Dr. Sam Wheeler connects Elijah Lovejoy and Abraham Lincoln
Last of Lincoln College's “Learn from Lincoln, Live like Lincoln” 2017 lecture series

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[November 14, 2017] 


On Friday, November 3rd, Dr. Samuel Wheeler was the featured speaker at Lincoln Heritage Museum’s “Learn from Lincoln, Live like Lincoln” lecture series.

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 concept."

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 the government.

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 press.

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 skull open.

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.

Wheeler 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 pleased.

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 resolutions.

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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 Lovejoy's murder.

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 with Lincoln.

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 Lovejoy's actions?

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 Citizenship.

Moseley said next year is also Illinois' Bicentennial year.

[Angela Reiners]

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