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Elijah Lovejoy

Surrendered His Life for Free Speech, Free Press and Free Men


by Paul Simon, [former] U.S. Senator Representing the State of Illinois

Elijah Parish Lovejoy was born Nov. 9, 1802, in the quiet town of Albion, Maine, He would die 35 years later—a death that would influence the national Through his editorial courage, Lovejoy conveyed his abhorrence for social injustice and his belief in the constitutional right of a free press.

A Presbyterian minister, Elijah Lovejoy's overriding conviction was to Christian morality. His father, the Rev. Daniel Lovejoy, was a congregational minister who also farmed. Like his father, his mother was "devoted to Christian living and serving the cause of her faith." At a young age, Elijah, or Parish as his family and friends called him, read the Bible and memorized hymns. His religious background influenced his need for spiritual enlightenment as an adult. He attended Waterville College, a Baptist-supported school in Maine.

After finishing college, Elijah Lovejoy ventured west, Illinois was nine years old when he started his journey in 1827. His first stop was at the home of John Tillson, a friendly Presbyterian who lived in Hillsboro, Ill. But there was no demand for a teacher or a college graduate in Hillsboro. Illinois had been settled from south to north. Chicago was one of the smallest Illinois towns. Finding a place that needed a teacher meant going to the state capital, Vandalia; to the thriving city of Shawneetown in deep Southern Illinois; to the rapidly growing river city of Alton; or to the big frontier town of St. Louis. Elijah Lovejoy chose St. Louis.

When Elijah Lovejoy arrived late in 1827, St. Louis had a population exceeding 6,000. Since St. Louis was a growing city, without public schools, Lovejoy decided to open a school. It was a prime opportunity to bring "good New England culture" to Missouri. The school was a tremendous success, spiritually and financially. But after two years of teaching, Elijah Lovejoy grew discontent.

From Teacher to Newspaper Man

Using some of the profits from his school, he bought half interest in the St. Louis Times and became the paper's editor.

It is important to note that this was a time when editing a newspaper required not only the ability to write but also the ability to fight. Newspaper editors called each other names in print that people today would not use in conversation. The editors also said exactly what they thought of public officials and others, and it was not uncommon for an editor to meet an opponent on the street and to end up badly beaten and bruised. Elijah Lovejoy enjoyed his job as editor at the Times which was concerned with politics and little else.

Elijah Lovejoy's early years in St. Louis were without close religious ties. His Christian upbringing remained an important thought dormant, part of this life. He did, however, hear various evangelists and religious leaders when they visited St. louis, but none made a significant dent in his lack of active interest in religion. In 1831, a religious revival was sweeping the country. The Rev. David Nelson—called Dr. Nelson—was a popular speaker at Western revival meetings and had a profound effect on Elijah Lovejoy.

Lovejoy founds the Observer

In March 1832, after experiencing a religious reawakening, Elijah Lovejoy enrolled at Princeton Seminary. He decided the Times didn't meet the needs of his new-found faith. He completed his seminary studies in a record 13 months. After spending a few months in Rhode Island and New York. Elijah Lovejoy returned to St. Louis at the request of Christian business who had wanted to start a newspaper that would promote "religion, morality and education."

After 10 days, Elijah Lovejoy printed the first edition of the Observer. The first issues concerned basically religious issues; "Original Sin," "The Missionary Enterprise." "Report of the Fourth Annual Meeting of the Illinois Sunday School Union," and smaller news items about religious activity around the nation With the Observer, Elijah Lovejoy found a forum to express his Christian beliefs, and at the same time, a way in which he could affect public opinion through Journalism. At first, Elijah Lovejoy showed little interest in the slavery issue.

What seems to have prompted Elijah Lovejoy's first strong stand was a statement in the newspaper he formerly owned, the St. Louis Times calling for mob action against a woman who started a Sunday school for slaves. While Elijah Lovejoy was not an abolitionist at this point, he sided with the need to educate slaves: "Bind their bodies in whatever chains you please . . . they have souls as precious as those of their master." This marks the beginning of his moral passion against slavery. It is clear Elijah Lovejoy realized the fundamental immorality of slavery and its contradiction to Christian ethics.

In the beginning, Elijah Lovejoy avoided a radical stand. Instead of associating with the abolitionists, who called for an immediate end to slavery, Lovejoy sided with those who wanted a slow transition. A few months A few months before is marriage to Celia Ann French, on March 4, 1835, Elijah Lovejoy attended a meeting of the Presbyterian Synod of Missouri and was among a minority of evangelists who publicly supported freedom os slaves. At the same time, his newspaper was talking in plainer language with almost every issue. Slavery was a controversial issue, especially in Missouri, which was a slave state.

