He was by almost all accounts, a difficult man to like. Opinionated to the point of bigotry on innumerable subjects. A totally humorless religious zealot consumed with the conviction of his own righteousness—and the sinfulness of just about anyone who did not agree with him on everything, down to the comma placement. But such men—and women—often are what are needed to begin moving the fulcrum of history. When Elijah P. Lovejoy was cut down in a hail of bullets defending his precious printing press from an Alton, Illinois mob on November 7, 1837 he became the first important martyr of abolitionism and helped galvanize the infant movement.
Lovejoy was born on November 9, 1802 on the frontier farm of his Congregationalist minister father, the Rev. Daniel Lovejoy and his zealous Christian wife in Albion, Maine. While most ministers of the New England Standing Order were highly educated at Harvard or Yale, Elijah’s father was prepared for service on the fringes of civilization by “reading” with other members. He keenly felt his educational deficiency and impressed the need for academic achievement on his oldest son and his siblings. Both parents, but particularly his mother, emphasized it was his duty to fight sin and prepare the world for an imminent Second Coming
After the customary attendance at rude rural schools and attending more ambitious academies in Monmouth and China, Maine, Elijah enrolled in the tiny Waterville College, a Baptist school that was both all he could afford and which was imbued with righteous Christianity. He was a serious, sober, dedicated student who impressed the faculty and alienated his more fun loving classmates for the same reason. When he wasn’t studying, he was praying to have the conversion experience that would mark him as one of the saved. Alas, it did not come and the young man tortured himself with guilt over his unworthiness and fear for his immortal soul.
By the end of his second year, he was hired as an instructor in the College’s preparatory school. He graduated at the top of his class in 1826. Lacking the longed for conversion, Lovejoy felt unworthy to continue his planned education as a minister. He continued to teach, but yearned to find some other way to serve God. After consultation with his mentors at the College, he decided the best course would be for him to head west, presumably a land of sinners requiring the stern admonitions of a faithful servant of the Lord.
He went to Boston, to get work to finance his trip. Finding none, with virtually no money, but grim determination, Lovejoy set out to reach his new life on foot.
After weeks of tramping, Lovejoy arrived in New York City foot sore and broke. He decided to rest some and replenish his exhausted purse. He arrived in the City in June of 1827 and found work of sorts—peddling subscription to the Saturday Evening Gazette. The job required hours of walking block after block knocking on unfriendly doors and accosting prospects in the streets. Customers were few and commissions slim. In desperation Lovejoy wrote his mentor, Waterville College President Jeremiah Chaplin, who sent his favored former pupil enough money to resume his journey.
Still traveling mostly by foot, but occasionally parting with a few precious coins for short passage on canal boats or river flat boats, Lovejoy finally arrived at Hillsboro, Montgomery County in southern Illinois that fall with the intention of settling. He found a village barely four years old that made Albion look like a sophisticated metropolis. It was a brawling, profane frontier village where life centered around fiercely competing grocery store/taverns and settled mostly by Scotch Irish pioneer stock via Kentucky and other backwoods settlements of the upper South. He was shocked an appalled. He saw little opportunity to save the heathens he observed. Better, he concluded to push on to the acknowledged capital of the hinterlands, St. Louis.
St. Louis in 1827-28 was a busy, prosperous place indeed. It was the hub of river commerce on the Mississippi. Flatboats rafted lumber and crops south and poled their way laboriously north laden with the manufactured and luxury goods of the world. It was enjoying a special boom as the outlet of a thriving and growing fur trade that was trapping the rivers and streams of the far-flung former Louisiana Purchase all the way to the Rocky Mountains. It was also a slave state thumb pushing far north alongside neighboring free state Illinois. The population of the state was mostly drawn from the same Scotch Irish pioneer stock that had so offended Lovejoy with a sprinkling of younger sons of the southern aristocracy seeking to establish their own plantations or enter the gentlemanly professions of lawyer, doctor, or editor.
St. Louis, however, as a successful commercial city, had also attracted fair numbers of Yankees and New Yorkers, the well educated sons of the first or second generation of the New England diaspora. These folks dominated commerce and trade in the city and were building fine homes. They yearned to establish a civilization that like beloved Boston could be a “shining city on the hill.” Lovejoy was just the kind of earnest young man embodying all of the fine moral virtues of New England plus scholarship that they could use.
