Elijah Parish Lovejoy Biography

 November 7, 1837. It finally seemed to be over. The last of the group who guarded the warehouse ran from a final volley of buckshot to the safety of the river. The victorious mob from Alton calmly entered the building, walked past the slain body of Elijah Lovejoy, and began the dismantling of his last printing press. Wordlessly and without celebration, they went about the duty of destroying the last of the abolitionist voice in Alton. Several men hoisted the press up to a third floor window and dropped it to the street below. The party on the street gathered up the fallen pieces of the press and dragged them to the steamboat landing along the Mississippi River where hammers were employed in smashing the press beyond recognition. Eyewitnesses described the behavior of the group as orderly, although they appeared to be enjoying this final act against a zealous and radical voice.(1) By midnight the entire incident became part of history. To those citizens in Alton who had opposed the ideas of Elijah Lovejoy, it appeared as if peace had finally come to their growing city. What they should have realized is that the spirit and convictions of a man who once set out to walk from Maine to Illinois were not so easily defeated.

Elijah Lovejoy grew up the oldest of nine children born to the Reverend Daniel and Elizabeth Lovejoy. He was born November 9, 1802, near Albion, Maine, on a frontier farm cleared by his grandfather. Elijah’s parents stressed both education and religion to all of their children and instilled in them the belief that they had an obligation to help rid the world of sin in preparation for the Second Coming. Lovejoy grew up a serious young man who highly valued the lessons he learned in the classroom. In the fall of 1823 Elijah moved from his father’s farm to Waterville College, a Baptist institution whose moral teachings agreed with the Lovejoy family’s beliefs. Elijah became something of a prodigy at the school where he moved effortlessly through his studies. His writing skills particularly impressed the faculty and they responded by allowing him to teach classes in the school’s preparatory division. Lovejoy’s classroom success did not bring him any peace outside the classroom, however. His serious and pious nature separated him from his other classmates and created high levels of anxiety over a much-awaited religious conversion. His hard work paid off as he graduated from Waterville College at the top of his class in 1826. Like most college graduates, Lovejoy had many doubts and fears concerning his future career opportunities. Although he did not feel the ministry to be right at the time, he still hoped to use his academic training to improve the condition of the society around him.(2) He and his academic advisors decided that Elijah could best serve the cause of God by moving to the West. In this new area of the country, he could bring a sense of New England morals to a population in need of religious direction.

Lovejoy settled into the thriving river town of St. Louis after a severe trip that included walking from Boston to New York. He started his first career in the city by creating his own private high school. He concentrated on teaching the students from the classics used in the best academies of the East. Lovejoy successfully found a few families in the St. Louis area from the northeastern states of the United States who felt comfortable with his teaching style. He believed the children of these families represented "the most orderly, most intelligent, and most valuable part of the community."(3)

After several successful years as a schoolteacher, Lovejoy gave up the profession in 1830 to become a partner in the publication of the St. Louis Times. The Times prided itself on being a political newspaper whose editorials were highly critical of President Andrew Jackson. The paper praised the candidacy of Henry Clay and supported his ideas of a protective tariff and internal improvements. Aside from politics, Lovejoy busied himself in several reform movements in St. Louis. He openly campaigned for the creation of a lyceum in the town as well as for the Missouri and Illinois Tract Society--an organization aimed at stopping the vices of drinking, swearing, and Sabbath breaking. Interestingly, the appearance of an Antislavery movement in the early 1830s did not bring forth any reaction from Lovejoy. At this time, William Lloyd Garrison was just beginning to publish the antislavery newspaper, the Liberator; however, Lovejoy showed little interest in the publication. In fact, the Times continued to print advertisements offering slaves for sale.(4)

In the winter of 1832, an event happened which caused Lovejoy to leave the world of editorial politics forever. The Reverend David Nelson arrived in the St. Louis area to conduct a series of religious services for the First Presbyterian Church. Lovejoy, still feeling very guilty over his own failed religious conversion, attended the meetings regularly. By the end of January, Lovejoy’s conversion became complete. With such conversion came responsibilities, however. Those who had experienced God’s grace now faced the call to service in order to change the world. After several days of prayer and consulting with a local Pastor, Elijah Lovejoy decided to study theology to prepare for his entrance into the ministry.(5)

