. Louis in 1833 as editor of a Presbyterian newspaper, the St. Louis Observer. His object of vituperation (verbal abuse or castigation) was Catholicism. He soon expanded his list of targets to include "the Irish and pro-slavery Christians." The city's slaveholding leadership wasn't amused. Lovejoy used the paper to preach against slavery and argue for its abolition. He immediately faced death threats from the city's pro-slavery residents. 

The final break came on April 28, 1836, when a mob dragged a free Negro man from the St. Louis jail and burned him to death on a tree near 10th and Market streets. The victim was Francis L. McIntosh, a steamboat cook who had stabbed a sheriff's deputy to death after being arrested in a scuffle on the levee.

Lovejoy's St. Louis Observer described the lynching by fire as an "awful murder and savage barbarity." It published the gruesome details as local leaders sought to bury the story. The Observer attacked Judge Luke E. Lawless (his real last name), an old adversary whose instructions to the grand jury virtually assured no charges would be filed. And there weren't any charges enforced.

Many reform movements were fed or inspired by a new religious enthusiasm sweeping the United States. During this Second Great Awakening, Preachers, also anxious over changes wrought by the Market Revolution, offered hope that individuals could choose between right and wrong and impact the world for good. In the North, much of this religious fervor condemned slavery. Lovejoy was swept up in this religious fervor and left the Midwest to enter the Princeton Theological Seminary. 

On July 21, a pro-slavery mob ransacked Lovejoy's office at 85 Main Street (beneath today's Gateway Arch) and tossed the printing press into the Mississippi River. 

Although Illinois was a free state, it was hardly a friendly place for abolitionists. Most Illinoisans thought abolitionism was a form of New England extremism. In 1837, the Illinois General Assembly denounced abolitionism. Illinois' Negro Laws.

The Lovejoys moved from slaveholding Missouri to Alton, Illinois' free and supposedly safer streets in 1836.

Lovejoy obtained another printing press and resumed attacks on slavery. After an extra edition announcing his arrival and intentions, the first regular issue of the Alton Observer appeared on September 8, 1836. In it, Lovejoy repeated his declaration that "The system of American Negro Slavery is an awful evil and sin" and that he would never surrender "the rights of conscience, the freedom of opinion, and of the press.From there, his paper became only more anti-slavery.

On August 7, 1837, a mob gathered at the Alton Observer's office and destroyed Lovejoy's printing press. Lovejoy was fortunate to receive immediate support in Alton from two of the wealthiest men in town, a pair of merchants named Benjamin Godfrey and Winthrop S. Gilman. The two men agreed to finance a new printing press to replace the one that had been wrecked. Opponents immediately seized this printing press and dumped it into the Mississippi River.

Lovejoy faced a fierce backlash when he served as chairman of a series of meetings in Alton to form the "Madison County Anti-Slavery Society" in August of 1837.

On August 21, 1837, a mob wrecked his new printing pressThe destruction of Lovejoy's second press occurred at an inopportune time, even for Lovejoy's wealthy backers, as the Panic of 1837 was shaking the financial system of the United States.

Even Winthrop Gilman, one of Lovejoy's most loyal backers, had doubts about the wisdom of Lovejoy continuing and wrote him a personal letter saying that he felt he could provide no more aid to him. Instead, Lovejoy was forced to appeal to the public at a time when many were increasingly turning against him.

Lovejoy wrote a letter to "The Friends of the Redeemer in Alton," offering to resign from the editorship of the Alton Observer if the paper's supporters would agree to assume his debts. In response, fifteen men met and debated two resolutions. They decided that the Alton Observer should continue but were divided on the question of whether Lovejoy should remain as editor.

The last significant event preceding Lovejoy's murder was the turn taken by a planned convention in Alton to establish a statewide anti-slavery society. Among his supporters, Lovejoy could count Edward Beecher, the President of Illinois College and an influential figure within the state. (Beecher was also the brother of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin). Although he did not favor immediate abolition at the time, Beecher strongly supported the freedom of the press. Beecher believed the growing threats to Lovejoy's rights and livelihood represented a critical juncture, and the time called for a reframing of the issues. He proposed that the upcoming anti-slavery convention in Alton be opened to all who supported the freedom of the press.

The practical effect of this, however, was not as intended. When the convention met, as planned, on October 26, it was essentially hijacked. The Presbyterian Church at Upper Alton was packed that afternoon by well-known opponents of Lovejoy, who, citing the invitation to all "friends of free discussion," claimed a right to be seated. The opposition to Lovejoy was dominated by Usher F. Linder, a rabid anti-abolitionist, a successful lawyer and a status-seeking politician who had recently been the Illinois Attorney General. Over the next two days, with Linder calling most of the shots, the assembled convention passed a series of resolutions declaring sentiments such as one stating that Congress had no power to abolish slavery, and then the convention adjourned.

When the third printing press arrived on November 7, 1837, at 3 o'clock in the morning, Lovejoy was ready to defend it. Besieged but defiant, Lovejoy and his friends guarded the new printing press inside a Mississippi riverfront warehouse. A mob surged toward them, and everybody had weapons.

"Burn 'em out," someone outside shouted. "Shoot every damned abolitionist as he leaves."

When a man with a torch climbed onto the roof, defenders of the printing press opened fire, killing one rioter and scaring some others into retreat. It was eerily quiet. Elijah Lovejoy stepped outside for a look.
The illustration depicts a mob trying to set the warehouse roof on fire as Lovejoy's men shoot at the arsonists.

A woodcut engraving depicts the destruction of the abolitionist printing press of the Alton Observer on November 7, 1837. The press was attacked, and the editor, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, was shot and killed by a drunken mob.

Five shots riddled him. "Oh God, I'm shot," he yelled as he fell. Lovejoy died outside Winthrop Gilman's warehouse at the foot of William Street in Alton. The St. Louis Commercial, a pro-slavery newspaper, lamented accurately that Lovejoy's "martyrdom will be celebrated by every abolitionist in the land." He was buried secretly in Alton. In 1865, his remains were moved to the old Alton City Cemetery. 

Lovejoy, known for righteous and unforgiving prose against slavery, was almost 35 when he was killed. The mob tossed that printing press into the Mississippi River, too. 

Why wouldn't the pro-slavery  newspaper, or any other newspaper or print shop just kept Lovejoy's brand new printing press, instead of throwing it away? After all, the owner is dead.

That was the fourth printing press that Lovejoy had lost to people who hated his words. He soon became a martyr to the nation's small but rising wave of abolitionism. In Illinois, a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln decried the mob violence.

Abraham Lincoln was one of six dissenters to the Illinois House of Representatives resolution.

Lovejoy's murder galvanized the abolitionist community and shocked others. During his Lyceum Address in 1838 that responded to the murder of a Negro man in St. Louis, Abraham Lincoln, no doubt referencing Lovejoy as well, warned the audience:

"Whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last."

Elijah Lovejoy, the man who, with nothing to gain but the approval of conscience and everything to lose but honor, stands forth against overwhelming odds in defense of a great and precious principal and finally lays down his life in that defense, surely deserves from his fellow-men, at least, grateful and everlasting remembrance. 


This 97-foot monument was dedicated to Elijah Lovejoy in 1897. It towers above the Alton Cemetery as a monument to a martyr in the causes of abolition, free speech, and freedom of the press.
A piece of Lovejoy's last printing press from the night he was murdered. It was recovered from the Mississippi River shortly after he was murdered.


Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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