Radical Mainers: Elijah P. Lovejoy: Maine’s Anti-Slavery Martyr, Part 3

Owen Lovejoy.

“They wanted to silence him, and he is dead – and the press they feared is destroyed. And yet, though Lovejoy deserved the crown of martyrdom and was taken among us, he speaks, and in a voice of thunder that will penetrate where his living voice would never have been heard – and touch thousands of hearts his arguments could never have moved.”

Portland Transcript

Elijah P. Lovejoy’s fourth and final printing press arrived in Alton, Illinois, about 3 a.m. on November 6, 1837, and was quickly secreted into the warehouse of Godfrey & Gilman, where a makeshift militia of 20–30 men, having received tacit approval from Mayor Krum (he refused to grant official approval), stood ready to guard him. All seemed quiet for a while, but throughout the day a group of men, having heard of the arrival of the press, were drinking heavily and getting on fire. They descended into the warehouse that night carrying torches, “blowing tin horns and passing liquor bottles around”, as Lovejoy biographer and veteran journalist Ken Ellingwood described the scene. After Lovejoy was shot while trying to stop an attacker from setting fire to the roof of the warehouse, the defenders abandoned the building and the attackers entered and pushed the press out of a top floor window. The mob then smashed him to pieces and threw the pieces into the Mississippi River, convinced that by silencing Lovejoy for good, they had eradicated the threat of disruption to their white supremacist social order.

The attack was just the latest, albeit the most dramatic, in a series of events testing the limits of the First Amendment as it applied to anti-slavery activism. During the 1830s, pro-slavery forces waged an aggressive campaign to stifle any discussion of the immorality of slavery. Ellingwood described the climate during this period as “an exercise in censorship unparalleled in peacetime American history…seeking to suppress a wide range of expression: newspapers, mailed literature – even though slavery could be discussed in the halls of Congress”.

In Alton, Lovejoy’s murder was met with ambivalence. Many local newspapers refused to condemn the attacks or blamed Lovejoy himself, and justice was never served in court. Two sets of trials took place after the warehouse siege. The first trial involved Winthrop Gilman, Lovejoy’s ally and warehouse owner, who was absurdly charged, along with 11 others, with inciting the riot. The jury took just 15 minutes to acquit Gilman, and the charges against the other warehouse defenders were dropped. However, the trial of some of those who had taken part in the murderous mob action also resulted in a swift acquittal. The person (or persons) who fired the fatal bullets has never been identified with certainty, although several men have claimed credit.

Beyond Alton, however, the attack had enormous resonance. The mob’s intention was to stifle abolitionist sentiment, but killing Lovejoy had the opposite effect. Northern newspapers published editorials against the mob lawlessness and meetings were held to condemn the murder.

A few who were otherwise sympathetic to the abolitionist cause expressed mild criticism that Lovejoy and his allies had decided to defend the press by force, if necessary. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison said that Lovejoy was not called a “Christian martyr”, although his journal, the liberatorvehemently condemned the attack.

Perhaps the most critical voice within the abolitionist movement is that of Angelina Grimké. Along with her sister, Sarah, Angelina was one of the few prominent white women in the south to champion abolitionism. Motivated by a strong Christian faith, the Grimké sisters had overcome the damaging environment of their upbringing, as well as restrictions against women speaking to mixed audiences. After leaving the Charleston, South Carolina, plantation of their slave-owning parents for good, the sisters moved to Philadelphia, where they joined the Quakers. Angelina Grimké, who had fully absorbed the pacifist teachings of the Society of Friends, wrote of her disappointment that Lovejoy had not died when “the without resistance victim of [mob] fury” [emphasis added].

The predominant result of the murderous attack, however, was to galvanize the abolitionist movement. Lovejoy’s death prompted the first major public speech by Wendell Phillips, who was to become one of the most important leaders of the abolitionist movement. At a meeting held in Boston’s Faneuil Hall on December 8, 1837, to protest the murder of Lovejoy, 26-year-old Phillips directly confronted arguments that the publisher was somehow responsible for causing his own fate because of the “recklessness” of his actions.

