On November 7, 1837, Elijah Parish Lovejoy was killed by a pro-slavery mob while defending the site of his anti-slavery newspaper The Saint Louis Observer. His death both deeply affected many individuals who opposed slavery and greatly strengthened the cause of abolition.
Lovejoy, who was born on November 9, 1802, in Albion, Maine, decided to seek his fortune in the Midwest after graduating from college. Short on funds, he walked to St. Louis, Missouri, where, over time, he became editor and part-owner of The St. Louis Times. His name appeared in the Times for the first time on August 14, 1830, and for the last time—as editor—on February 18, 1832.
In 1832, caught up in the powerful religious revival movement sweeping the U.S. and its frontier territories, Lovejoy experienced a conversion, which led him to sell his interests in the paper and enroll in Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. Two years later, a group of St. Louis businessmen, who sought to start a newspaper to promote religious and moral education, recruited Lovejoy to return to the city as editor of The St. Louis Observer.
Lovejoy, supported by abolitionist friends such as Edward Beecher (the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), became ever more radical in his anti-slavery editorials. He first supported African recolonization then endorsed gradual emancipation. By 1835, he sanctioned abolition in the District of Columbia, and, by 1837, championed immediate universal emancipation.
Lovejoy’s editorials raised local ire while they increased national circulation. A group of local citizens, including the future Senator Thomas Hart Benton, declared that freedom of speech did not include the right to speak against slavery. As mob violence increased over the issue, Lovejoy, now a husband and father, decided to move his family to Alton, across the Mississippi River in the free state of Illinois.
At the time Elijah Lovejoy moved to Alton it was “a booming town.” Alton had some 2,500 residents and was considered both the rival of St. Louis and a far more important Illinois city than Chicago.
Mobs had destroyed Lovejoy’s presses on a number of occasions, but when a new press arrived in November 1837, the violence escalated. No sooner was the new press offloaded from the steamboat Missouri Fulton than a drunken mob formed and tried to set fire to the warehouse where it was stored. When Lovejoy ran out to push away a would-be-arsonist, he was shot.
Throughout the North and West, membership in anti-slavery societies increased sharply following Lovejoy’s death. Yet officials in Illinois, with one exception, made little comment. Twenty-eight year old State Representative Abraham Lincoln stated publicly:
Let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own, and his children’s liberty…Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother…in short let it become the political religion of the nation…1
- Paul Simon, Freedom’s Champion: Elijah Lovejoy (Southern Illinois University Press: 1994), 163. (Return to text)
- Search the collection Slaves and the Courts, 1740-1860 on Elijah P. Lovejoy and Alton Trials to find items pertaining to the progression of the Alton riots and the death of Reverend Elijah P. Lovejoy.
- Learn more about the Second Great Awakening, the religious movement that swept the U.S. between the inaugurations of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. See Section VII of the online exhibition Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.
- Search across the “Photos, Prints” collections on the terms Missouri and Illinois for more images. Search on the term press for images of a wide variety of printing presses more modern than those in use during the life of Elijah Lovejoy.
- Search across all collections on the term press for images of a wide variety of printing presses more modern than those used during the life of Elijah Lovejoy.
- See the Abolition section of the online exhibition The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship which discusses anti-slavery movements in the nation, and the rise of the sectional controversy.