By John C. Fazio
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2010, All Rights Reserved
In a very real sense, the Civil War’s first casualty fell not at Fort Sumter on April 14, 1861 (Pvt. David Hough, killed during a post-bombardment salute to Old Glory), or even in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 24, 1861 (Ephraim Elmer Ellsworth, killed after tearing down a Confederate flag atop the Marshall House Inn), but in Alton, Illinois, on November 7, 1837. For there and then it was that the first volley from a pro-slavery mob ended the life of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a courageous idealist who paid with his life for his defense of free speech and a free press and his opposition to slavery. In so doing, he added his name to a very, very long list of men and women for whom principle was more important than convenience, so much so, in fact, that it was worth dying for. It would be left to another Illinoisan and the Northern coalition he led, twenty-seven and a half years later, to vindicate this Illinoisan’s message.
Lovejoy was born on his grandfather’s farm near Albion, Maine, on November 9, 1802. He was the first of nine children born to Daniel Lovejoy and Elizabeth Pattee. His father was a minister (some sources say Presbyterian; some Congregational) and farmer; his mother a devout Christian. Elijah was named for Daniel’s close friend and mentor, the Reverend Elijah Parish. Not surprisingly, Elijah Lovejoy had a deeply religious upbringing and would follow his father in the ministry.
Lovejoy first attended public schools, then moved on to the Academy at Monmouth, in lake country not far from Lewiston, and China Academy, in China, Maine, a small community near the State’s capital, Augusta. After becoming proficient in Latin and mathematics, he attended Waterville College (now Colby College) in Waterville, Maine, enrolling as a sophomore in 1823 and graduating in 1826 as Valedictorian and class poet. (It is curious how so many idealists embrace poetry as a vehicle better suited than prose to express their deepest feelings.) While at Waterville, he taught in the college’s preparatory division and then taught at China Academy after graduation.
It was during this period that he experienced the emotional difficulty that is common to so many young people as they struggle to reconcile their religious convictions and their basic sense of right and wrong with the reality of the world around them. It is a process of bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood, a process that some accomplish smartly, some reasonably well, some not very well and some not at all. In any case, he overcame his thoughts of suicide, his loneliness and his despondency sufficiently well to move on, though he found himself increasingly at odds with people who did not share his religious beliefs.
In May, 1827, following the advice of his teachers at Waterville, he moved to Boston, with Illinois as his ultimate destination. Unable to find work there to finance his journey, he set out on foot for the Prairie State, stopping first in New York City. There he found work with the Saturday Evening Gazette as a subscription peddler. Still struggling financially and with Illinois seemingly a world away, he sought help from the Rev. Jeremiah Chapin, President of Waterville College, who promptly sent him the funds necessary for him to make the journey, which he did, arriving in Hillsboro, Montgomery County, in the fall of 1827.
Finding the sparsely settled land in south central Illinois unsuited to his purposes, he decided to move to nearby St. Louis, a metropolis by comparison. There, by 1830, he became the editor and part owner of an anti-Jacksonian newspaper, the St. Louis Times, and the headmaster of a co-educational private school founded by himself.
Still not comfortable with his calling, he came under the influence of abolitionist David Nelson and the Christian revivalist movement he led and, after joining the First Presbyterian Church, decided to enter the ministry. He returned to the east, studied at the Princeton Theological Seminary and, after graduation, was ordained by the Second Presbytery of Philadelphia as a Presbyterian minister in April, 1833.
Soon thereafter, he returned to St. Louis, was ordained by the Presbytery of that city in 1834 and was elected its Moderator in 1835. He began preaching there at the Des Peres Presbyterian Church (the “Old Meeting House”), which he established.
On March 4, 1835, he married 21-year old Celia Ann French, a farmer’s daughter from St. Charles, Missouri, whom he had met while preaching at one of the Presbyterian churches then scattered on the frontier.
