D.G. Schumacher | Remembering an American martyr for freedom

After wrestling with the angels over writing again about Elijah Lovejoy, the abolitionist editor and Presbyterian pastor who died for his cause 175 years ago this week, I felt I owed at least as much to the late Paul Simon of Illinois.

Simon was a significant public servant for four decades who was on the better side of most issues and surely not afraid about taking a stand. He took pride in working with Republicans for the good of the nation. Simon was the sort of U.S. senator the nation is greatly missing today. He would decry the extreme partisanship of the House and Senate leadership.

Simon also was a journalist, starting as a crusading young weekly newspaper editor in Madison County, Illinois. He wrote 22 books about a variety of subjects. “One of Paul Simon’s most influential books,” according to John S. Jackson’s “The Essential Paul Simon,” is “Freedom’s Champion: Elijah Lovejoy” also published by by Southern Illinois University Press.

Today is the anniversary of Lovejoy’s birth in 1802 and of his burial in 1837. He died two days earlier at the warehouse in Alton, Ill., where he was guarding his printing press against a mob. It was not the first press destroyed by men upset by Lovejoy’s strong words against slavery. In July 1836, Lovejoy moved from St. Louis, Mo., to Alton and before his printing press was moved from the dock, men broke the press and threw it into the Mississippi River. Some Alton folks were outraged by the destruction of the press. Lovejoy told them he strongly opposed slavery, that he intended to publish primarily a religious newspaper. “But, gentlemen, as long as I am an American citizen … I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, to write, and to publish whatever I please on any subject.”

A native of Maine, after completing college Lovejoy walked to St. Louis, where he started a successful school and edited the St. Louis Times newspaper. He completed training for the ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey and returned to St. Louis to start the Observer, a Protestant – and anti-Catholic – religious newspaper.

In the Observer, he started to take stands on the issue of slavery, which roiled the nation in the 1800s. It’s difficult to imagine the extent of the hatred and violence. While Lovejoy published the Observer in Missouri, a slave state, a mob burned alive a free black man, Francis McIntosh, a porter and cook on a steamboat. In “Freedom’s Champion” Simon writes: “No one could have spoken more strongly or with more courage against the ‘spirit of mobism.’ ”

Later, as national tensions rose, a Boston mob nearly killed antislavery leader William Lloyd Garrison. U.S. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a leading abolitionist, was savagely beaten in 1856 with a cane in the Senate chamber by Preston S. Brooks, a representative from South Carolina. Brooks was a nephew of the senator Sumner attacked in a speech.

In 1836-37, Alton became as dangerous for Lovejoy as St. Louis. Lovejoy was strident, writing that those who did not fight slavery “are fighting against God.” He pushed for an Illinois Antislavery Society and in July 1837 he “finally identified himself completely with the Abolitionists,” who wanted immediate freedom for all slaves.

By early November 1837, public opinion had escalated against Lovejoy. The state attorney general and a future governor were in Alton stirring up citizens to demand that Lovejoy stop publishing the Observer and leave Alton. Lovejoy held his ground at a public meeting days before his death: “Why should I flee from Alton? Is this not a free state? When attacked by a mob at St. Louis, I came here to be at the home of freedom and of the laws. The mob has pursued me here, and why should I retreat again? Where can I be safe if not here? …

“I dare not flee away from Alton. Should I attempt it, I should feel that the angel of the Lord with his flaming sword was pursuing me wherever I went.”

In the early hours of Nov. 7, Lovejoy was shot and killed as he and supporters guarded his new press in a warehouse. Lovejoy was hit five times and died immediately. Some in the mob opened fire on the men running for safety from the warehouse. The press was destroyed and parts thrown into the river. Lovejoy was quietly buried on his 35th birthday, Nov. 9, 1837.

After Lovejoy’s death, trials found no one guilty. Simon writes of the trials: “There is no stranger twist to the entire Lovejoy story.” While no one was found guilty, “public opinion around the nation did not share that verdict.” Lovejoy’s death mobilized antislavery sentiment like no one event up to that time. Former President John Quincy Adams later wrote that Lovejoy’s death was “a shock as of an earthquake throughout the continent.”

Schumacher, a member of The Sun News Editorial Board, is a mostly retired Illinois newspaperman and was the executive editor of The Alton Telegraph. He may be contacted at dschumacher@thesunnews.com