Lovejoy enthusiastically wrote to his parents telling them of his decision to enter the Theological Seminary at Princeton. The tone and handwriting of this letter tell of the extreme joy and relief that Lovejoy felt over of his long awaited conversion. " . . . I arrived here on the 24th in good health, and on the same day was admitted as a member of this Institution. This so I am here preparing to become a minister of the everlasting gospel! When I review my past life, I am astonished and confounded, and hardly know which most to wonder at, my stupidity and blundering and guilt or the long suffering and compassion of God."(6) Lovejoy again impressed his instructors with his scholarly intellect. He finished divinity school at Princeton ahead of schedule, and received the right to preach from the presbytery of Philadelphia on April 18, 1833.

After spending several months in the East Coast cities of Newport, Rhode Island, and New York City, Lovejoy made the decision to return to the West. A number of Presbyterians in St. Louis made Lovejoy's decision to return easy by raising twelve hundred dollars to buy a printing press and securing a sufficient number of subscriptions to hire him as editor at a salary of five hundred dollars a year.(7) Thus, Lovejoy spent his days delivering sermons in St. Louis and surrounding areas while also acting as editor of the Observer, the newly created reform newspaper. Lovejoy felt overjoyed to return to the great frontier of America, a place where he could have a real impact on both politics and religion.


Masthead from the Alton Observer, November 19, 1836

The editor's goal to push back the frontiers of sin and worldliness and to win converts to the Lord became that of the Observer. However, Lovejoy lacked any ability to compromise or write in moderation and thereby alienated nearly every other group with different or slightly different aims. The controversial aspect of the Observer began with its open attack on the Catholic Church of St. Louis. This brought a harsh response as a large portion of the city practiced this religion. The written response to this attack had Lovejoy labeled as an intolerant and quarrelsome bigot, a title properly earned.(8) As the Observer continued to challenge the Roman Catholic Church, Lovejoy also became more outspoken on the issue of slavery. Elijah himself went through a considerable conversion concerning this institution. His early editorials indicate that he did not believe in the doctrine of immediate abolition. Lovejoy felt the southern states should not be antagonized by northern abolitionists because they, the slaveholders, held the key to the end of slavery. He gradually accepted that southern people were not going to end slavery on their own, and his own crusade against slavery began. By the early summer of 1835, despite his arguments against immediate emancipation, slaveholders and other proslavery men in Missouri recognized Lovejoy as a disruptive abolitionist. He posed a threat because he criticized what was at the time a lawful and important institution in Missouri. His editorials questioned an established and fundamental part of the state’s economic and social system. In response, citizen committees in St. Louis passed resolutions condemning abolitionist activity on the grounds that such action inspired "insurrection and anarchy, and ultimately, a disseverment of our prosperous Union."(9)

The result of Lovejoy’s outspoken religious views and his antislavery editorials was violence against his press and himself. Several times, Lovejoy narrowly escaped being assaulted by angry mobs from St. Louis. In response, he wrote his first editorial in defense of his right to publish his unpopular ideas. He indicated that the principle of freedom of the press was at stake, and that by speaking out against slavery he was simply exercising the rights guaranteed to him by the Constitution of the United States.

After a short period of quiet in St. Louis, an incident occurred that convinced Lovejoy that Missouri was no longer a safe place for an abolitionist editor. In April 1836, a free African American riverboat worker named Francis McIntosh killed a deputy sheriff and injured a second in an attempt to flee from justice. A mob quickly formed on the St. Louis streets demanding retribution. They marched on the jailhouse, broke down the cell, and took McIntosh to the outskirts of town. There, the mob chained the man to a large tree, set kindling around him, and burned him to death. Lovejoy later condemned this act of mob violence in a May 5 addition of the Observer by writing, "We must stand by the Constitution and laws, or all is gone."(10) In response to this written appeal, angry citizens twice entered the offices of the Observer and seriously damaged the printing press.

