Proslavery Contemporaries of Lovejoy 

 

Judge Luke E. Lawless

Less than a month after the brutal mob retaliation against Frank McIntosh, a grand jury gathered in a small back room of the old St. Louis courthouse. This group heard arguments concerning crimes that had been committed during the past year to decide which offenders deserved to be criminally indicted for their actions. Toward the end of the day, the grand jury turned its attention to the details of the violent mob action which killed the free African-American, Frank McIntosh. Their charge was to decide which person or persons, if any, deserved to stand trial for their actions on April 28th. Not surprisingly, this case sparked a large amount of local interest. Large crowds moved into the courtroom until all the seats had been taken and people were forced to stand in the back of the chamber or outside. Written accounts of the proceedings tell of the uneasiness and excitement the capacity crowd brought with it into the courtroom.

Because the members of the grand jury took their cues from the presiding judge, the key figure in the whole case became the Honorable Luke E. Lawless. Lawless was described as a slender man who nonetheless possessed a strong and wiry frame. His deep set eyes offset the benign appearance of his large and prominent facial features. Lawless had come to the United States from Dublin. He began his career as a sailor in the British Navy, then later returned to Ireland to begin a law career in his home city. His military background and confrontational law practice characterized a man who did not shy away from controversy. In St. Louis, repeated moves to unseat Lawless went hand in hand with letters to the St. Louis Republican attacking him. Still, Lawless held enough political power to retain his seat on the bench.

As a lawyer, Lawless' record was less than spotless. On one occasion, a judge before whom he was arguing a case sentenced Lawless to eighteen months disbarment and twenty-four hours in jail for misconduct. Lawless responded to this with a counter-charge accusing the judge of "tyranny, oppression, and usurpation of power." The case ended in the United States Senate where it was shown that Lawless had suppressed evidence, thereby confirming the judge's original sentence.

Judge Lawless brought all these character traits with him as he sat on the bench to oversee the grand jury proceedings of the McIntosh murder case. In fact, his own opinionated style played the major roll in the jury's decision. Reading carefully from previously prepared notes, the judge offered the following advice to the twelve member jury:

Gentlemen of the grand jury, I would here conclude my observation did I not think my fellow citizens might well expect from the judge of this court special notice the dreadful events that have so recently thrown a gloom over our prosperous and generally peaceful city.

You will at once perceive that I refer to the murder of our respected fellow-citizen, the late deputy sheriff Hammond; to the wounding with an intent to murder him of another meritorious officer, the deputy constable Mull; and lastly to the destruction of the murderer himself, a free colored man whose name I understand was McIntosh, by a force unauthorized by law and by a mode of death forbidden by the Constitution, by a "cruel and unusual punishment" by chaining the prisoner alive to a tree and burning him to ashes. . . Let us hope that the dreadful retribution which he has met with in this world will plead for him in the world to come.

If on a calm view of the circumstances attending this dreadful transaction, you shall be of the opinion that it was perpetrated by a definite and, compared to the population of St. Louis, a small number of individuals separate from the mass and evidently taking upon themselves as contradistinguished from the multitude the responsibility of the act, my opinion is that you ought to indict them all without a single exception.

If, on the other hand, the destruction of the murderer of Hammond was the act, as I have said, of the many, of the multitude in the ordinary sense of those words--not the act of numerable and ascertainable malefactors, but of congregated thousands seized upon and impelled by that mysterious metaphysical and almost electrical frenzy which in all ages and nations has hurried on the infuriated multitude to deeds of death and destruction--then, I say, act not at all in the matter. The case then transcends your jurisdiction, it is beyond the reach of human law.

Because a near insane frenzy gripped the mob responsible for McIntosh's death, Lawless instructed the jury not to single out specific people for being responsible. Try as they might, he said, the jury could never understand the mania which seized the masses that day. Therefore, no legal action could be called for by the grand jury because the courtroom was no place to judge such behavior. In short, there was nothing the legal system could do to protect an individual from a provoked mob action.

Merton Dillon writes that Judge Lawless has frequently been criticized for his position, both by his legal contemporaries and twentieth century scholars. All agree that by ethical legal standards, he was wrong to impose this decision. However, later portions of his speech to the grand jury revealed several interesting insights into the minds of abolitionists and their opponents. As his comments show, he played on the fear of the citizens who believed that abolitionism was sent by religious zealots from New England to stir up trouble in slave holding states.

If the murderer (McIntosh) had been tried by a jury, convicted and executed--the horror at his crimes would have been unmixed with any other feeling. There could have been no reaction, no pretense for the outcry which now, in all probability, will be raised throughout the Union by the misguided or unprincipled men engaged in the anti-national scheme of abolitionism. The public attention in this state would have been concentrated on what, I am much disposed to think, was the exciting cause of McIntosh's crime and of similar atrocities committed in this and other states by individuals of Negro blood against their white brethren.

