By July of 1836, the abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah P. Lovejoy was no longer safe in the slave state of Missouri. That much was clear. While several events precipitated Lovejoy’s move to Illinois, the deciding factor was probably the aftermath of the McIntosh trial. Following the lynching of the mixed-race man Francis McIntosh, discussed in last month’s column, a few members of the lynch mob had been brought to trial. The presiding judge, the aptly named Luke E. Lawless, first refused to convict the murderers, claiming it was “beyond the reach of human law” to convict any individuals of an action carried out by a “multitude.” Then he went even further by shifting blame onto the “abolitionist fanatics” who had stirred the passions of Black people. Worse still for Lovejoy, Lawless specifically singled out his own writings, reading from a copy of the St. Louis Observer that contained Lovejoy’s critical account of the murder.
The very same night Lovejoy announced his move across the river to Alton, Illinois, his newspaper office in St. Louis was attacked. The vandals broke in and destroyed a large amount of printing materials, but his press itself survived and was put on a ferry to Alton, where, Lovejoy hoped, more favorable circumstances would await him. Unfortunately, things would not prove so simple. The press arrived on the morning of Sunday, July 24, and the devoutly religious editor was unwilling to move it that day, lest he break the Sabbath. While it sat unattended, a group of men arrived, possibly from the Missouri side of the river, smashed the press to pieces and pushed it into the river.
The reaction from the Alton community was initially somewhat sympathetic. Some of the city’s civic leaders were embarrassed by the fact this mob action had taken place within their borders, and called a mass meeting to discuss with Lovejoy his future in Alton. What Lovejoy said at the meeting would later become hotly disputed. He gave his usual explanation, that he did not consider himself an “abolitionist,” though he was an “uncompromising enemy of Slavery.” He also stated that he did not expect to publish as much about slavery as he had in the past, since he was now located in a free state. But he issued one important caveat: that he would reserve the right to change focus at any time, and specifically appealing to his First Amendment rights, he added, “I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, to write, and to publish whatever I please on any subject.” Despite this, many at the meeting heard, or chose to hear Lovejoy’s words as an implicit pledge not to continue writing in opposition to slavery.
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 press to replace the one that had been wrecked. Contrary to the expectations of some of the men present at the aforementioned meeting, Lovejoy immediately resumed his writings against slavery. After an extra edition announcing his arrival and intentions, the first regular issue of the Alton Observer appeared on Sept. 8, 1836. In it, Lovejoy repeated his avowal 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.”
Lovejoy threw himself into civic life in Alton. Among other activities, he started a lyceum for the public discussion of important issues. His paper’s circulation steadily increased, growing 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. In a Feb. 9, 1837, letter to Asa Cummings of the Portland, Maine-based newspaper the Christian Mirror, Lovejoy wrote one of his most powerful descriptions of slavery. To be a slave, he 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.”
Lovejoy faced a fierce backlash when he served as chairman of a series meetings in Alton to form the Madison County Anti-Slavery Society in August of 1837. On the night of Monday, Aug. 21, 1937, Lovejoy’s newspaper press was destroyed for a second time. Lovejoy had been home with his sick wife during the day and out performing a marriage ceremony in the evening, so he had not been at his office when the mob formed outside. He met the men on his way back home and was briefly detained. The crowd agreed to take medicine to his wife, and did not injure him at this time, but they did enter the office and destroy the press and type.
The 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. A major depression would last for the better part of a decade. 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 Observer if the paper’s supporters would agree to assume his debts. In response, 15 men met and debated two resolutions. They agreed that the Observer should continue, but were divided on the question of whether Lovejoy should remain as editor.
Lovejoy’s brother Owen made a trip to Cincinnati, where he managed to procure a third printing press with largely out-of-state funding. It was delivered to Alton by steamboat late on Sept. 21 and was moved to a warehouse owned by Lovejoy’s friends, Reuben Gerry and Royal Weller. Alton’s mayor, John M. Krum, was notified and said he would post a constable to protect the press, if they would only leave it to him. At 11 o’clock, however, the constable went home and a mob immediately arrived and broke into the building. The mayor was called and he ordered them to disperse, but then only stood helplessly by as they calmly took the press apart and threw the pieces into the Mississippi River.
The last major 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 was not in favor of 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 up 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 Oct. 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, successful lawyer and 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.
The abolitionists, who had been in town for the convention and found themselves outnumbered, considered meeting that very same night, but instead made plans to meet the next day to form the state anti-slavery society. At the meeting there was almost universal sentiment that the Observer must remain in Alton with Lovejoy as editor. A fourth press was purchased on credit, and the moment of arrival neared.
Lovejoy and Gilman — who, despite having earlier removed his support, now feared for his friend’s safety — had by this time made a fateful decision. Since the local government had repeatedly proved either unable or unwilling to defend their rights, they began to consider the possibility of defending the press themselves.
Initially, Lovejoy had embraced the principle of nonresistance promoted by William Lloyd Garrison. He had not fought back when the mob detained him during the destruction of his second press. Nor had he resisted when, on Sunday, Sept. 24, men had broken into his mother-in-law’s home in St. Charles, Missouri, and threatened to drag him outside to an awaiting mob.
Now, however, Lovejoy and Gilman visited Mayor Krum and asked that a military company be formed. Krum declined to form one himself, but assured them they would be well within their rights in forming a volunteer militia of their own. With this, the stage was set for the final confrontation.
The murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy on the night of Nov. 7, 1837, by a pro-slavery mob made him a martyr in the eyes of abolitionists across the nation and radicalized countless other white northerners to the anti-slavery cause. As historian Ken Ellingwood writes, “The killing of a newspaper editor helped abolitionists broaden their still narrow cause into one of rescuing the country from a host of dangerous predators, including mob justice and the systemic suppression of speech, that mocked the very promise of American Democracy.” Ellingwood noted that John Brown, who later attempted to incite a slave rebellion in the South by staging a raid on Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, was so struck by the news of Lovejoy’s death that he vowed to “consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”
Will Chapman is the Librarian and Archivist at Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.