Slowly, pressure mounted for Elijah Lovejoy to ease up on the slavery issue. One of the top officers of the First Presbyterian Church in St. Louis frequently visited Lovejoy during the summer following his marriage and urged him to stop writing about slavery. He said that Elijah Lovejoy was in real danger of action by a mob.

The murder of Francis McIntosh, a free Negro, prompted Elijah Lovejoy to intensify his arguments against slavery. McIntosh had been arrested unfairly and then burned to death by mob hysteria. Lovejoy was deeply moved and depressed by all this: “We stood and gazed for a moment or two upon the blackened and mutilated trunk—for that was all which remained—of McIntosh before us, and as we turned away, in bitterness of heart we prayed that we might not love.” In the next issue of the Observer, Elijah Lovejoy referred to the job action as “"savage barbarity.” In a bizarre set of events, Judge Lawless, who presided over the murder proceedings of McIntosh, told the murder proceedings of McIntosh, told the grand jury not find anyone guilty of the McIntosh slaying, and then he proceeded to blame Elijah Lovejoy for what happened.

This event unquestionably changed Elijah Lovejoy's courses. He responded as one would expect. He said eh would rather “be changed to the same tree as McIntosh and share his fate" than to accept the ideas of Lawless. Elijah Lovejoy went on to say that the answer to jobs is to enforce the laws—until then mobs will continue to "destroy, plunder and burn.” Between irritating the job members—which were a majority of the citizens—and various religious groups, Elijah Lovejoy had angered almost every powerful group and person in St. Louis. Because of fear or mob action, particularly to his wife and newborn son, Elijah Lovejoy decided to move the Observer to Alton.

Lovejoy Arrives in Alton, Illinois

The conflict in which Elijah Lovejoy was involved gave his paper national importance. Subscription lists grew. When Lovejoy arrived in Alton, he did so with the strong belief that in Illinois there would be more tolerance of anti-slavery opinions He had false expectations. Hours after his arrival in Alton, Elijah Lovejoy's printing press, and what other few pieces of printing equipment had been salvaged from a mob attack in St. Louis just before he left, was knocked to pieces and thrown into the river.

News of the destruction spread quickly through Alton, The law-abiding citizens of Alton were outraged and felt the need to protect their property. A few leading Alton businessmen, including Winthrop Gilman, urged that funds be raised to get Elijah Lovejoy back into the newspaper business so he could publish a religious newspaper in Alton. The issue of slavery was still a major concern. Many citizens were anxious to restore Lovejoy's liberties only if he agreed to be less outspoken on slavery. Lovejoy assured them he was not an abolitionist but at the same time he opposed slavery. He told them he intended to publish a religious newspaper and would devote less space to slaver; "When I was in St. louis I felt myself called upon to treat at large upon the subject of slavery as I was in a state where the evil existed," he told them. "Now having come to a free state where that evil does not exist, I feel myself less called upon to discuss the subject than when I was in St. Louis" Then he added these significant words. "But gentlemen, as long as I am an American Citizen, and as long as American blood runs in these veins, I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, to write, and to publish whatever I please on any subject."

A new press was ordered and within months Elijah Lovejoy was back in business. The first months in Alton were the only peaceful days he would have. Lovejoy was expressing intensely unpopular views. He quoted from an anti-slavery convention held in Ann Arbor, Mich.; "All attempts to justify slavery from the Word of God are gross perversions of its precepts and principle." Elijah Lovejoy also editorialized on a proposal to prohibit distribution of anti-slavery views, which appeared would pass the Missouri Legislature. Lovejoy stated his opposition. He called it a threat "against freedom of the press."

These seemingly radical views brought a host of public criticism. But as opposition grew, so did Elijah Lovejoy's courage. In early issues of the Observer, Lovejoy said slavery was a sin. Now he was saying those who don't fight slaver—which was a majority of citizens—"are fighting against God." As a minister, Elijah Lovejoy said he had the obligation to preach against slavery at "whatever ris." When a reader in Missouri complained about too much anti-slavery material in the Observer, Elijah Lovejoy wrote to him: "If I could hold my peace on this subject with a clear conscience, I would most assuredly do it. My course has cost me many a valued friend. But I cannot, and I am sure you do not ask or wish a Christian to connive at what he believes to be sin, for the sake of popularity."

Month by month and issue by issue Elijah Lovejoy grew stronger and stronger in anti-slavery statements. The 61st anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1837, marked another turning point for Lovejoy. While the people of Alton celebrated, Elijah Lovejoy was in his office writing an editorial:

"What bitter mockery is this. We assemble to thank God for our own freedom, and to eat and drink with joy and gladness of heart, while our feet are on the necks of nearly three millions of our fellow men. Not al our shouts of self-congratulation can drown their groans. Even that very flag of freedom that waves; over their heads is formed from materials cultivated by slaves, on a soil moistened with their blood."