The violence against Lovejoy and his ideas greatly increased after grand jury proceedings in the McIntosh case. The grand jury found the mob to be innocent of any wrongdoing after a legally questionable defense was offered by the presiding judge, Luke E. Lawless. Again, Lovejoy used his newspaper to speak out against the mob action, this time heavily criticizing the decision of Lawless. As before, a large group of people marched on his offices and smashed the press and then threw the remnants out of a nearby window.(11) These acts convinced Lovejoy that St. Louis was no longer safe location for him to publish the Observer. He decided to move the press across the Mississippi to the Illinois town of Alton. Fittingly, several vandals followed the press across the river and threw it in the water as it sat on the dock waiting to be moved to the new publishing offices. It turned out to be a foreboding welcome to Illinois for Lovejoy.

 

Photo of Lovejoy's home in Alton once located at
4th and Broadway, not far from the present location
of the Lovejoy Monument.
Reproduced from the September 25, 1969 Rededication
Program of the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Monument.
Initially, the majority of Alton citizens welcomed the arrival of the Observer. They believed a well-edited, religious newspaper could help the growing city’s national reputation.(12) However, the people wanted to hear from Lovejoy that he would not provoke controversy in their town the same way he did in St. Louis. At a public meeting, Lovejoy assured the crowd that he did not plan to publish as much about slavery because he was now living in a free state. He said the paper would revert back to its roots and concentrate on religious editorials. Lovejoy did, however, make it quite clear that he reserved the right to set any editorial policy he saw fit, whether that included the slavery issue or not.

 

In the first issue of the Alton Observer, Lovejoy certainly did not retreat from his position concerning slavery. He called slavery a very serious sin and believed that all Christians should work for its immediate destruction. Lovejoy stood firmly behind his right to print his opinions, no matter what the majority of the public thought of them. Throughout the year, the antislavery content of the Observer continued to increase. Many Alton citizens felt betrayed by Lovejoy because of his original statements at their first town meeting. They thought that any abolitionist activity in their town was dangerous because these ideas represented the doctrines of a subversive minority. Westerners saw abolitionists as eastern elitists set on imposing their peculiar antislavery views on the rest of society.(13)

The fear that Lovejoy was turning Alton into a center for abolitionist activity also concerned a large number of Alton citizens. As a reform leader, Lovejoy gained prominence throughout the state of Illinois after he moved from St. Louis. In the spring of 1837, he asked the Alton population to create an antislavery petition to send to the United States Congress and the state legislature. The Observer office also published an open invitation for people to walk through the streets of Alton to spread the abolitionist message. Additionally, Lovejoy organized the initial meeting of a state antislavery society to meet at one of the Presbyterian churches of Alton. On August 15th, a petition went out, signed by Lovejoy, calling for a meeting in late October to arrange a state antislavery society.

Enraged Alton citizens feared that this organization would bring radical thinking northeastern reformers into contact with their daily lives. Shortly after the Lovejoy printed the broadside, a section of the community chose to take matters into their own hands. Large crowds appeared outside the offices of the Observer without any opposition from local law enforcement officials. The mob burst into the offices, broke up the press, and threw the pieces in the Mississippi River. Lovejoy responded by ordering a new press, but the mob discovered the uncrated machine and disposed of it in the same manner. Amid this ever-increasing anti-abolitionist feeling, the state antislavery society prepared to meet in late October.

 

Proslavery riot of November 7, 1837. Reproduced from a wood engraving.
From the collection of the Illinois State Historical Library.

 

When the meeting in Alton finally took place, it failed to turn out as the antislavery men hoped. The principal organizers of the meeting, Elijah Lovejoy and Edwin Beecher, found themselves outnumbered by a pro-slavery crowd who assembled in the name of free discussion. In reality, the only reason these men attended the meeting was to block any meaningful business from taking place. After several frustrating days, the antislavery society met at a separate location, away from the hostile crowds, to create their resolutions. The group decided to order a fourth press for the Observer and to have Lovejoy remain in Alton as the paper's editor. These same abolitionists, including Lovejoy, decided that they would defend the arrival of this press with armed resistance.

