Last updated: August 20, 2019
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Often times, great conflicts have a single starting point to them. The American Civil War was for this country, the defining moment in our history. Never before and hopefully never again, has such a large percentage of the citizens of this country, risked their lives in one deadly war. The killing of Elijah Lovejoy did not start the Civil War. It would impossible to conclude and irresponsible to assume, exactly what would have happened regarding the conflict between the North and South over slavery, had Elijah Lovejoy never expressed his antislavery opinion in print. What is known, is that his death served as the first martyr for the abolitionist cause and created a groundswell of public opinion in the form of outrage within the Northern states.

In the decades leading up to the American Civil War, there were a myriad of causes which helped to impede peace between the two sides; the Fugitive Slave Law, the 1820 and 1850 Missouri Compromise which was initially successful in averting the Civil War for a time but which also served to agitate both sides who believed the compromise to be unfair, the 1857 Dred Scott case and the 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry by John Brown.[1] The murder of Elijah Lovejoy ought to be included on that list. Elijah Lovejoy died for a cause which he believed in and which history has proven, if there were still doubters during the time of the murder, that Lovejoy died for a worthy and righteous cause.

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Elijah Lovejoy was the son of a Congressional minister and was born in Albion country in 1802.[2] He graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1826 and became the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of St. Louis in 1834. [3]It would be this religious upbringing which would help to convince him that slavery was morally wrong and that a strong conviction would be needed in order to help defend the cause of freedom which he believed, was given to him by both God and the Constitution of the United States of America. This was not unique in the Abolitionist movement as many who took a strong stance against slavery, did so on religious and moral grounds. Lovejoy realized that would have to be the case. Even though the state of Illinois took the formal stance of being a free state, the state of Illinois was divided by geographical limitations. The state of Illinois, from top to bottom, is more than four hundred miles long and towards the southern end of the state where Alton, Illinois, Lovejoy’s birthplace resided, there was no shortage of pro slavery sentiments present. What also compounded the problem was the fact that the state of Missouri, ever since 1820, was a slave state and with the city of Alton being literally across the river from Missouri, any opinions against slavery, would be dealt with in a stern and sometimes violent manner.

These underlining factors would all come into play in 1836 when Lovejoy published an account of a lynching of an African American in his newspaper The Observer. The lynching of a slave: Francis McIntosh caused Loyejoy’s editorials to become very forceful against the pro slavery elements which, in his opinion, was choking the life force of freedom from the state and which served as an impediment to, not only those who supported slavery, but everyone in the state.  This was done in St. Louis and even though the leaders of the mob were acquitted, neither Lovejoy, nor the pro slavery public, would consider the matter to be closed. The critical report of the entire event and the trial that followed, angered pro slavery men in the area who reacted by destroying Lovejoy’s press. For many, such an event would successfully deter them from further attempting to continue their fight for what they believed in. This would not be the lot in life for Lovejoy whose zeal for the abolition of slavery could not be stopped with the initial threat. Lovejoy, unable to publish his paper in St. Louis, moved across the river to Alton, Illinois where he began to edit the Alton Observer. However, the trouble did not stop for Lovejoy as trouble seemed to follow him. Three times his press was destroyed and three times, with the help of supporters, he was allowed to fund the construction of another press. In response to these repeated threats, the resolve Lovejoy stated: “We distinctly avow it to be our settled purpose, never, while life lasts, to yield to this new system of attempting to destroy, by means of mob violence, the right of conscience, the freedom of opinion, and of the press.”[4] Lovejoy would continue to follow his own conviction throughout the coming weeks and months while he battled the pro slavery elements in Southern Illinois.

All of this came to a boiling point on November 7, 1837 as a group of twenty Lovejoy supporters joined him at the Godfrey & Gillman warehouse to guard a new press until it could be properly installed at the location of The Observer. As the crowd grew, excitement also followed and tension mounted. A pro slavery crowd also gathered together and began to hurl rocks at the warehouse windows. Lovejoy and his defenders who had boarded themselves up in the warehouse, returned fire. Alton’s mayor tried in vain to avoid blood shed of any kind but his please were ignored. The mob then acquired a ladder which was used to hoist a member of the pro slavery mob up towards the top of the warehouse for the purpose of setting it ablaze. The exchange of gun fire continued. In the exchange of the gun fire, Lovejoy was hit numerous times and died soon there after. Another member of Lovejoy’s group, Amos Roff was shot in the ankle when he tried to run away. The rest of the press’s defenders put down their guns and were allowed to leave. The mob then began to torch the warehouse where they seized the press and threw it once again into the Mississippi River. The body of Lovejoy was not retrieved until two days later on November 9th and was buried on his 35th birthday.

