Elijah Lovejoy and the Pro-Slavery Mobs of the North

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On Nov. 7, 1837, a pro-slavery mob in the northern state of Illinois descended on the headquarters of an abolitionist newspaper and murdered the editor, Elijah Lovejoy. The attack on an abolitionist publication so far north sent shockwaves throughout the country. The fledgling republic was struggling with not only the legality and morality of slavery, but with free speech as well.

Lovejoy himself was a Presbyterian pastor who was born, raised, and educated in the northeast. His editorial career began almost immediately after he was ordained a minister in 1833, just four years before his murder in Illinois. He moved to St. Louis and ran the newly-founded St. Louis Observer. Lovejoy’s early articles focused on attacking the Catholic Church and Catholics in general, which was spurred by not only the bigotry of the 1830s towards Catholics, but also the relatively large Catholic community in St. Louis at the time. Lovejoy immediately made enemies.

To make matters more complicated, Lovejoy publicly encouraged the temperance movement and called for men to severely restrict their use of alcohol and tobacco. In the 1830s, drinking and smoking were rampant, so rampant in fact that the 1830s represented the peak of alcohol consumption in American history. St. Louis, which was a bustling, growing metropolis with a frontier town’s edge, did not take kindly to Lovejoy’s pontificating, either.

Lovejoy’s passion for temperance and hating Catholics reached its crescendo, though, when his abolitionist viewpoints were thrown into the mix. St. Louis was a cosmopolitan port city in Missouri, a southern state surrounded by free ones, which meant that Lovejoy’s abolitionist stance added fuel to a social fire that was already raging between pro- and anti-slavery factions. St. Louis was also a city where free blacks and enslaved ones both worked, sometimes side-by-side. In 1836, an African-American sailor was arrested by two St. Louis cops, but before they could haul him off to jail, he stabbed them both. One died, the other was severely injured. A mob found the sailor and tied him up before burning him to death.

Members of the mob had to face criminal charges for their heinous vigilantism, but the presiding judge in the case, Judge Lawless (!), threw the case out and hinted not-so-subtly that Elijah Lovejoy’s publications were to blame for the attack on the policemen. The St. Louis Observer had already changed ownership once, due to the controversy surrounding its public stances. The consortium that had initially recruited and funded Lovejoy backed out after several violent attacks on the newspaper’s property, and Lovejoy’s position as editor was tenuous on more than one occasion. After the remarks of Judge Lawless, though, Lovejoy decided to move north and continue his ministry in what he thought would be a more welcoming climate.

Unfortunately, the town he decided to move to sat along a prominent highway for both escaping slaves and slave hunters. In addition, the town, Alton, had been settled by Southerners who were sympathetic to slavery. Now, maybe Lovejoy knew this. Maybe he chose Alton because it was one of the many dozen flash points along the free-slave border. Maybe Lovejoy was just a born trouble-maker, somebody who could not help but be in the mix. But the fact still remains that Illinois was a free state, and Lovejoy’s public thoughts on abolitionism should have been better protected.

Lovejoy became a martyr for the abolitionist movement after he was murdered (members of the mob were all acquitted). In the 20th century, Lovejoy became somewhat of a martyr for free speech, at least for historians. Lovejoy’s anti-Catholic bigotry, his tut-tutting on temperance, and his abolitionism did not fit neatly into any political parties of the 1830s. He was all over the place, ideologically, and that put him at odds with the establishment, the opposition, and the rabble. In this century, at a time when most Americans’ political views don’t fit neatly into a Left-Right divide, Lovejoy’s example could serve as yet another cause for our distinct idea of freedom: tolerance. If only more people knew about Elijah Lovejoy.

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