Dr. Sam Wheeler connects Elijah
Lovejoy and Abraham Lincoln
Last of Lincoln College's “Learn from
Lincoln, Live like Lincoln” 2017 lecture series
Send a link to a friend
[November 14, 2017]
Friday, November 3rd, Dr. Samuel Wheeler was the featured speaker at
Lincoln Heritage Museum’s “Learn from Lincoln, Live like Lincoln”
Dr. Wheeler shared the story of Elijah P. Lovejoy, an Illinois
abolitionist, Presbyterian minister, and newspaper editor who was
murdered by a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois.
Lincoln Heritage Museum Director Tom McLaughlin introduced Dr.
Wheeler. Wheeler is the Illinois State Historian and serves as the
Director of research, collections, and library services at the
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.
Wheeler specializes in the history of Illinois, the Civil War era,
and the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln, and is the historian of
record for the state's 56 historic sites.
As Wheeler began his “Learn from Lincoln, Live like Lincoln” talk,
he said, "Using Lincoln's life for inspiration is a very cool
Wheeler said most textbooks tell us that in 1837, Lovejoy became a
martyr of free speech, freedom of the press, and abolitionism.
Lovejoy's murder demonstrated how slavery affected everyone even in
free states like Illinois.
He said Abraham Lincoln confronted the horror of Lovejoy's murder,
realizing slavery had the power to absolutely destroy the American
experiment in popular government.
Wheeler said Texas Tech University has a collection of Lovejoy
letters and Paul Simon wrote a book about Lovejoy called Freedom's
Champion. Both give insight into Lovejoy's life.
Elijah Lovejoy was born November 9, 1802 in Albion, Maine and was
the oldest in a family of nine children whose father was a devout
Presbyterian minister. Lovejoy grew up in the "heart" of the second
"Great Awakening," where people were taught to be on the lookout for
sin and attack it.
Wheeler said this period led to many reform movements such as
temperance, women's rights, education reform, prison reform, and
abolitionism. Some saw slavery as a sin against God and wanted to do
everything they could to stop it.
Wheeler said Lovejoy's letters included poetry and allusions to
classic literature. Lovejoy was a well- educated man who graduated
valedictorian of his class at Waterville College in Maine.
In 1827, Lovejoy decided to travel west, initially ending up in
Hillsboro, Illinois, but feeling there was little opportunity there.
Lovejoy decided St. Louis, Missouri was the place for him and in
1830, he purchased half of the St. Louis Times, a pro-Henry Clay
newspaper which spoke against Andrew Jackson. Lovejoy edited the
paper for two years, rarely talking about slavery.
Wheeler said Lovejoy "poured out his heart" in letters to his
parents. Not having a "sincere level of religiosity" was a source of
anxiety for Lovejoy. Lovejoy told his parents he had not had a true
conversion experience or felt "the hand of God" on him in what to do
in his life. After attending a revival in 1832 and hearing Reverend
David Nelson speak about abolitionism, encouraging the audience to
take a stand against slavery, Lovejoy's life changed.
Wheeler said Lovejoy wrote to his parents about bringing his sins
and sorrows to Jesus and professing his faith, telling them God came
down and let him know his purpose. This experience changed the
"entire direction" of Lovejoy's life.
Wheeler said Lovejoy befriended Reverend Nelson, who convinced him
to enter the ministry. Lovejoy enrolled in Princeton Theological
Seminary, graduating as valedictorian.
Wheeler said after graduation, Lovejoy went back to St. Louis and
sold his half of the St. Louis Times, then started the St. Louis
Observer. Lovejoy was now a minister who used his new paper as a
pulpit against alcohol, tobacco, and Catholicism. Lovejoy felt
Catholics posed a threat to America, saying they did what the Pope
told them to do and voting how the Pope wanted them to vote. Lovejoy
worried the Pope could become hostile and tell Catholics overthrow
Wheeler said by 1834, Lovejoy began to write editorials speaking
against slavery, calling it "unnatural" and "repugnant" to the
principles of liberty. Lovejoy wondered how people could live with
hypocrisy when the constitution professed all men are created equal.
Wheeler said Lovejoy was threatened with tar and feathering, and
violence, and one newspaper said a mob should destroy his printing
press. Even Lovejoy's friends told him to tone it down, but he
became even more outspoken because he said he had freedom of the
Wheeler said in St. Louis in 1836, a free black man named Francis
McIntosh was asked by two police officers to help take sailors
involved in a skirmish into custody. McIntosh refused and was
arrested. When told he faced five years in jail, McIntosh stabbed
and killed one officer and wounded the other.
