Antislavery Leaders in America

William Lloyd Garrison

The most outspoken leader of the abolitionist movement during the 1830s was William Lloyd Garrison of Boston. For many Americans, both white and black, Garrison came to represent the changing attitudes of those who opposed slavery by switching from a moderate position to one that became increasingly militant. Garrison was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, son of a pious Baptist mother and a drunkard sailor father. With little formal education, he became a printer by trade and later editor of several small New England papers. Although Garrison initially supported the American Colonization Society--a group which aimed to send America's black population back to Africa--his inflammatory public addresses against slavery soon won him the reputation as an outspoken abolitionist. In 1830, Garrison returned to Boston to publish his new kind of antislavery journal which took on the title of the Liberator.

From the first issue of the Liberator, Garrison was committed to the immediate abolition of slavery in the United States. He was one of the first Americans to demand the "immediate and complete emancipation" of slaves. In his first editorial in the Liberator, Garrison laid out his plans for the paper.

I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No!. . . urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest--I will not equivocate--I will not excuse--I will not retreat a single inch--AND I WILL BE HEARD.

Both Lovejoy and Garrison called for the end of slavery, but each man believed in a different method to achieve this goal. While Garrison called for an immediate end to slavery, Lovejoy's early writings favored a far more gradual freeing of the slaves. In fact, one of Lovejoy's letters to his brother Joseph, dated November 21, 1834, is highly critical of Garrison and his methods. Lovejoy wrote, "Garrison--I seldom permit myself to write the name--knows better, he has lived in a slave state, and is therefore, a dishonest man. How can you hold communion with such a foul-mouthed fellow?" Lovejoy insisted that men such as Garrison are "riveting the very chains they hope to break."

William Lloyd Garrison
Photo Courtesy of the Illinois State Historical Library


Garrison's response to men such as Lovejoy was given in statements such as this one. "I know not by what rule of the gospel men are authorized to leave off their sins by a slow process." Thus, while both these men believed that slavery was a sin, their stormy relationship illustrated some of the deep divisions which existed within the abolitionist community.


Edward Beecher

One of the few places where Elijah Lovejoy could find a like-minded society friendly to his own ideals and morals was on the campus of Illinois College, located in Jacksonville, Illinois. Much of the faculty had been trained in the seminaries of New England and had traveled to the west to spread the Gospel and New England values in the Mississippi valley. Edward Beecher, who served as the president of Illinois College during the early years of the 1830s, felt a kinship and close connection to Lovejoy from the first time they met. Beecher was the son of the well-known New England preacher, Lyman Beecher. His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, went on to achieve fame with her book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, written in 1854. Like Lovejoy, Beecher had given up the promise of a sustaining career in New England to become the first president of the small, backwoods college in Jacksonville. He did so to engage in "the sublime enterprise of educating and evangelizing [Illinois] so centrally located in the great western valley."

Lovejoy enjoyed confiding in Beecher and the other members of the faculty of Illinois College. He found a group of men whom he could express his abolitionist feelings openly and without the fear of violence or retribution. Merton Dillon indicates in Elijah Lovejoy, Abolitionist Editor, that many of the faculty members wavered on openly adhering to the doctrines of abolition the first time they met Lovejoy. "He [Lovejoy] gave them as much encouragement as he could, and in due time the religious background all of them shared led the majority to become abolitionists, and the college to become a center of antislavery sentiment." Beecher himself remembered that his own conversion from gradual emancipation to immediate emancipation was directly a result of Lovejoy's second visit to the campus in 1835.

Edward Beecher
Photo from the collection of the Illinois State Historical Library.
Beecher played a large role in the organization of the Illinois antislavery convention of 1837. Here again, he and Lovejoy held different opinions concerning the focus of the meeting. Beecher felt the convention should not stress slavery as its main issue. Instead, Beecher clearly hoped to enlist the support of those people in Illinois who believed in supporting the doctrine of freedom of the press. He made a special trip to Alton to convince Lovejoy to make this concession in order to broaden the convention's base of support. Lovejoy, not wanting to lose Beecher's friendship, agreed to his plan although he privately feared that it would harm the society's ability to debate the slavery issue.

