“They desired to silence him, and he is dead — and the press they feared is destroyed. And yet, though Lovejoy has earned the crown of martyrdom, and been taken from among us, he speaketh, and in a voice of thunder that shall penetrate where his living voice would never have been heard — and move thousands of hearts which his arguments never could have moved.”
— Portland Transcript
Elijah P. Lovejoy’s fourth and final printing press arrived in Alton, Illinois, at around 3 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 6, 1837, and was quickly secreted to the warehouse of Godfrey & Gilman, where a makeshift militia of 20 to 30 men, having been given the tacit approval of Mayor Krum (he refused to grant official approval), stood ready to guard it. All appeared quiet for awhile, but throughout that day a group of men, having learned of the press’ arrival, were drinking hard and working themselves into a fervor. They descended upon the warehouse that night carrying torches, “blowing tin horns and passing around bottles of liquor,” as Lovejoy biographer and veteran journalist Ken Ellingwood described the scene. After Lovejoy was fatally shot while trying to stop an attacker from setting fire to the warehouse roof, the defenders abandoned the building and the attackers entered and shoved the press out of a top-floor window. The mob then smashed it into bits and threw the pieces in the Mississippi River, feeling satisfied that in silencing Lovejoy for good they’d eradicated the threat of disruption to their white-supremacist social order.
The attack was but the latest, albeit the most dramatic, in a series of events testing the limits of the First Amendment as it applied to anti-slavery activism. During the 1830s, pro-slavery forces pursued an aggressive campaign to stifle any discussion of the immorality of slavery. Ellingwood has described the climate during this time as “an exercise in censorship unlike any in peacetime American history … seeking to suppress a broad array of expression: newspapers, literature sent by mail — even whether slavery could be discussed in the halls of Congress.”
In Alton, Lovejoy’s murder was met with ambivalence. Many local newspapers refused to condemn the attacks or blamed Lovejoy himself, and justice was never delivered in court. Two sets of trials were held following the warehouse seige. The first trial was of Winthrop Gilman, Lovejoy’s ally and the owner of the warehouse, who was absurdly charged, along with 11 others, with having incited the riot. The jury took just 15 minutes to acquit Gilman and the charges against the other warehouse defenders were dropped. However, the trial of some of those who had participated in the murderous mob action also resulted in a quick acquittal. The person (or persons) who fired the fatal bullets was never positively identified, though several men claimed credit.
Beyond Alton, however, the attack had enormous resonance. The intention of the mob was to snuff out abolitionist sentiment, but killing Lovejoy produced the opposite effect. Newspapers across the North editorialized against the lawlessness of the mob, and meetings were held to condemn the murder.
A few who were otherwise sympathetic to the abolitionist cause did express some mild criticism that Lovejoy and his allies had resolved to defend the press by force, if necessary. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison said Lovejoy did not qualify as “a Christian martyr,” although his newspaper, The Liberator, vociferously condemned the attack.
Perhaps the most critical voice within the abolitionist movement came from Angelina Grimké. Along with her sister, Sarah, Angelina was one of the few prominent white southern women to advocate for abolitionism. Motivated by a strong Christian faith, the Grimké sisters had overcome the prejudiced environment of their upbringing, as well as restrictions against females speaking to mixed-gender audiences. After leaving the Charleston, South Carolina, plantation of their slave-owning parents for good, the sisters had moved to Philadelphia, where they joined the Quakers. Angelina Grimké, who had fully absorbed the pacifist teachings of the Society of Friends, wrote of her disappointment that Lovejoy had not died as “the unresisting victim of [mob] fury” [emphasis added].
The predominate result of the deadly attack, however, was to galvanize the abolitionist movement. Lovejoy’s death prompted the first major public speech by Wendell Phillips, who would go on to become one of the most important leaders of the abolitionist movement. At a meeting held at Boston’s Faneuil Hall on Dec. 8, 1837, to protest the murder of Lovejoy, the 26-year-old Phillips directly confronted the arguments that the editor was somehow responsible for bringing about his own fate on account of the “imprudence” of his actions.
