HumanitiesWeb.org - The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (Chapter III: Martyrdom.) by Harriet Beecher Stowe
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The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Chapter III: Martyrdom.

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

At the time when the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches passed the anti-slavery resolutions which we have recorded, the system of slavery could probably have been extirpated by the Church with comparatively little trouble. Such was the experience of the Quakers, who tried the experiment at that time, and succeeded. The course they pursued was the simplest possible. They districted their Church, and appointed regular committees, whose business it was to go from house to house, and urge the rules of the Church individually on each slave-holder, one by one. This was done in a spirit of such simplicity and brotherly love, that very few resisted the appeal. They quietly yielded up, in obedience to their own consciences, and the influence of their brethren. This mode of operation, though gentle, was as efficient as the calm sun of summer, which, by a few hours of patient shining, dissolves the ice-blocks against which all the storms of winter have beat in vain. Oh, that so happy a course had been thought of and pursued by all the other denominations! but the day is past when this monstrous evil would so quietly yield to gentle and persuasive measures.

At the time that the Quakers made their attempt, this leviathan in the reeds and rushes of America was young and callow, and had not learned his strength. Then he might have been "drawn out with a hook;" then they might have "made a covenant with him, and taken him for a servant for ever;" but now Leviathan is full-grown. "Behold, the hope of him is vain. Shall not men be cast down even at the sight of him? None is so fierce that dare stir him up. His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal; one is so near to another that no air can come between them. The flakes of his flesh are joined together. They are firm in themselves, they cannot be moved. His heart is as firm as a stone, yea, as hard as a nether millstone. The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold. He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood. Arrows cannot make him flee; sling-stones are turned with him into stubble. He laugheth at the shaking of a spear. Upon the earth there is not his like: he is king over all the children of pride."

There are those who yet retain the delusion that, somehow or other, without any very particular effort or opposition, by a soft, genteel, rather apologetic style of operation, Leviathan is to be converted, baptised, and Christianised. They can try it. Such a style answers admirably as long as it is understood to mean nothing. But just the moment that Leviathan finds they are in earnest, then they will see the consequences. The debates of all the synods in the United States, as to whether he is an evil per se, will not wake him. In fact, they are rather a pleasant humdrum. Nor will any resolutions that they "behold him with regret" give him especial concern; neither will he be much annoyed by the expressed expectation that he is to die somewhere about the millennium. Notwithstanding all the recommendations of synods and conferences, Leviathan himself has but an indifferent opinion of his own Christianity, and an impression that he would not be considered quite in keeping with the universal reign of Christ on earth; but he doesn't much concern himself about the prospect of giving up the ghost at so very remote a period.

But let anyone, either North or South, take the sword of the Spirit and make one pass under his scales that he shall feel, and then he will know what sort of a conflict Christian had with Apollyon. Let no one, either North or South, undertake this warfare, to whom fame, or ease, or wealth, or anything that this world has to give, are too dear to be sacrificed. Let no one undertake it who is not prepared to hate his own good name, and, if need be, his life also. For this reason, we will give here the example of one martyr who died for this cause; for it has been well said that "the blood of the martyr is the seed of the Church."

The Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy was the son of a Maine woman, a native of that State which, barren in all things else, is fruitful in noble sentiments and heroic deeds. Of his early days we say nothing. Probably they were like those of other Maine boys. We take up his history where we find him a clergyman in St. Louis, Mo., editing a religious newspaper. Though professing not to be a technical abolitionist, he took an open and decided stand against slavery. This aroused great indignation, and called forth threats of violence. Soon after, a mob, composed of the most respectable individuals of the place, burned alive a negro man in the streets of St. Louis, for stabbing the officers who came to arrest him. This scene of protracted torture lasted till the deed was completed, and the shrieks of the victim for a more merciful death were disregarded. In his charge to the grand jury, Judge Lawless decided that no legal redress could be had for this outrage, because, being the act of an infuriated multitude, it was above the law. Elijah Lovejoy expressed, in determined language, his horror of the transaction and of the decision. For these causes, his office was torn down and destroyed by the mob. Happening to be in St. Charles, a mob of such men as only slavery could raise attacked the house to take his life. His distracted wife kept guard at his door, struggling with men armed with bludgeons and bowie-knives, who swore that they would have his heart's blood. A woman's last despair, and the aid of friends, repelled the first assault; but when the mob again returned, he made his escape. Lovejoy came to Alton, Illinois, and there set up his paper. The mob followed him. His press was twice destroyed, and he was daily threatened with assassination.