Lovejoy found a spiritual home among local Presbyterians. Like most Congregationalists far from the orbit of New England he found their shared, strict old school Calvinism familiar and comforting even if there were minor differences of polity. Since the Congregationalists resisted, at this point, missionary zeal for the west and their well educated clergy fell disinclined to test out the wilderness, the Presbyterians offered really the only viable alternative. The local Baptists he encountered were not like the serious and sober gentlemen of Waterville College, but served by ill-educated sometimes self appointed circuit riding shouters who seemed to appeal mostly to the illiterate and unwashed. The Methodists were hardly better, if perhaps more literate.
One fly in the ointment was the Presbyterianism was also the native religion of the Scotch Irish, at least those had not given over completely to Godless heathenism or been converted by saddlebag evangelists. It was the best class of the rowdy lot, and many of the ladies both virtuous and pious. But the men, outside of Sunday morning, were often profane and given to a stubborn affection for whiskey. The Scots Irish and for the New England exiles somewhat uncomfortably worshiped together.
With the help of his new co-religionists, Lovejoy quickly established himself as a school master and was soon able to open his own academy for the sons and daughters of the city’s Yankee elite. He approvingly described the families of his pupils as “the most orderly, most intelligent, and most valuable part of the community.”
Lovejoy prospered in the respect of his chosen community and was finally fairly financially secure. But he was still restless. He was not doing enough to fulfill his self-appointed mission.
In 1830 a new opportunity arose, however. He bought a partnership in and became editor of the St. Louis Times. It was a political paper, fiercely anti-Jacksonian, which suited Lovejoy who was practically a genetic Federalist. Much of Missouri was staunchly behind Old Hickory and his re-made Democratic Party. But in St. Louis another western politician, Henry Clay of Kentucky was popular. He had been the architect of the Missouri Compromise and his proposed American System with its support for the National Bank, internal improvements, and a protective tariff resonated with Lovejoy. He poured passion—and vitriol—into his role as a political editor.
He also promoted causes dear to him—teetotalism, general public morality and order, civic improvement, and education. He used his rising influence to help found the local Lyceum and to back the Missouri and Illinois Tract Society producing missionary tracts or moralistic screeds for distribution through the region. But the issue of slavery did not yet move him much. It was a major part of the local economy and practically taken for granted in the culture. If he had any Yankee qualms about it he kept them largely to himself. In fact his newspaper advertised slave auctions and wanted notices for escaped slaves.
Then, in 1832 came the thunderclap that changed his life. The Rev. David Nelson came to town to preach a revival over several weeks at the First Presbyterian Church. Lovejoy dutifully attended the daily meetings. He found himself soon under the sway of Nelson’s powerful preaching. Before the revival was over, he finally had the personal conversion experience he had long prayed for. He also was attracted a second message preached by Nelson—the moral necessity of ending slavery.
Lovejoy decided the time was finally right for him to become a minister. He headed east and enrolled in the Princeton Theological Seminary. Completing his studies in a year, he was granted his license to preach by the Philadelphia Presbytery on April 18, 1833.
He returned to St. Louis a rejuvenated man. He established his own Presbyterian congregation for his Northern supporters. His supporters underwrote a new newspaper, the St. Louis Observer which was dedicated less to sectarian politics and more to reform and moral uplift. It was Lovejoy’s unrestrained voice, unleashed with passion.
In the very first issue he excoriated Catholicism and Papism in vitriolic language. The language was familiar to any Calvinist ear from the east. But St. Louis, a former French and Spanish provincial capital, had a large Catholic population and there had been a general toleration of religious differences as the city had grown. Not only were his targets outraged, but so were some other Protestants. In his first issue Lovejoy established a reputation as an extremist and a bigot.
Undeterred by the storm of criticism, he pressed on with attacks on Catholics as well screeds against alcohol, Sabbath breaking, and profanity. And finally, slavery.
His editorials were unflinching in his denunciation of the moral evil of human bondage. But at first he was also critical of the kind of abolitionist absolutism preached in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. He denounced imposing abolition instead hoping that argument and religious conversion would change the hearts of slave holders who would see the error of their ways and free their slaves. Despite the seeming moderation of this stance, it still outraged the Southern dominated city. By the summer of 1835 citizen’s committee passed a resolution aimed at Lovejoy declaring anti-slavery agitation inspired “insurrection and anarchy, and ultimately, a disseverment of our prosperous Union.”