The account of the death of Lovejoy soon spread across the nation. The Alton Observer would not be silenced this time and published an account of the murder of Lovejoy later that night. The report began: “Night had come to the town of Alton, Illinois and a crows began to gather in the darkness. Some of the men stopped to gather stones. Others fingered the triggers of the guns they carried as they made their way to the warehouse on the banks of the Mississippi River…”[5] The fact that Lovejoy had three other presses destroyed by the mob was not lost on the account as such resilience was seen as a precursor towards what was to come if slavery was ever to be eradicated from the country. “This time, in an attempt to hide the arrival of the new press, secret arrangements were made. A steamboat delivered the press at 3am in the morning on November 7, 1837.”[6]  The report by The Observer, feeling that a injustice had occurred, ended by stating: “Members of the crows from the night before, feeling no shame at what they had done, laughed and jeered as the funeral wagon moved slowly down the street towards Love joy’s home. Lovejoy was buried on November 9, 1837, his 35th birthday.”[7] Now the question would have to be: “How was this going to effect the abolitionist cause, if it were at all.

The death, or rather murder of Elijah Lovejoy, eventually was regarded as  one of the defining moments of the Abolitionist movement. “News of the death spread fast. A white man had been killed in a quarrel over black slavery, and that quarrel seemed now to threaten every American’s right to speak his mind. Protest meetings were held throughout the North, and, as one abolitionist wrote, “thousands of our citizens who lately believed that they had nothing to do with slavery, now begin to discover their error.”[8] As the news of the murder of Lovejoy spread across newspapers, meeting houses and churches throughout the country, a stout and peculiar looking man rose from the back of the church and rose his right hand in an unprompted display. He stated: “In the presence  of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.” That man was John Brown who, twenty one years later, would make good on his promise as his ill fated attempt to create a slave revolt which, in his mind and hopes, would instigate the freeing of the slaves, would pay with his life for this effort.

After the death of Elijah Lovejoy, his brother, Owen Lovejoy took over the cause and became the leader of the Illinois abolitionists for a time. The death of Lovejoy signaled the increasing tension between pro and anti slavery factions. This is why Lovejoy is given the distinction of informally being known as “the first casualty of the Civil War.”[9] This is not technically accurate but such a title, in as much as it speaks to the change in opinions regarding slavery in the North as it attacked the apathy of those who had previously felt that slavery was not their concern, such an honor is correctly given to Lovejoy. Also, the continued legacy of Lovejoy continued long after he died. The death of Lovejoy served as a rallying cry, as would the death of John Brown twenty years later, for all those who were willing to lay their lives on the line for the purpose of a righteous cause. A more universally positive opinion of Lovejoy would not become the norm until decades after his death. In the late 1890’s the body of Lovejoy was moved from the unmarked grave that had been his body’s resting place since the time of his initial burial, to a more dignified burial place. Local citizens erected a monument to the memory of Lovejoy within the cemetery in which he was buried. The monument summates Lovejoy’s commitment to both the freedom of his fellow man as well as the freedom of the press; both seen as so very important in our modern society. The monuments of some of Lovejoy’s supporters rest near him in the same cemetery. Also, even to this day, Colby College in St. Louis, Lovejoy’s alma mater, honors a member of the university press who  has contributed to the integrity of the newspaper. In Alton, Illinois, one of their most famous sons, is not forgotten.







Burns, Ken The Civil War New York Steeplechase Films PBS Production 1990

Burns, Ken The Civil War: A Companion Book New York: Alfred Knopf Publishers 1992

Dillon, Merton.  Elijah Lovejoy: Abolitionist Editor Oxford: Greenwood Press 1980

Simon, Paul Freedom’s Champion: Elijah Lovejoy Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press 1994

Elijah Parish Lovejoy The Alton Observer November 7, 1837  Retrieved October 18, 2007

Elijah Lovejoy: Abolitionist & Publisher The African American Registry Retrieved October 17, 2007

[1] Dillon, Merton.  Elijah Lovejoy: Abolitionist Editor Oxford: Greenwood Press 1980 pg. 18
[2] Dillon, Merton.  Elijah Lovejoy: Abolitionist Editor Oxford: Greenwood Press 1980 pg. 18
[3] Elijah Parish Lovejoy The Alton Observer November 7, 1837  Retrieved October 18, 2007
[4] Elijah Parish Lovejoy The Alton Observer November 7, 1837  Retrieved October 18, 2007
[5] Elijah Parish Lovejoy The Alton Observer November 7, 1837  Retrieved October 18, 2007
[6] Dillon, Merton.  Elijah Lovejoy: Abolitionist Editor Oxford: Greenwood Press 1980
[7] Elijah Parish Lovejoy The Alton Observer November 7, 1837  Retrieved October 18, 2007
[8] Burns, Ken The Civil War: A Companion Book New York: Alfred Knopf Publishers 1992 pg. 2
[9] Burns, Ken The Civil War: A Companion Book New York: Alfred Knopf Publishers 1992 pg. 2