Although Illinois was technically a “free state” in the late 1830s, slavery continued to exist within its borders until 1845, when the state’s supreme court issued a ruling that effectively ended the “peculiar institution” for good. Nevertheless, like most northern states, Illinois maintained a ferocious commitment to white supremacy in both law and fact. Free blacks were denied the right to vote, hold office or serve in the militia, and they were obligated register their certificates of freedom with the state. After 1829, they were required to post $1000 bond before settling in a state that would eventually be known as the “Land of Lincoln.” In 1822, advocates for human bondage managed to secure a popular referendum on the question of rewriting the state constitution to fully legalize slavery. The measure lost, though it attracted more than 40 percent of the vote.
Most white citizens of Illinois -- even those who opposed slavery -- loathed blacks and wished them gone in one way or another. Thus, “colonization” societies sprouted throughout the state, encouraging the US to cleanse itself by transporting African descendants back from whence they had involuntarily come. Genuine abolitionists like Elijiah Lovejoy, the Maine-born editor of the Alton Observer, were hardly welcome; much of white Illinois wished people like him gone as well, and in November 1837 they received their wish. On November 7, several months of escalating confrontation in Alton resulted in Lovejoy’s murder at the hands of a white lynching party, who laid siege to his office, smashed his printing press -- the fourth one to receive such treatment since his arrival in Alton the previous year -- and filled his torso with bullets. Crying “Oh God, I am shot,” Lovejoy died within minutes.
He was buried on what would have been his 35th birthday, November 9, 1837. His wife Celia -- six months pregnant with their second child -- was too distraught to attend the funeral.
While abolitionists across the nation quickly praised Lovejoy as a martyr to the antislavery cause as well as to the principle of a free press, he was predictably cast as a villain throughout the Midwest and the South. The Missouri Republican, commenting on the episode shortly after the killing, condemned “mob violence” while placing the blame for Lovejoy’s death on his own actions:
[W]hen we see a man recklessly, wantonly, and mischievously persist in a course which others are sure to regard as an outrage on their feelings, which is sure to inflame the popular mind and lead to violence, we have but little sympathy for his sufferings. He who willfully excites the tempest should be the first to feel its violence.More than twenty members of the mob were tried for the destruction of the press and the murder of Elijah Lovejoy. All were acquitted.