After Lovejoy agreed to his plan, Beecher attempted to rally further support for the cause. He held a meeting of ministers and church officials in Alton in an effort to get their help with the convention. He urged them to attend the meeting on the basis that its main topic of discussion would center around the defense of freedom of the press. He then published an open letter in the Alton Telegraph describing the upcoming convention and invited all people interested in "free inquiry" to attend.

Unfortunately for antislavery element of the convention, Lovejoy was correct in his fears. The proslavery element in Alton took advantage of Beecher's open invitation to control the meeting and make it unsuccessful in its attempts to pass meaningful antislavery resolutions.


Owen Lovejoy

Owen Lovejoy
Photo from the collection of the Illinois State Historical Library
One of the most committed and outspoken abolitionists to achieve national prominence after the death of Elijah Lovejoy was his younger brother, Owen. Owen's presence in Alton the night his brother was killed inspired him to continue the work of his beloved older brother. On the day of Elijah's funeral, Owen knelt next to the body in prayer and vowed, "I shall never forsake the cause that has been sprinkled with my brother's blood."

Owen Lovejoy's birth in 1811 made him nine years younger than Elijah. As a child, Owen looked up to his older brother and tried to emulate his intellectual nature. Elijah responded by teaching his younger brother from the Latin classics when he returned home on breaks from Colby College. Owen made his own mark academically by enrolling in Bowdoin College in 1830. Like his older brother, Owen supported himself and paid for his schooling by teaching school. After their father's death in 1833, Owen left school and returned home.

Owen and John Lovejoy joined Elijah in the west in 1836. John knew the printing trade and worked for the Observer. Both took part in organizing the state antislavery society, and encouraged Elijah not to leave Alton. In 1838, Owen and brother Joseph gained a commission from the American Anti-Slavery Society to publish a memorial volume of their brother's work. The book highlighted Elijah's life and showed the American people how dedicated he was to his abolitionist and religious beliefs. After the completion of the book by the printers, Owen felt the need to return to the west. He heard offers to become an agent in Illinois for the American Anti-Slavery Society, but he aspired to be ordained by the Episcopal convention. Owen, however, never preached for this church because he refused to sign a pledge from the bishop saying that he would not discuss the subject of abolition from the pulpit.

A recommendation from Rev. Edward Beecher sent Owen Lovejoy to Princeton, Illinois, in order to relieve an ill pastor. As a religious leader, he used his public status to publicly speak out against slavery. The small community did not initially accept these radical doctrines openly, however. Lovejoy received several threats of violence, but he refused to back down from the pledge he made at his brother's funeral. Owen's house became one of the busiest stops in Illinois along the Underground Railroad. He and his wife actively aided runaway slaves who were attempting to make their way north to freedom.

Proslavery elements in Illinois attempted to break the influence of the Underground Railroad in Princeton by bringing formal charges against Owen Lovejoy in 1843. He was indicted by a grand jury in May and made to stand trial for harboring fugitive slaves in October. Lovejoy and his lawyer argued that since the owner had willingly brought the slaves into the free territory of Illinois, they became free when they touched Illinois soil. On the basis of the laws created by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the state constitution, Lovejoy achieved an acquittal.

Owen Lovejoy later took his antislavery views to the United States House of Representatives. He was elected to this office as a representative of the Third Congressional District of Illinois in 1856 and 1858. He became instrumental in the creation of the Republican Party in Illinois, although his abolitionist views helped to label Lovejoy as one of the so called Radical Republicans. Although their views on slavery differed considerably, Lovejoy supported Abraham Lincoln both in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 and the Presidential election of 1860.

Owen Lovejoy died in Brooklyn, New York, on March 25, 1864. Sadly, Lovejoy did not live to see the introduction of the Thirteenth Amendment to Congress, it occurred two weeks after his death. A letter from President Lincoln summed up both the private and public life of Owen Lovejoy: "My personal acquaintance with him commenced only about ten years ago, since when it has been quite intimate; and every step in it has been one of increasing respect and esteem, ending, with his life, in no less than affection on my part. It can be truly said of him that while he was personally ambitious he bravely endured the obscurity which the unpopularity of his principles imposed, and never accepted official honors, until those honors were ready to admit his principles with him. Throughout my heavy, and perplexing responsibilities here, to the day of his death, it would scarcely wrong any other to say, he was my most generous friend. Let him have the marble monument, along with the well-assured and more enduring one in the hearts of those who love liberty, unselfishly, for all men."

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