My home state of Illinois has a colorful, and not infrequently tragic, history. An example of both is the murder of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy. Born on November 9, 1802 in Maine, Lovejoy became a Presbyterian minister. Publisher of The Observer newspaper, he was anti-Jackson and anti-slavery, neither of which were popular stances in Missouri in the 1830s. After pro-slavery mobs destroyed his press for the third time, he moved his newspaper across the Mississippi to Alton, Illinois. Illinois was a free state, and presumably Lovejoy thought it would be safe to publish an anti-slavery newspaper there. Unfortunately Alton had been largely settled by Southerners and was a center of pro-slavery sentiment in Illinois.
On November 7, 1837, a pro-slavery mob destroyed Lovejoy’s press. Lovejoy attempted to stop the destruction and was gunned down and killed by the mob. The mob through his printing press in the river. A prosecution was attempted for the murder, but none of the murderers were convicted. The murder of Lovejoy deeply moved 28 year old Illinois state representative Abraham Lincoln. In a speech entitled On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions given by Lincoln to the Young Mens’ Lyceum in Springfield on January 27, 1838, Lincoln condemned mob violence. The Lovejoy murder was all the talk of Illinois, so his listeners knew what Lincoln was referring to when he said:
Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last. By such things, the feelings of the best citizens will become more or less alienated from it; and thus it will be left without friends, or with too few, and those few too weak, to make their friendship effectual. At such a time and under such circumstances, men of sufficient talent and ambition will not be wanting to seize the opportunity, strike the blow, and overturn that fair fabric, which for the last half century, has been the fondest hope, of the lovers of freedom, throughout the world.
Elijah Lovejoy’s brother Owen was also an abolitionist, and became a close friend and political ally of Lincoln. He was elected to Congress from Illinois in 1856 and served in Congress until his death in 1864.
Five days before his death, Elijah Lovejoy made a speech in Alton, Illinois. This passage should be remembered by all friends of human freedom:
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 any thing 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 [your] juries, and you have your attorney [looking at the attorney-general], 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,–that is the question, sir;–whether my property shall be protected; whether I shall be suffered to go home to my family at night without being assailed, and threatened with tar and feathers, and assassination; whether my afflicted wife, whose life has been in jeopardy, from continued alarm and excitement, shall, night after night, be driven from a sick-bed into the garret, to save her life from the brick-brats and violence of the mobs; that, sir, is the question. [Here, he reportedly broke into tears, then continued.]
“Forgive me, sir, that I have thus betrayed my weakness. It was the allusion to my family that overcame my feelings. Not, sir, I assure you, from any fears on my part. 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.