The above monument can be found in Alton, Illinois – a town on the Mississippi just up river from St. Louis. It memorializes Elijah P. Lovejoy. Lovejoy was born in Maine in 1802. After college he traveled west and settled in St. Louis, where he worked for an anti-Jackson newspaper. Eventually he went back east – studying at Princeton Theological Seminary – and became an ordained Presbyterian minister. He came back west and started an abolitionist newspaper in St. Louis. Missouri was a slave state and didn’t appreciate an abolitionist newspaper being printed in their state. His press was destroyed three separate times – which eventually caused him to move across the river to Alton – in the free state of Illinois. However, as we will see, the people of Missouri were out to fight against abolitionists regardless of whether they were in their state or in an adjoining state. On November 7, 1837 a proslavery mob came to destroy his printing press in Alton. Lovejoy, along with many of his supporters were armed and ready to defend his property. The mob proved to be too much for them. Lovejoy was killed one day short of his 35th birthday and his press was thrown in the Mississippi.
Like several other abolitionists who would be killed during this period, Lovejoy’s importance is not so much about what he did in life – but who and what he inspired in his death. At the time there was a 28 year-old state representative in Illinois who took notice of what had happened to Lovejoy. That representative wrote a speech, which the historical record first shows him giving to the Young Man’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838. That 28 year-old was Abraham Lincoln. Google it and read the whole thing – it is such an incredible speech – it carries an incredible moral power, but also an appeal to reason.
He starts out talking about how wonderful the country is that his generation had inherited from their forefathers – remember, the American Revolution had only happened 50 years prior. More time has passed since World War II to our present, than had passed between 1776 and Lincoln’s speech. The topic he gives for the speech is the “perpetuation of our political institutions.” Here are some of my favorite passages. “It” – meaning how we will perpetuate our political institutions.“How then shall we perform it?--At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?-- Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!--All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth, and an insult to our intelligence, to deny. Accounts of outrages committed by mobs, form the every-day news of the times. They have pervaded the country, from New England to Louisiana;--they are neither peculiar to the eternal snows of the former, nor the burning suns of the latter;--they are not the creature of climate-- neither are they confined to the slave-holding, or the non-slave- holding States. Alike, they spring up among the pleasure hunting masters of Southern slaves, and the order loving citizens of the land of steady habits.--Whatever, then, their cause may be, it is common to the whole country.
It would be tedious, as well as useless, to recount the horrors of all of them. Those happening in the State of Mississippi, and at St. Louis, are, perhaps, the most dangerous in example and revolting to humanity. In the Mississippi case, they first commenced by hanging the regular gamblers; a set of men, certainly not following for a livelihood, a very useful, or very honest occupation; but one which, so far from being forbidden by the laws, was actually licensed by an act of the Legislature, passed but a single year before. Next, negroes, suspected of conspiring to raise an insurrection, were caught up and hanged in all parts of the State: then, white men, supposed to be leagued with the negroes; and finally, strangers, from neighboring States, going thither on business, were, in many instances subjected to the same fate. Thus went on this process of hanging, from gamblers to negroes, from negroes to white citizens, and from these to strangers; till, dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest.”
I happen to agree with him that the destruction of our country even today by foreign powers is completely ridiculous. We weren't in 1828 - and even less in 2016 in danger of any foreign power or religion overtaking our country. The only danger that we faced then or face now is internally. After discussing some of the specific mobs – including the mob who killed Lovejoy – he continues.
I know the American People are much attached to their Government;--I know they would suffer much for its sake;--I know they would endure evils long and patiently, before they would ever think of exchanging it for another. Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property, are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the Government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.
Here then, is one point at which danger may be expected.
The question recurs, "how shall we fortify against it?" The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor;--let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children's liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap--let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;--let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.
While ever a state of feeling, such as this, shall universally, or even, very generally prevail throughout the nation, vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom.
. . .
It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.
Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.
This passage is completely fascinating to me. Not only because, in part, this warning is still so relevant today – but because some Americans would soon consider him to be the Caesar. After Booth killed him he yelled on the stage of the Ford's Theater - "sic semper tyrannus" - meaning "thus always to tyrants" - the phrase that Brutus is supposed to have said after he killed Caesar. Lincoln of course would be the one to emancipate slaves and arguably enslave freemen through his suspension of habeas corpus. It’s as if he was wrestling with his own ambition against his love of democracy. And if any historian faults him for anything – it’s that he probably did go beyond his constitutional powers as president.
Another reason which once was; but which, to the same extent, is now no more, has done much in maintaining our institutions thus far. I mean the powerful influence which the interesting scenes of the revolution had upon the passions of the people as distinguished from their judgment. By this influence, the jealousy, envy, and avarice, incident to our nature, and so common to a state of peace, prosperity, and conscious strength, were, for the time, in a great measure smothered and rendered inactive; while the deep-rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of being turned against each other, were directed exclusively against the British nation. And thus, from the force of circumstances, the basest principles of our nature, were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest cause--that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty.
But this state of feeling must fade, is fading, has faded, with the circumstances that produced it.
I do not mean to say, that the scenes of the revolution are now or ever will be entirely forgotten; but that like every thing else, they must fade upon the memory of the world, and grow more and more dim by the lapse of time. In history, we hope, they will be read of, and recounted, so long as the bible shall be read;-- but even granting that they will, their influence cannot be what it heretofore has been. Even then, they cannot be so universally known, nor so vividly felt, as they were by the generation just gone to rest. At the close of that struggle, nearly every adult male had been a participator in some of its scenes. The consequence was, that of those scenes, in the form of a husband, a father, a son or brother, a living history was to be found in every family-- a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related--a history, too, that could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned.--But those histories are gone. They can be read no more forever. They were a fortress of strength; but, what invading foeman could never do, the silent artillery of time has done; the leveling of its walls. They are gone.--They were a forest of giant oaks; but the all-resistless hurricane has swept over them, and left only, here and there, a lonely trunk, despoiled of its verdure, shorn of its foliage; unshading and unshaded, to murmur in a few gentle breezes, and to combat with its mutilated limbs, a few more ruder storms, then to sink, and be no more.
They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.--Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws: and, that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.
Upon these let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as truly as has been said of the only greater institution, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
There are a lot of interesting parts to this last section. First of all, he seems to understand how the lack of a common enemy can actually be a difficult thing for a country to endure. Again, I think this is relevant to today. It wasn’t that long ago that the USSR was our mortal enemy. Republicans and Democrats had their differences, but there were regular reminders that we had to come together to fight against this outside force who was intent on destroying us. Maybe that’s why our politics are starting to mirror the politics of the mid 19th century.
The next section that I find is interesting is in regards to the pillars of the temple that he says have crumbled away. That we must replace those pillars. I’m not sure that it was quite stated this way at the time, but it seems to be an argument in favor of a "living constitution" – that we can’t just rest on our laurels as a nation because we have this great constitution - we have to continuously work to keep it standing.
Also interesting is his appeal to reason. This speech seems to me to be very emotional – but at that end he states that our country will only survive through reason. Again, another lesson that we could remember in our current presidential election.
Finally, there are so many ways in which this speech presages The Gettysburg Address – the reference to our kind of democracy as an “experiment.” The acknowledgement that we owe so much to those who have fought and died for our way of government. The understanding that all of this can go away. That the American Revolution must be fought continuously if we are to continue to be a country worthy of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
There was another individual who was strongly inspired by the murder of Reverend Lovejoy. He was living in Ohio at the time and after attending a memorial service for Lovejoy he stated the following - "Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!"