Wheeler said a mob broke into the jail and took McIntosh to the edge
of town, chaining him to a tree, gathering wood under his feet, and
lighting a fire. McIntosh died within twenty minutes. The next day,
kids threw rocks at McIntosh's charred corpse trying to break his
Wheeler said Lovejoy wrote an editorial condemning the mob's "savage
barbarity." When a grand jury was convened, Judge Luke Edward
Lawless said lynching was horrible, but felt there were too many
involved to prosecute. Lawless read Lovejoy's "anti-slavery
rhetoric" and said people like Lovejoy should be held accountable
for these actions.
said Lovejoy then faced more death threats and decided move to
Alton, Illinois to set up shop. Before Lovejoy left, a mob destroyed
his printing press and threw it into the Mississippi River. Then,
another printing press was thrown into the river by a mob from
Missouri before he was able to set up shop in Alton. People in Alton
were concerned about Lovejoy's writings, but at a meeting, Lovejoy
said he was at liberty to speak, write, and publish whatever he
Wheeler said in 1837, Illinois Governor Joseph Duncan was asked by
Southern states to condemn abolitionists. The legislature formed a
committee to look into the issue and came up with resolutions to
condemn abolitionists and abolitionist societies, to support slave
owners in the south, and to not ban slavery. The Illinois House of
Representatives voted 77-6 and the Senate voted 18-0 for the
[to top of second column]
Wheeler said Abraham Lincoln was one of the six voting against
the resolutions. Lincoln said he was anti-slavery, but said abolitionists tended
"to increase rather than abate its evils."
Wheeler said Lovejoy continued to speak against slavery, saying not fighting
against slavery was fighting against God himself. Lovejoy finally declared
himself an abolitionist. He was ordered to stop the writings, but just became
more defiant. Another printing press was thrown into the river, and Lovejoy
became even more defiant.
Wheeler said Lovejoy wanted to raise funds for a new printing press and got
support from Illinois College President Edward Beecher, brother to Harriet
Beecher Stowe. Beecher and Lovejoy formed an anti-slavery group and had a
convention. Pro-slavery people showed up to disrupt the convention, shouting
Lovejoy down when he spoke. They also tried to stop the society and Lovejoy's
purchase of a new printing press.
Wheeler said Lovejoy was told by city leaders not to publish another newspaper
and asked to leave Alton. Lovejoy continued to speak of his rights to free
speech and press. Lovejoy had convictions he was willing to die for.
In November 7, 1837, Lovejoy's fourth printing press was delivered. Nineteen
supporters were there to protect Lovejoy, but a mob showed up throwing rocks and
trying to set the building's roof on fire. One of Lovejoy's supporters shot and
killed someone in the mob.
Wheeler said a rifleman shot Lovejoy five times, killing him. The printing press
was then destroyed. Lovejoy was buried on his 35th birthday in an unmarked
grave, and no service was held. No one was ever held accountable for Lovejoy's
murder, though four persons claimed they shot him.
Wheeler said Lovejoy became a martyr for the abolition movement and some said
his murder represented a threat to America. Many were incensed and decried his
murder. One Ohio preacher said a crisis had come and asked his congregation to
condemn slavery and raise money for a new printing press. A man in the back
named John Brown said he would consecrate his life to speak against slavery.
Wheeler said three months later, Lincoln spoke on the "Perpetuation of our
Political Institutions," reminding citizens of their duty to "preserve our form
of government" and "to hand it over to the next generation and to teach them how
revolutionary and how important self-government is." Lincoln said there was a
threat to the system by not staying vigilant and ignoring laws and cited the
rising tide of mob violence, vigilante justice, the McIntosh lynching, and
Wheeler said Lincoln felt people were taking the laws for granted and told them
the scene could be set for a tyrant to step forward as a new king, causing them
to lose everything they gained in the revolution. Lincoln asked his audience to
rededicate themselves to the rule of "cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason"
and "make respect for the rule of law your political religion."
Wheeler said the point was that to Lincoln and his neighbors in Illinois,
Lovejoy's murder shook them "to the core." The murder represented that slavery
was not an abstract issue, but affected even those in free states. The murder
demonstrated how evil slavery was, threatening fundamental rights and
government. As President, Lincoln said slavery caused the Civil War.
Wheeler said Lovejoy is now listed at the top in every journalism hall of fame
for becoming a martyr to fundamental rights.
Wheeler said Lovejoy's murder made Alton an infamous town for a while. Beecher
called Alton a microcosm of America. Lovejoy, the main agitator, was from New
England, and those who killed him, had more in common with their friends from
the south. Alton was just a stage for the American tragedy to play out.
Wheeler then asked the audience for questions and comments.
One audience member said Lincoln and Lovejoy were both martyrs for the cause.
Wheeler said Lovejoy's death was a key ingredient to the coming Civil War.
Lincoln became a martyr for the cause of civil rights. A statue in Alton now
marks Lovejoy's final resting place, and the people of Alton embrace his place
in their history. Lovejoy's brother Owen also became an abolitionist who sided
Another audience member asked what happened to his widow and children?
Wheeler said Lovejoy's widow married one of his defenders. One child died soon
after Lovejoy's death, but the other lived to adulthood and became a publisher.
Some distant family members are still interested in social causes.
Another question was about why Sangamon County voted no on the thirteenth
amendment abolishing slavery.
Wheeler said it was likely about demographics with some settlers to the county
coming from Southern states and others coming from New England. Central Illinois
had a mix of these cultures and was a microcosm of the country at large.
Anne Moseley asked about the Alton Lyceum notebook and how it was involved in
Wheeler said Lovejoy was a founder and leader of the group that discussed issues
confronting them, but they were silent upon his death.
To close out the evening, Moseley, Lincoln Heritage Museum's Assistant Director
and Curator, thanked everyone for coming to the last lecture in the 2017 series.
She said 2018's lecture series will focus on letting us do our duty: Lincoln and
Moseley said next year is also Illinois' Bicentennial year.