The abolitionist influence upon the passions and intellect of the wretched McIntosh seems to me to be indicated by the peculiar character of his language and demeanor. His deadly hostility to the whole white race--his hymns and his prayers so profanely and frightfully mixed up with those horrid imprecations seems, I say, to betray the incendiary cause to which I have adverted.

If this be indeed the case, the murderer of Hammond was, morally speaking, only the blind instrument in the hands of the abolitionist fanatics. They, and not McIntosh, would then be responsible in the sight of God and man.

[Abolitionists appear] to labor under a sort of religious hallucination--a monomania--for which it would perhaps be inconsistent with sound reasoning to hold them morally responsible. . . They seem to consider themselves as special agents. . . in fact, of Divine Providence. They seem to have their eyes fixed on some mystic vision--some Zion, as they term it, within whose holy walls they would impound us all, or condemn us to perish on the outside. But, although all this may be very sincere, is it the less pernicious? Are we to be victims of those sanctimonious madmen?

The judge had successfully turned the law upside down and made those guilty of murdering McIntosh the victims of an abolitionist plot. After establishing this fact with the crowd, Lawless then turned his attention specifically to Elijah Lovejoy and his newspaper. And although the Observer had never been guilty of calling for a slave rebellion, public opinion swayed on the words of Lawless and presented a call for action against the publication. The judge continued:

I have adverted to the abolitionist press in this city, and now I would ask who that has observed its course for a considerable time past has not seen in its publications matter abundantly calculated to fanaticize the Negro and excite him against the white man?

After this statement, Lawless held up an edition of the Observer as an example of the destructive force to which he referred. He read several articles from its pages as testimonies to the fact that Lovejoy's paper was not designed to restore the calm amongst the population of its readers. Lawless successfully turned the guilt of the situation around to accuse Lovejoy of the crime of attempting to incite revolts throughout the southern states. Lawless concluded his speech by commenting that, "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."

 

Usher Linder

Usher Linder, the twenty-eight year old Attorney General of Illinois, became one of the most vocal and ardent anti-Lovejoy politicians in the state in 1837. He particularly took advantage of Reverend Beecher's open invitation to all friends of "free inquiry" to attend the October 26, 1837 meeting of the Antislavery Congress in Upper Alton. During the time of the meeting, Linder was the newly elected to the position by the Illinois General Assembly. Linder traced his roots back to the same section of Kentucky as another prominent Illinois politician, Abraham Lincoln. Physically, Linder's tall and lanky appearance also linked him to Lincoln, but these are where the similarities ended between the two men. Linder was a strong and effective speaker, but his crude language and reported heavy drinking plagued his entire career. His opposition to Lovejoy stemmed more from political ambition than any other ideology. Linder chose to ride the growing public sentiment against Lovejoy because he felt such moves would feed his political ambition.

One of the first moves that Linder made against Lovejoy came after the completion of the first session of the Antislavery Congress. He was able to gather a number of his friends around him as he stood on a woodpile at the side of the church. Linder used his great speaking abilities to blast the Abolitionists who had organized the meeting. He denounced the Abolitionists for attempting to silence their critics during the meeting and attacked the societies backed by Lovejoy and Beecher. Linder encouraged all the pro-slavery forces in Alton to attend the Antislavery Congress and stonewall its attempts at passing any meaningful resolutions.

On the final day of the meeting, Linder delivered a highly charged, vicious speech targeted at Beecher and Lovejoy. At the same time, he introduced a resolution "that the discussion of the doctrines of immediate abolitionism, as they have been discussed in the columns of the Alton Observer, would be destructive of the peace and harmony of the citizens of Alton, and that, therefore, we cannot recommend the reestablishment of that paper." Linder's all out pro-slavery resolution argued that slaves were property and that the constitution prohibited taking a person's property. Increasingly, his calls for Lovejoy's opponents to join the conference paid off. They gained a majority and adopted the proslavery resolutions outlined by Linder, effectively making the whole conference a waste of time for Beecher and Lovejoy.

Usher Linder did not end his opposition to the Abolitionist principles after the death of Elijah Lovejoy. In fact, Linder worked with the prosecuting attorney for the city of Alton in the trial of Winthrop Gillman, the owner and one of the defenders of the warehouse where Lovejoy was killed. In a strange form of frontier justice, Linder also turned around and defended those members of the mob who were indicted for their actions on November 7, 1837. Many of the same arguments were used in both cases, and interestingly, neither group of defendants from either case was convicted of any crime.

Linder's once unlimited political future in Illinois came to an abrupt end after the trials in Alton ended. His drinking again became heavy and he developed an unfavorable reputation amongst the people of the state, mostly stemming from his actions during the Lovejoy affair. He did sway enough members of the public to get elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, but his career ended in a cloud of bitterness and unfulfilled promise.

 



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