Here in his home state of Maine, Lovejoy’s honor was also upheld by the Reverend Silas McKeen, who delivered a sermon in his memory at the request of Lovejoy’s family. McKeen blamed Alton authorities and said the charge of ‘recklessness’ in seeking to defend the press by force could only be brought because local officials and townspeople had already neglected their responsibilities civics, leaving Lovejoy’s group little choice.

The Maine Wesleyan Journal celebrated Lovejoy as “the first martyr of the cause of abolitionism”, and the Belfast Republican Journal called him a “Martyr in the cause of FREE SPEECH and the PRESS”, and wrote that “the curse of GOD be upon the heads of the INFERNAL mob”. The Eastern Baptist The newspaper wrote that “A martyred Lovejoy untied the tongues of thousands of people and compelled them to speak in the name of God and their country”.

An exception was the Christian mirror, religious newspaper of Asa Cummings, in Portland, favorable to the sending of free blacks to colonize Africa and wary of abolitionists (Lovejoy, during his lifetime, had several exchanges with Cummings). Maine abolitionist Austin Willey was appointed by the Antislavery Society to Bangor Seminary to write an article for the Christian mirror who was sympathetic to Lovejoy’s actions. The article was published, but accompanied by reviews written by the editor, who later declined to publish Willey’s response to his comments.

A special meeting of the Bangor City Anti-Slavery Society was held on November 27, 1837, at which resolutions were passed praising Lovejoy as “a bold and uncompromising enemy of slavery in all its forms”. Another meeting was held at the North Church in Belfast on November 30, where resolutions were passed proclaiming: “Lovejoy…has been martyred in defense of the rights which are guaranteed to every free man by the constitutions of the General Governments and States ; right of which our country has boasted the most and which is dear to every American citizen.

Elijah’s younger brothers, Joseph and Owen, wasted no time getting a book titled, Memoir of the Reverend Elijah P. Lovejoy; who was assassinated in defense of freedom of the press, in Alton, Illinois, November 7, 1837. Copies were widely distributed among anti-slavery societies in Maine and elsewhere. At the fourth annual meeting of the Maine Anti-slavery Society, held in Augusta on February 7, 1839, attendees voted to order 27 copies of the Memory — one for each state library in the country (there were 26 states at the time) and one for the Library of Congress.

The two surviving Lovejoy brothers carried on his legacy. Joseph Lovejoy worked for the New York company Emancipatorand later served as editor of Liberty Standard, an anti-slavery newspaper established in Hallowell, Maine, in 1841. He also wrote a biography of Charles Turner Torrey, an abolitionist who died in 1846 in a Maryland prison. Torrey had been sent there on three counts of “stealing slaves”. His work on the Underground Railroad is estimated to have freed around 400 former slaves.

Owen Lovejoy remained in Illinois, where, in addition to his work as a lawyer and minister, he became a prominent anti-slavery politician, as well as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He was elected to the Illinois State Legislature in 1854 and worked with Abraham Lincoln to form the Illinois Republican Party the same year. Three years later, the people of Illinois’ Third District sent him to the United States Congress, where he served until his death in 1864. After his death, Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, “I have lost the best friend I had at home.”

On March 8, 1838, only five months after Elijah Lovejoy’s martyrdom, the first issue of the defender of freedom, a journal published by the Maine Anti-Slavery Society, and originally edited by William Smyth, a professor at Bowdoin College. The Albion native’s death had raised the question not only of the evil of slavery, but also of whether the very right to speak one’s conscience could be curtailed by the threat of mob attack. Mainers against slavery would not be silenced.

Will Chapman is the Bethel Historical Society Museums Librarian and Archivist. Andy O’Brien is the Maine AFL-CIO’s director of communications. You can reach them at [email protected] and [email protected]

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