In the same issue that had his plain spoken Fourth of July editorial, Elijah Lovejoy ran an editorial titled "Illinois Anti-Slavery Society." In the editorial he stated: "Is it not time that such a society be formed? We would do nothing rashly, but it doesn't seem to us that the time to form such a society was has fully come. We shall hope to have a response from the friends of the slave without delay." These words served notice to a population already aroused that he was going to provide leadership in forming an anti-slavery society. It was also clear that his stand on slavery would be stronger in the future, not weaker.

How to Silence Lovejoy

A public meeting was held to determine how to deal with Elijah Lovejoy. A committee of five was appointed to oversee a resolution to request of Elijah Lovejoy “a discontinuance of the publication of his incendiary doctrines which alone have a tendency to disturb the quiet of our citizens and neighbors” The committee decided that instead of seeing him personally, they would send a letter. If they were hoping for a meek response of agreement, they were in for a disappointment.

Elijah Lovejoy told them he could not bow to their wishes without admitting that liberty of the press and freedom of speech were dead. It was clear that something stronger would be needed to stop Lovejoy.

Lovejoy the Abolitionist

Late in July 1837 Elijah Lovejoy finally identified himself completely with the abolitionists. He had slowly been moving in that direction. First he saw no great evil in slaver; then he favored returning some Negroes to Africa and freeing others gradually; now he believed in immediate freedom for all slaves, an extremely unpopular position in Alton.

For a second time a group of men broke his printing press into pieces and tossed it in the river. As public opinion turned against Elijah Lovejoy, some supporters deserted him. Ministers who quietly had been standing up for Lovejoy now "washed their hands" of the whole thing. "Both sides are wrong" they said. Businessmen who thought the new newspaper would be one more solid business for the city were now either hostile or frightened into silence.

The Final Showdown

Elijah Lovejoy and a few loyal supporters expected a new printing press to replace the old one. They looked for a location to put it that would be easy to defend. Wintrhop Gilman, a wealthy Alton businessman and a loyal Elijah Lovejoy supporters, suggested the press be placed in a warehouse that he owned with another Alton businessman. It was a courageous position for Gilman to take, for in the warehouse was the city's largest collection of salable merchandise. The warehouse was a stone building separated from the river only by a wharf and a street.

In a few days about 30 of Elijah Lovejoy's followers met at Gilman's store to organize themselves into a voluntary company to protect the property and the press. They planned to spend the night in Gilman's warehouse. They were armed.

During the night the new press was moved into the building with surprising ease and quiet.

The next day word spread quickly. Elijah Lovejoy's friends were now genuinely frightened. The angrier people became, the more they drank—and the more they drank, the angrier they became.

A group left a local bar, formed a line, and headed for the stone warehouse. As the small group marched toward the warehouse its size grew. Some who came along were only curious; other wanted entertainment and were always ready for a good fight; others were genuinely angry.

At first only a few of them had guns. Most had clubs or sticks. Some had stones. Before long about 150 shouting stone-throwing men were at the side of the warehouse.

There soon were more shouts from the mob, and even from some of the spectators anxious for excitement: "Fire the house!" "Burn them out!" "Shoot every abolitionist in the building if they try to escape!"

Gilman confronted the job to defend his property. A man among the mob said they had come for the press. Suddenly, a gun was drawn on Gilman and he retreated into the warehouse where Elijah Lovejoy had been.

A barrage of stones battered the building, shattering nearly every window. Shots were fired. The locked doors were under assault. More shots were fired.

One of the men in the warehouse returned fire, wounding someone in the mob.

Shots from the mob were fired. A youth known only as "Okeh" climbed on the roof to light the fire. Before the blaze could be started, three or four people confronted him, Elijah Lovejoy included, and pushed him to the ground.

Elijah Lovejoy's supporters wavered, but he did not. "I for one, am willing to lay down my life."

Elijah Lovejoy and Royal Weller approached another person attempting to torch the roof. Weller was shot as was Elijah Lovejoy—five times.

"My God, I am shot!" he yelled. He died immediately.

The building was engulfed in flames. Feeling victorious, some of the men in the job began to put out the fire. Others broke up the press and dumped it in the river.

Elijah Lovejoy was buried on his 35th birthday. Celia Ann was a widow at age 24.

The first trial that followed Elijah Lovejoy's death had Gilman, who owned the property, as a defendant. Charge—starting a riot.

Eleven others faced the same charge. All were Elijah Lovejoy supporters. A jury took only 15 minutes to find Gilman not guilty and the 11 others had the charges dropped against them.

The mob leaders were the next to be tried. Again, a not guilty verdict. The jury foreman was a leader among the anti-Elijah Lovejoy forces.

No one was ever convicted.

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