Here in his home state of Maine, Lovejoy’s honor was also defended by the Rev. Silas McKeen, who delivered a sermon in his memory at the request of Lovejoy’s family. McKeen placed blame on the authorities in Alton, and said the charge of “imprudence” in seeking to defend the press by force could only be leveled because local officials and the townspeople had already neglected their civic responsibilities, leaving Lovejoy’s group little choice.
The Maine Wesleyan Journal celebrated Lovejoy as “the first martyr in the cause of Abolitionism,” and the Belfast Republican Journal called him a “Martyr in the cause of LIBERTY of SPEECH and the PRESS,” and wrote that “the curse of GOD be on the heads of the INFERNAL mob.” The Eastern Baptist newspaper wrote that, “A martyred Lovejoy has unloosed the tongues of thousands, and compelled them to speak for God and their country.”
One exception was the Christian Mirror, Asa Cummings’ religious newspaper, in Portland, which favored sending free Blacks to colonize Africa and was skeptical of abolitionists (Lovejoy, while living, had several exchanges with Cummings). Maine abolitionist Austin Willey was appointed by the Antislavery Society at Bangor Seminary to write an article for the Christian Mirror that was sympathetic to Lovejoy’s actions. The piece was published, but with accompanying criticism penned by the editor, who then refused to publish Willey’s reply to his comments.
A special meeting of the Bangor City Anti-Slavery Society was held on Nov. 27, 1837, at which resolutions were passed praising Lovejoy as “a bold, uncompromising enemy of slavery in all its forms.” Another meeting was held at the North Church in Belfast on Nov. 30, where resolutions were passed proclaiming: “Lovejoy … has fallen a martyr in defense of rights which are guaranteed to every freeman by the constitutions of the general and state governments; right of which our country has made her highest boast, and which are dear to every American citizen.”
Elijah’s younger brothers, Joseph and Owen, wasted no time going to press with a book entitled, Memoir of the Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy; who was Murdered in Defence of the Liberty of the Press, at Alton, Illinois, Nov. 7, 1837. Copies were widely distributed among antislavery societies in Maine and elsewhere. At the fourth annual meeting of the Maine Anti-slavery Society, held in Augusta on Feb. 7, 1839, attendees voted to order 27 copies of the Memoir — one for each state library in the country (there were 26 states at the time) and one for the Library of Congress.
Both surviving Lovejoy brothers carried on his legacy. Joseph Lovejoy worked for the New York-based Emancipator, and later served as editor of the Liberty Standard, an anti-slavery newspaper established in Hallowell, Maine, in 1841. He also wrote a biography of Charles Turner Torrey, an abolitionist who died in 1846 in a Maryland prison. Torrey had been sent there on three counts of “stealing slaves.” His work as part of the Underground Railroad is estimated to have freed about 400 formerly enslaved people.
Owen Lovejoy remained in Illinois, where, in addition to his work as a lawyer and minister, he became a leading anti-slavery politician, as well as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He was elected to the Illinois State Legislature in 1854 and worked with Abraham Lincoln to form the Republican Party in Illinois that same year. Three years later, the people of Illinois’ third district sent him to the U.S. Congress, where he served until his death in 1864. Following his death, Abraham Lincoln is said to have remarked, “I’ve lost the best friend I had in the house.”
On March 8, 1838, just five months after the martyrdom of Elijah Lovejoy, the first issue appeared of the Advocate of Freedom, a newspaper published by the Maine Anti-Slavery Society, and initially edited by Bowdoin College professor William Smyth. The Albion native’s death had raised the question not only of the evil of slavery, but whether the very right to speak one’s conscience could be curtailed by the threat of mob attacks. Mainers against slavery would not be silenced.
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 email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.