Before his press was destroyed the third time, a call was issued in his paper for a convention of the enemies of slavery and friends of free inquiry in Illinois, for the purpose of considering and recommending measures adapted to meet the existing crisis. This call was signed by about two hundred and fifty persons from different parts of the State, among whom was the Rev. E. Beecher, then President of Illinois College. This gathering brought together a large number. When they met for discussion, the mobocrats came also among them, and there was a great ferment. The mob finally out-voted and dissolved the convention. It was then resolved to form an anti-slavery society, and to issue a declaration of sentiments, and an address to the people of the State. Threats were expressed that, if Mr. Lovejoy continued to print his paper, the mob would destroy his expected press. In this state of excitement, Mr. Beecher, at the request of the society, preached two sermons, setting forth the views and course of conduct which were contemplated in the proposed movement. They were subsequently set forth in a published document, an extract from which will give the reader an idea of what they were:

1. We shall endeavour to induce all our fellow-citizens to elevate their minds above all selfish, pecuniary, political, and local interests; and, from a deep sense of the presence of God, to regard solely the eternal and immutable principles of truth, which no human legislature or popular sentiment can alter or remove.

2. We shall endeavour to present the question as one between this community and God, a subject on which He deeply feels, and on which we owe great and important duties to him and to our fellow-citizens.

3. We shall endeavour, as far as possible, to allay the violence of party strife, to remove all unholy excitement, and to produce mutual confidence and kindness, and a deep interest in the welfare of all parts of our nation; and a strong desire to preserve its union and promote its highest welfare.

Our entire reliance is upon truth and love, and the influences of the Holy Spirit. We desire to compel no one to act against his judgment or conscience by an oppressive power of public sentiment; but to arouse all men to candid thought and impartial inquiry in the fear of God, we do desire.

And, to accomplish this end, we shall use the same means that are used to enlighten and elevate the public mind on all other great moral subjects--personal influence, public address, the pulpit, and the press.

4. We shall endeavour to produce a new and radical investigation of the principles of human rights, and of the relations of all just legislation to them, deriving our principles from the nature of the human mind, the relations of man to God, and the revealed will of the Creator.

5. We shall then endeavour to examine the slave-laws of our land in the light of these principles, and to prove that they are essentially sinful, and that they are at war alike with the will of God and all the interests of the master, the slave, and the community at large.

6. We shall then endeavour to show in what manner communities where such laws exist may relieve themselves at once, in perfect safety and peace, both of the guilt and danger of the system.

7. And, until communities can be aroused to do their duties, we shall endeavour to illustrate and enforce the duties of individual slaveholders in such communities.

To views presented in this spirit and manner one would think there could have been no rational objection. The only difficulty with them was, that, though calm and kind, they were felt to be in earnest; and at once Leviathan was wide awake.

The next practical question was, Shall the third printing-press be defended, or shall it also be destroyed.

There was a tremendous excitement, and a great popular tumult. The timid, prudent, peace-loving majority, who are to be found in every city, who care not what principles prevail, so they promote their own interest, were wavering and pusillanimous, and thus encouraged the mob. Every motive was urged to induce Mr. Beecher and Mr. Lovejoy to forego the attempt to re-establish the press. The former was told that a price had been set on his head in Missouri--a fashionable mode of meeting argument in the pro-slavery parts of this country. Mr. Lovejoy had been so long threatened with assassination, day and night, that the argument with him was something musty. Mr. Beecher was also told that the interests of the college of which he was president would be sacrificed; and that if he chose to risk his own safety, he had no right to risk those interests. But Mr. Beecher and Mr. Lovejoy both felt that the very foundation principle of free institutions had at this time been seriously compromised all over the country, by yielding up the right of free discussion at the clamours of the mob; that it was a precedent of very wide and very dangerous application.

In a public meeting, Mr. Beecher addressed the citizens on the right of maintaining free inquiry, and of supporting every man in the right of publishing and speaking his conscientious opinions. He read to them some of those eloquent passages in which Dr. Channing had maintained the same rights in very similar circumstances in Boston. He read to them extracts from foreign papers, which showed how the American character suffered in foreign lands from the prevalence in America of Lynch law and mob violence. He defended the right of Mr. Lovejoy to print and publish his conscientious opinions; and, finally, he read from some Southern journals extracts in which they had strongly condemned the course of the mob, and vindicated Mr. Lovejoy's right to express his opinions. He then proposed to them that they should pass resolutions to the following effect:

That the free communication of opinion is one of the invaluable rights of man; and that every citizen may freely speak, write, or print, on any subject; being responsible for the abuse of the liberty.

That maintenance of these principles should be independent of all regard to persons and sentiments.

That they should be especially maintained with regard to unpopular sentiments, since no others need the protection of law.

That on these grounds alone, and without regard to political and moral differences, we agree to protect the press and property of the editor of the Alton Observer, and support him in his right to publish whatever he pleases, holding him responsible only to the laws of the land.

These resolutions, so proposed, were to be taken into consideration at a final meeting of the citizens, which was to be held the next day.