As controversy swirled around him, Lovejoy finally married a fine Christian woman, Celia Ann French, the same year.
Married bliss did not mellow Lovejoy. As public clamor against is anti-slavery stand grew, so did his defiance. In fact the reaction drove him ever more closely into the arms of the abolitionist “extremists” he had once derided. Several times Lovejoy was accosted on the streets and barely escaped assault. His office and shop were vandalized. In response he printed a string of editorials vigorously defending the rights of freedom of the press and to express unpopular opinion.
Things came to a head in April 1836 when a Black riverboat hand, Francis McIntosh allegedly killed a deputy sheriff and injured other men in the posse sent to arrest him. An outraged mob was not content to wait for a trial. They broke into the courthouse jail and lynched McIntosh. Despite overwhelming evidence that McIntosh was guilty, Lovejoy denounced the mob action writing “We must stand by the Constitution and laws, or all is gone.” After that editorial angry mob twice entered the offices of the Observer and seriously damaged the printing press.
When the Grand Jury failed to indict any of the known leaders of the lynch mob, Lovejoy railed against the injustice and the actions of the aptly named the presiding judge, Luke E. Lawless who virtually laid out a legally questionable defense of the accused men. Another mob gathered and attacked the office, this time throwing the press out the window and into the streets.
Lovejoy finally concluded it was unsafe to continue in St. Louis. He decided to relocate to Alton, Illinois, upriver and 15 miles north of St. Louis. He hoped that the free state would be more welcoming. Vigilantes however followed Lovejoy’s move and when his precious press was unloaded to the quay in Alton, they threw it in the river.
Despite this set back, Lovejoy at first received a cautiously warm reception in his new town. It was a growing city and its boosters envisioned it as a possible rival to St. Louis itself. Despite a local population that was largely Southern in origin, some felt that the establishment of a new paper—and likely the founding of a new Presbyterian Church would enhance the city’s reputation in its bid as a long shot contender for the location of the new state capital from Vandalia.
As Lovejoy raised money for a new press, he met with a local citizens committee which offered him a conditional welcome—if he would refrain from the kind of “agitation” that had caused trouble in St. Louis. Lovejoy assured them that he now planned a purely civic and Christian paper.
Shortly after New Year’s 1837 the new Alton Observer began publication. And despite his promises the very first issue contained a blistering attack on slavery and slavery apologists. By spring he was calling on the citizens of the town to sign an abolitionist petition to the state legislature. Then he urged citizens to “walk the streets of the town” pressing and anti-slavery message. In August he called for a founding convention of an Illinois Anti-Slavery Society for the town. After printing a broadside for the meeting, a mob once again stormed his shop and threw another press into the river.
Lovejoy, now attracting national support, ordered another. But when that one was delivered, it was discovered on the dock and also deep sixed.
The proposed Anti-Slavery convention tried to convene in Alton in October, but anti-slavery men packed the meeting and prevented resolutions from being passed and business conducted. Lovejoy and his supporters then convened again in secrecy at another location. In addition to founding the society, money was raised to buy yet another press and to defend it with force, if necessary.
Lovejoy tried one more time to reach accommodation with his enemies in Alton. He arranged a meeting with them at which he made an impassioned plea for freedom of the press which has become regarded as a classic. On November 2 he said this to the assembly:
It is not true, as has been charged upon me, that I hold in contempt the feelings and sentiments of this community, in reference to the question which is now agitating it. I respect and appreciate the feelings and opinions of my fellow-citizens, and it is one of the most painful and unpleasant duties of my life, that I am called upon to act in opposition to them. If you suppose, sir, that I have published sentiments contrary to those generally held in this community, because I delighted in differing from them, or in occasioning a disturbance, you have entirely misapprehended me. But, sir, while I value the good opinion of my fellow-citizens, as highly as any one, I may be permitted to say, that I am governed by higher considerations than either the favor or the fear of man. I am impelled to the course I have taken, because I fear God. As I shall answer it to my God in the great day, I dare not abandon my sentiments, or cease in all proper ways to propagate them.
I, Mr. Chairman, have not desired, or asked any compromise. I have asked for nothing but to be protected in my rights as a citizen--rights which God has given me, and which are guaranteed to me by the constitution of my country. Have I, sir, been guilty of any infraction of the laws? Whose good name have I injured? When, and where, have I published anything injurious to the reputation of Alton?
