Elijah P. Lovejoy the Abolitionist: Quotes & Biography

Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

Elijah P. Lovejoy lived a short life, but he became a martyr in the cause for abolition and free speech. Read this lesson to see how Lovejoy's life and death would inspire many to join the abolitionist cause.

Who Was Elijah P. Lovejoy?

If someone threatened to burn down your house because you were speaking out against injustice, what would you do? Would you back down, or would you continue to stand up for the truth? That's the dilemma Elijah P. Lovejoy faced in the 1830s.

Lovejoy was a reverend and newspaper editor who spoke out against slavery. When angry mobs threatened to shut down his newspaper, he pressed on. Lovejoy continued to fight for abolition, which advocated for an end to slavery, up until the day an angry mob killed him in 1837. Elijah P. Lovejoy became a martyr for free speech and abolition, and his death drew more converts to the abolitionist cause.

Elijah P. Lovejoy
Elijah P. Lovejoy

The Reverend Lovejoy

Lovejoy was born in 1802, in Albion, Maine, and he was the son of a minister. He graduated from Waterville College in Maine (now Colby College) with high honors. In 1826, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he became a teacher and the editor of a St. Louis newspaper. In the 1830s, religious revival permeated many hearts, including Lovejoy's. With a new commitment to the Christian faith, Lovejoy went back to the east to attend Princeton Theological Seminary in 1832. He then returned to St. Louis where he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and became the Reverend Lovejoy.

The Embattled Editor

Back in Missouri, the Reverend Lovejoy also renewed his interest in journalism. In 1833, Lovejoy became editor of the St. Louis Observer, a Presbyterian newspaper that discussed moral and religious issues. At first, Lovejoy did not call for immediate abolition in his editorials. However, after Lovejoy saw a slave burned at the stake, his editorials became more impassioned against slavery.

The St. Louis Observer became both popular and incendiary. At the time, Missouri was a slave state, so Lovejoy's growing anti-slavery rhetoric angered many of his neighbors. In fact, pro-slavery groups attacked the newspaper headquarters and threatened more mob violence if Lovejoy would not be silent.

Lovejoy would not be quiet, so in an effort to protect himself and his family, he moved his press just across the Mississippi River to the town of Alton, Illinois, in 1836. Illinois was a free state, so Lovejoy hoped that he would be able to continue his work in peace. In Illinois, Lovejoy became the editor of the religious newspaper, the Alton Observer. Lovejoy claimed that abolition was not the sole purpose of the Alton Observer, but he absolutely defended his Constitutional right to discuss slavery and express his opinion.

Lovejoy once described the mission of the Alton Observer this way: 'This I claim as my Constitutional right, a right which I shall never relinquish to any man or body of men. But to discuss the subject of slavery is not the object of my paper, except as a great moral subject in connection with others. My object is to publish a religious journal which shall be instructive and profitable to my fellow-citizens.'

The Martyred Abolitionist

For a short time, Lovejoy published his newspaper in peace. However, he began speaking out against slavery more and more, even calling for the creation for an anti-slavery society. Unfortunately, pro-slavery groups existed in Illinois, too, and they quickly destroyed three of his printing presses at the Alton Observer.

Undaunted, Lovejoy ordered a new press and determined to advance the abolitionist cause. In 1837, Lovejoy stated, 'I hope to discuss the overwhelmingly important subject of slavery with the freedom of a Republican and the meekness of a Christian. If I fail in either respect, I beg that you will attribute it, gentlemen, to that imperfection which attends us all in the performance of our best purposes.'

Popular pro-abolition image of a slave
Popular pro-abolition image of a slave

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