In a letter to his mother Elizabeth dated March 10, 1835, it seems he could not find enough adjectives to describe her. He said that she was “tall, well shaped, of a light, fair complexion, dark flaxen hair, large blue eyes, with features of a perfect Grecian contour. In short …very beautiful…pious…intelligent, refined…of agreeable manners…sweet-tempered, obliging, kind-hearted, industrious, good-humored, and possessed alike of a sound judgment and correct taste (and)…she loves me…”
In The Illinois (1985), James Gray wrote:
Their life together was so short and so tragic that one longs to believe that rich rewards were crowded into its few years. Certainly Celia Ann Lovejoy was a woman of touching devotion. The time came when she must fight with her fists to defend her husband and her home. She did not hesitate to do it, and the picture of her trying to hold off a mob with no aid but her own resolution is one of the most pathetic in an almost unbearably moving story. (pp. 154, 155)
About this time, and at the urging of a group of St. Louis businessmen, he combined his training in theology and his natural religious bent with his experience in journalism and began editing a religious newspaper, the St. Louis Observer. Had he remained a simple preacher, content to air his message from the pulpit only, he might have lived to a ripe old age with his beautiful wife, but there was too much fire in his belly for that. The issue of slavery, which had bedeviled the republic since its founding, had by this time taken center stage and he could do no less than address it with all of the sense of righteousness that had been instilled in him first by his devoutly religious parents, then at Monmouth and China Academies and finally at Princeton. In a letter to his brother, Joseph, he expressed his belief that a righteous God would “overrule” slavery “…for the good of black and white, and his own Glory.” Because Missouri was a slave state, his message had a special urgency and touched some very sensitive nerves.
From the pulpit and, more importantly, in the Observer, he began to advocate the gradual abolition of slavery and argue forcefully for freedom of speech and of the press. It must be said, too, that in so doing, he criticized not only the Slave Power and the advocates of slavery, but also other religious organizations and movements whose adherents did not share his views. Before we judge him too harshly on this score, we must consider that in the 19th century, prior to the Civil War, religious and non-religious bodies, organizations and movements took positions on the central issue of the period. His hostility toward some of them, therefore, had less to do with their dogma than with the fact that they either supported slavery, did not oppose it to a degree that suited him or were neutral on the issue Not surprisingly, his broader criticism earned him the enmity not only of the states-rights advocates of slavery, but also of members of the religions, organizations and movements that felt the hot breath of his anger.
His editorials became especially strident after he witnessed the murder of Francis McIntosh, a free black man from Pittsburgh who was accused of murdering his former master. McIntosh was forcefully taken from the steamboat, Flora, tied to a tree and burned to death by a mob. The matter was brought before a grand jury for investigation. The proceedings were presided over by Judge Luke E. Lawless. Judge Lawless refused to charge the mob leaders with the crime, stating to the jury that an insane frenzy had gripped the mob and that because the jurors could not know the mob’s mentality, no individual could be tried for the crime. In his summation to the jurors, the Judge even tried to fix blame for the tragedy on Lovejoy. He held up a copy of the Observer and said:
It seems to me impossible that while such language is used and published as that which I have cited from the St. Louis Observer, there can be any safety in a slave-holding state.
Lovejoy blasted Lawless in the Observer, thereby further alienating the already alienated pro-slavery lobby, including Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a very powerful figure in state and national politics and a slave-holder himself, as well as many ordinary Southerners who saw any threat to the peculiar institution as a threat to their economic interests. Shortly after his anti-Lawless editorials, a mob, probably largely the same mob that murdered McIntosh, and no doubt energized by Lawless’s ruling, destroyed Lovejoy’s printing press. Because he feared further violence against his presses and against himself and his family, and also because of a lack of support by the Presbyterian General Assembly, he moved across the Mississippi to Alton, twenty-five miles from St. Louis in the free state of Illinois.
“Free state” is almost a misnomer, because involuntary servitude is only one expression of racism; laws restricting mobility and curtailing the rights of blacks existed in many “free states” too, including Illinois.
Before Illinois entered the Union in 1818, the territorial government enacted a “Black Code” that permitted indentured servitude, effectively circumventing the prohibition of slavery. The Constitution of 1818 prohibited slavery generally, but permitted it in the salt mines and also permitted slave owners to retain their slaves. The General Assembly contributed to the oppression by enacting legislation that made it very difficult for free blacks to migrate to the state and that made life unpleasant for those who did so. A black person could be required to show proof of his status as a freed black. If he could not do so, he was subject to a $50 fine (a prohibitive sum in those days) and to sale by the sheriff to the highest bidder. The General Assembly also adopted a resolution approving slavery in states where it existed and condemning abolition societies in Illinois. The status of blacks in the “free state” of Illinois in 1837, therefore, was precarious at best and only a notch above that which obtained in the neighboring “slave-state” of Missouri.
In Alton, Lovejoy continued his work in the ministry, becoming the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery in 1837 and pastor of the College Avenue Presbyterian Church, which is still going. He also continued publishing his newspaper, now named the Alton Observer, and now advocating the immediate rather than the gradual abolition of slavery, together with a fierce defense of free speech and a free press. On July 6, 1837, he wrote, in an editorial: “The voices of three million slaves call upon you to come and unloose the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free.” Somehow he found time, too, to help form and support an organization that was very unpopular among Illinoisans, namely the Illinois Auxiliary of the American Anti-Slavery Society, a group that was far ahead of its time. His support further angered those citizens who were already unkindly disposed towards him.