Lovejoy made one final non-violent appeal to the citizens of Alton concerning his right to publish his unpopular views in the Observer. Beecher arranged a meeting with prominent Alton citizens at which Lovejoy delivered an eloquent plea in defense of freedom of the press. Throughout our country's history, his address has been hailed as one of the most moving speeches in support of the rights and freedoms granted by the Constitution ever delivered on American soil. However, the excitement of the situation and the citizens’distrust of the doctrines of abolitionists caused them to oppose the words of Lovejoy. The only resolutions passed at this final meeting called for Elijah Lovejoy to leave Alton and to disband the Observer immediately.(14)

Needless to say, Lovejoy did not follow their request for him to leave. Instead, he and a few supporters organized a loose militia group and prepared for the arrival of the fourth press. Under the cover of darkness, the press arrived by riverboat and was carried to a sturdy stone-walled warehouse near the River. Throughout the next day, word that the press had arrived spread quickly in Alton. That evening, Lovejoy's enemies gathered at several local taverns and planned their assault. Around ten o'clock, a mob appeared outside the warehouse with various weapons and demanded that the press be handed over. With any chance of compromise far passed, those inside the structure refused to produce the machine. The mob stirred and began throwing stones and rocks at a windowed end of the building. In the excitement, shots rang out from the warehouse, mortally wounding a member of the mob. This enraged the ever-growing group, and they prepared torches to fire the roof of the building. In an attempt to stop them from burning the warehouse, Lovejoy emerged from one of its doors. As he stepped onto the street, several shots struck him in the chest. He exclaimed, "My God, I am hit!", staggered back inside, and died almost instantly. With their leader killed, the defenders of the warehouse did not last long. They quickly exited the building with the help of a round of gunshots from the mob. With that, several members of the mob put out the fire on the roof, while the other members entered the warehouse to take care of the press.


Image from

Dimmock, Thomas. "Lovejoy--Hero and Martyr," New England Magazine, May 1891, pp. 364-378.

Held in the collection of the Illinois State Historical Library.


Nearly two days after his death, Elijah Parish Lovejoy was laid to rest in a grave in a field near his Alton home. Only a few solemn mourners attended the short funeral service because of fear of further mob action. Lovejoy’s wife, Celia, could not attend due to poor health and the stress that her husband’s death had placed on her.(15) Lovejoy was placed in a simple grave without any of the dignity or praise which later generations would heap upon him. However, word of his courage and commitment carried on and inspired others to take up the mantle of the abolitionist fight. Edward Beecher was one of the abolitionists who found comfort in knowing that "his enemies have failed in their purpose and he has triumphed in his fall."(16)


 


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Footnotes

(1) Merton Dillon. Elijah P. Lovejoy, Abolitionist Editor. (Urbana, IL: The University of Illinois Press, 1961) 178.

(2) Paul Simon. Freedom's Champion, Elijah Lovejoy. (Carbondale, IL: The Southern Illinois University Press, 1994) 10.

(3) Elijah Lovejoy to Daniel and Elizabeth Lovejoy, February 18, 1827, Memoir, p. 33.

(4) Dillon, Elijah Lovejoy, Abolitionist Editor, 22.

(5) Ibid., 27.

(6) Elijah Lovejoy to Daniel and Elizabeth Lovejoy, April 2, 1832, Wickett-Wiswall Collection.

(7) Nye, Russel. A Baker's Dozen. (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1956) 256.

(8) Dillon, Elijah Lovejoy, Abolitionist Editor, 40.

(9) Dillon, Elijah Lovejoy, Abolitionist Editor, 66.

(10) St. Louis Observer, May 5, 1836.

(11) N. Dwight Harris. The History of Negro Servitude in Illinois. (New York: Haskell House Publishers Limited, 1904) 76.

(12) Merton Dillon, "Elijah Lovejoy, Life and Death," paper delivered at the Lovejoy Seminar, Springfield, IL, September 27, 1997, 6.

(13) Ibid., 6.

(14) Paul Simon. Freedom's Champion, Elijah Lovejoy. (Carbondale, IL: The Southern Illinois University Press, 1994) 116.

(15) Simon, Freedom's Champion, Elijah Lovejoy, 135.

(16) Dillon, Elijah Lovejoy, Abolitionist Editor, 176.