Randall M. Miller
Late in the evening of November 7, 1837, a mob surrounded a warehouse in Alton, Illinois, where Presbyterian minister and antislavery editor Elijah P. Lovejoy and several others stood guard over a printing press Lovejoy intended to use to publish his newspaper, the Alton Observer. Twice before, antiabolition mobs had destroyed presses owned by Lovejoy, and prominent Alton citizens repeatedly had complained that Lovejoy's "unwise agitation" threatened the town's commercial relations with southerners downriver and encouraged blacks to become restive everywhere. However, Lovejoy persisted in his antislavery witness. When the local community acted to uphold its interest, Lovejoy did not retreat. On that fateful November night he would die in defense of his press, when he was shot five times after coming out from the warehouse that the mob had set afire. 1
Lovejoy's murder shocked the nation. Across the North, news of Lovejoy's death excited immediate anger and fed growing resentments toward a supposed "slave power conspiracy" that even reached its tentacles into northern communities to strangle basic freedoms. In mass meetings, funeral sermons, and public memorials, northerners protested the "bloodthirstiness" of the slave power and demanded that Americans uproot the cause of such violence. Probably no other event until the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and then John Brown's own martyrdom in 1859 so galvanized northern antislavery feeling as did Lovejoy's murder. Thoughtful southerners, too, saw Lovejoy's death as a cause around which abolitionists might rally northern sentiment by shifting their focus from the wrongs done to the slave to the threat slavery posed to civil liberties. The entire debate on slavery seemed to enter a new phase of urgency as a consequence.