Have I not, on the other hand, labored, in common with the rest of my fellow-citizens, to promote the reputation and interests of this City? What, sir, I ask, has been my offence? Put your finger upon it—define it—and I stand ready to answer for it. If I have committed any crime, you can easily convict me. You have public sentiment in your favor. You have juries, and you have your attorney, and I have no doubt you can convict me. But if I have been guilty of no violation of law, why am I hunted up and down continually like a partridge upon the mountains? Why am I threatened with the tar-barrel? Why am I waylaid every day, and from night to night, and my life in jeopardy every hour?
You have, sir, made up, as the lawyers say, a false issue; there are not two parties between whom there can be a compromise. I plant myself, sir, down on my unquestionable rights, and the question to be decided is, whether I shall be protected in the exercise and enjoyment of those rights…
I have no personal fears. Not that I feel able to contest the matter with the whole community; I know perfectly well I am not. I know, sir, you can tar and feather me, hang me up, or put me into the Mississippi, without the least difficulty. But what then? Where shall I go? I have been made to feel that if I am not safe at Alton, I shall not be safe anywhere. I recently visited St. Charles to bring home my family, and was torn from their frantic embrace by a mob. I have been beset night and day at Alton. And now, if I leave here and go elsewhere, violence may overtake me in my retreat, and I have no more claim upon the protection of any other community than I have upon this; and I have concluded, after consultation with my friends, and earnestly seeking counsel of God, to remain at Alton, and here to insist on protection in the exercise of my rights. If the civil authorities refuse to protect me, I must look to God; and if I die, I have determined to make my grave in Alton.
The last sentence proved all too accurate a prediction. The meeting broke up with a resolution once again denouncing Lovejoy and demanding that he and his newspaper immediately leave the city.
Within days a new press arrived and under cover of darkness and armed guard it was moved by stealth into the relative safety of a sturdy stone warehouse near the river. Lovejoy and a small volunteer militia of armed abolitionists stood guard. It did not take long for the local citizenry to discover what had happened.
After reinforcing their courage at local taverns, a mob marched on the warehouse after 10 pm November 7. A spokesman demanded the press be turned over to the mob. After a curt refusal windows of the warehouse were shattered with rocks and then the mob rushed the door. There seems to be no doubt that Lovejoy or his followers fired the first shot. A general gunfight broke out. At least one member of the mob was killed and others injured.
After briefly retreating to consider the situation, it was decided to try and smoke Lovejoy out by setting fire to the roof of the three story warehouse. There was a lull until a long ladder could be found. Then under heavy cover fire the ladder was rushed forward and a man with a torch started to climb it. Lovejoy and a supporter darted out from the building and knocked the ladder over the safely returned.
A second attempt was made. Lovejoy again sallied forth, this time he was cut down by at least 5 shotgun slugs in the chest. He managed to cry, “My God, I’m hit” before staggering back inside. He died almost immediately.
Meanwhile the mob succeeded in torching the roof. Lovejoy's grief stricken companions managed barely to escape out a back door and flea along the river bank. The mob broke the door down and found Lovejoy dead. Then they went about their methodical work. They carried the press and cases of type to the top floor of the building then threw it out the window. The mob, armed with hammers and stones continued to smash parts tossing them into the river. They then left, leaving Lovejoy’s body, spit upon and abused, behind.
Two days later with little ceremony and in secret he was buried in a field near his home. Evidence of the grave was erased and it was left unmarked lest it be disturbed. It remained so until 1860 when supporters finally erected a headstone. Lovejoy’s wife, already in ill health, could not attend the burial.
William Lloyd Garrison and The Liberator spread the word of the murder. Abolitionist speakers fanned out across the North claiming Lovejoy as their first martyr.
Elijah’s younger brother Owen, a Congregational minister, came to Illinois to finish his brother’s work and became the longtime leader of state Abolitionists. From 1857 until his death in 1865 he served as a Republican Congressman from the state where his brother died.
Today if you visit Alton you can see the grave, his relocated home, and a handsome monument—a 110 foot column surmounted by an Angel. As anyone in town and they will be glad to tell you the story. And despite the fact that many local families have been there since Lovejoy’s death, you won’t find any who will acknowledge that their ancestors were part of the mob.