Destruction of his presses continued. In Alton, three of them were seized, broken and thrown into the Mississippi by pro-slavery mobs. After each such episode, he promptly ordered another press, only to see it meet the same fate as the others. After the destruction of his fourth press (the third in Illinois), he wrote in the Observer:
We distinctly avow it to be our settled purpose, never, while life lasts, to yield to this new system of attempting to destroy, by means of mob violence, the right of conscience, the freedom of opinion, and of the press.
Not surprisingly, this conscientious and dedicated fellow, who every day put his life on the line for principle, had by this time become a nationally known figure. It became a contest between Lovejoy and his supporters, nationwide, and the mob, and it soon became apparent to the latter that mere destruction of his instruments was not going to stop this determined fellow and the people behind him.
In October, 1837, some of the town leaders, realizing that bloodshed was almost certain to follow if something did not check the escalating violence, asked Lovejoy to leave Alton. He refused, vehemently asserting that he had as much right to live and work there as anyone else. In his defense, he asked:
What infraction of the law have I been guilty of? When and where have I published anything injurious to the reputation of Alton? …Why am I waylaid from day to day…and my life put in jeopardy every hour?
Despite harassment of his family by the rabble, which he took note of in his defense and which, of course, was especially painful for him, he would stay in Alton because duty and principle demanded it, as he saw it.
Should I attempt it (to leave),” he said, “I should feel that the angel of the Lord with his flaming sword was pursuing me wherever I went…I here pledge myself to continue it, if need be till death.
Matters came to a head on November 6, 1837, when a new press was secretly delivered by steamboat, in the wee hours, to a warehouse on the banks of the Mississippi (the Godfrey & Gilman Warehouse) prior to its installation at the offices of the Observer. This press came from the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society (or perhaps the Illinois Anti-slavery Society – the record is unclear). Under the direction of the Mayor, a volunteer militia of sixty men opposed to mob violence was formed for the purpose of protecting this, Lovejoy’s fifth, press. Either because mob leaders were unaware of the arrival of the press or because they chose not to challenge a force of 60 men, the night of November 6 passed quietly.
On November 7, however, the guard was down to about 20 men, and that fact apparently became known to the mob leaders, because by approximately 10:00 p.m. some twenty to thirty men gathered and laid siege to the warehouse and the twenty or so Lovejoy supporters who were holed up inside. One of the owners of the warehouse, Winthrop Sargent Gilman, appeared in an upper window. “What do you want here,” he asked the crowd. “The press” was the unsurprising answer. Gilman tried to pacify them, at the same time letting them know that they were not dealing with pushovers: “We have no ill feelings toward any of you,” he said, “and should much regret to do any injury; but we are authorized by the Mayor to defend our property and shall do so with our lives.”
The mob, now of sufficient size to have its way, and well oiled with booze (almost always the companion of lawlessness and vigilantism), ignored Gilman and began to hurl rocks at the warehouse, breaking its windows. It was soon met with a barrage of earthenware pots, which just happened to be in the warehouse. This, of course, escalated the violence, and it wasn’t long before attackers and defenders were exchanging gunfire.
The Mayor, with about as much chance for success as a candle in a windstorm, ordered the mob to disperse. Rebuffed, he tried to persuade the defenders to surrender the press, but they were having none of it. In the exchange of gunfire, several mob members were hit and one was killed. It was apparent to the mob leaders that the exchange favored the defenders, who had walls to protect them, whereas the mob was in the open. The cry went up: “Burn them out.” The mob leaders sent for a ladder, which was put up against the side of the building. They then sent a very brave but deluded boy, armed with a torch, up the ladder, with instructions to set fire to the wooden roof. Lovejoy and one of his men, Royal Weller, realizing that a fired roof meant the defenders’ doom, crept outside, unnoticed, and succeeded in overturning the ladder and then retreated to the safety of the building. Undeterred, members of the mob put up a second ladder and sent another brave but deluded fellow to the roof. This one attempted to ignite the roof with a smoking pot of pitch. Again Lovejoy and Weller crept out of the building with the intent to neutralize the threat, but this time they were spotted. One of the mob brought both men down with a double-barreled shotgun loaded with slugs. Five of the slugs struck Lovejoy and one or more Weller. Somehow, Lovejoy managed to make his way back into the building and to the second floor before he collapsed. “My God, I am shot,” he said, and then died in the arms of his friend, Thaddeus Hurlbut. Weller survived. The mob rejoiced and announced their intention to kill everyone in the building. The defenders quickly realized that they had no choice but to surrender themselves and the press that had cost their leader his life. The mob rushed into the building, seized the press and carried it to the riverbank, where they broke it into pieces and tossed them into the river.
Fearing further violence, Lovejoy’s friends waited until the following morning to remove his body from the building, after guarding it all night. A funeral was quickly arranged. As the wagon carrying his body made its way through the streets of the city toward his home, some of the participants in the previous night’s violence laughed and jeered. Some who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ also laughed and jeered. Thus always with miscreants. The following day, November 9, 1937, his 35th birthday, Lovejoy was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in the Alton City Cemetery, the location known by William “Scotch” Johnson, a black man who assisted in the burial.
News of Lovejoy’s death spread quickly and became the subject of countless sermons and editorials throughout the North. Some in the South responded with silence, but many were gleeful that the voice of one of the hated abolitionists had been stilled. John Quincy Adams, whose anti-slavery credentials were well known, wrote that Lovejoy’s death “…gave a shock as of an earthquake throughout the continent.” The Reverend Edward Beecher, an abolitionist, said that Lovejoy was “…the first martyr in America to the great principles of freedom of speech and of the press.” Abolitionists across the country hailed Lovejoy as a martyr and resolved to intensify their struggle to wipe the scourge of slavery from the face of the land. In addition, membership in anti-slavery societies increased sharply. Lovejoy’s greatest honor, therefore, was the inspiration he gave to so many to hasten the downfall of slavery.
Among the many who were so inspired was a 28-year old Illinois State Representative who addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield on January 27, 1838. Clearly referring to the death of Lovejoy, Abraham Lincoln said:
The innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law…Let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own, and his children’s liberty…There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.
Lesser honors took the form of numerous buildings that were named for Lovejoy, as well as numerous monuments. In addition, his death was the impetus for his brother, Owen, to enter politics and to become the leader of the abolitionists of Illinois. Owen thus joined Lovejoy’s cousin, Nathan A. Farwell, who was elected United States Senator from Maine.
Years after he was buried in an unmarked grave, Lovejoy’s body was exhumed and re-interred in its present site in the Alton Cemetery, Madison County, Illinois, a project financed by a man by the name of Thomas Dimmock, who purchased a marble scroll which marks the grave. Inscribed on the scroll are Latin words, which translate as: “Here lies Lovejoy – Spare him now the grave.” Dimmock also purchased the granite block upon which the scroll rests and beneath which the martyr rests, as well as the fence that encloses the gravesite.
On November 7, 1897, exactly sixty years after his murder, the citizens of the City of Alton dedicated a monument to Lovejoy in the cemetery in which he is buried, about 50 yards from his grave and overlooking the Mississippi. The monument consists of a 93-foot tall granite tower capped by a bronze statue of victory, with eagles mounted on 30-foot columns on both sides of the tower. The design attempts to convey a sense of triumph and consummation and commemorates Lovejoy’s commitment to freedom of speech and of the press. Monuments memorializing some of his supporters are also in the vicinity.
There are four inscriptions at the base of the monument, one on each side, which are meant to reflect Lovejoy’s three occupations as editor, minister and opponent of slavery, as well as to honor those who defended him and his press that terrible night. These are the inscriptions:
Antedating the monument, but clearly predicting and anticipating it, Thomas Dimmock wrote this in the May, 1891, issue of New England Magazine:
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 principle, and finally lays down his life in that defense, surely deserves from his fellow-men, at least, grateful and everlasting remembrance.
Another honor to Lovejoy came in 1952, when his alma mater, Colby College (then Waterville College), established the Lovejoy Award, with three purposes:
- To honor and preserve the memory of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, America’s first martyr to freedom of the press and a Colby College graduate (Valedictorian, Class of 1826) who died bravely rather than forsake his editorial principles.
- To stimulate and honor the kind of achievement in the field of reporting, editing and interpretive writing that continues the Lovejoy heritage of fearlessness and freedom.
- To promote a sense of mutual responsibility and cooperative effort between a newspaper world devoted to journalistic freedom and a liberal arts college dedicated to academic freedom.
It is worth noting, in conclusion, that a further honor was accorded to Lovejoy when the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, abolishing slavery, was drafted in Alton.