That meeting was held. Their first step was to deprive Mr. Beecher, and all who were not citizens of that county, of the right of debating on the report to be presented. The committee then reported that they deeply regretted the excited state of feeling; that they cherished strong confidence that the citizens would refrain from undue excitement; that the exigencies of the time required a course of moderation and compromise; and that, while there was no disposition to prevent free discussion in general, they deemed it indispensable to the public tranquillity that Mr. Lovejoy should not publish a paper in that city; not wishing to reflect in the slightest degree upon Mr. Lovejoy's character and motives. All that the meeting waited for now was, to hear whether Mr. Lovejoy would comply with their recommendation.

One of the committee arose, and expressed his sympathy for Mr. Lovejoy, characterising him as an unfortunate individual, hoping that they would all consider that he had a wife and family to support, and trusting that they would disgrace him as little as possible; but that he and all his party would see the necessity of making a compromise, and departing from Alton. What followed is related in the words of Mr. Beecher, who was present at the meeting:

As Brother Lovejoy rose to reply to the speech above mentioned, I watched his countenance with deep interest, not to say anxiety. I saw no tokens of disturbance. With a tranquil, self-possessed air, he went up to the bar within which the chairman sat, and in a tone of deep, tender, and subdued feeling, spoke as follows:

"I feel, Mr. Chairman, that this is the most solemn moment of my life. I feel, I trust, in some measure the responsibilities which at this hour I sustain to these, my fellow-citizens, to the Church of which I am a minister, to my country, and to God. And let me beg of you, before I proceed further, to construe nothing I shall say as being disrespectful to this assembly. I have no such feeling; far from it. And if I do not act or speak according to their wishes at all times, it is because I cannot conscientiously do it.

"It is proper I should state the whole matter, as I understand it, before this audience. I do not stand here to argue the question, as presented by the report of the committee. My only wonder is that the honourable gentleman, the chairman of that committee, for whose character I entertain great respect, though I have not the pleasure of his personal acquaintance--my only wonder is how that gentleman could have brought himself to submit such a report.

"Mr. Chairman, I do not admit that it is the business of this assembly to decide whether I shall or shall not publish a newspaper in this city. The gentlemen have, as the lawyers say, made a wrong issue. I have the right to do it. I know that I have the right freely to speak and publish my sentiments, subject only to the laws of the land for the abuse of that right. This right was given me by my Maker; and is solemnly guaranteed to me by the constitution of these United States, and of this State. What I wish to know of you is, whether you will protect me in the exercise of this right; or whether, as heretofore, I am to be subjected to personal indignity and outrage. These resolutions, and the measures proposed by them, are spoken of as a compromise--a compromise between two parties. Mr. Chairman, this is not so. There is but one party here. It is simply a question whether the law shall be enforced, or whether the mob shall be allowed, as they now do, to continue to trample it under their feet, by violating with impunity the rights of an innocent individual.

"Mr. Chairman, what have I to compromise? If freely to forgive those who have so greatly injured me, if to pray for their temporal and eternal happiness, if still to wish for the prosperity of your city and State, notwithstanding all the indignities I have suffered in it--if this be the compromise intended, then do I willingly make it. My rights have been shamefully, wickedly outraged; this I know, and feel, and can never forget. But I can and do freely forgive those who have done it. But if by a compromise is meant that I should cease from doing that which duty requires of me, I cannot make it. And the reason is, that I fear God more than I fear man. Think not that I would lightly go contrary to public sentiment around me. The good opinion of my fellow-men is dear to me, and I would sacrifice anything but principle to obtain their good wishes; but when they ask me to surrender this, they ask for more than I can, than I dare give. Reference is made to the fact that I offered a few days since to give up the editorship of the Observer into other hands. This is true; I did so because it was thought or said by some that perhaps the paper would be better patronised in other hands. They declined accepting my offer, however, and since then we have heard from the friends and supporters of the paper in all parts of the State. There was but one sentiment among them, and this was, that the paper could be sustained in no other hands than mine. It is also a very different question, whether I shall voluntarily, or at the request of friends, yield up my post, or whether I shall forsake it at the demand of a mob. The former I am at all times ready to do, when circumstances occur to require it, as I will never put my personal wishes or interests in competition with the cause of that Master whose minister I am. But the latter, be assured, I NEVER will do. God, in his providence, so say all my brethren, and so I think, has devolved upon me the responsibility of maintaining my ground here; and, Mr. Chairman, I am determined to do it. A voice comes to me from Maine, from Massachusetts, from Connecticut, from New York, from Pennsylvania--yea, from Kentucky, from Mississippi, from Missouri--calling upon me, in the name of all that is dear in heaven or earth, to stand fast; and by the help of God, I WILL STAND. I know I am but one, and you are many. My strength would avail but little against you all. You can crush me, if you will; but I shall die at my post, for I cannot and will not forsake it.

"Why should I flee from Alton? Is not this a free State? When assailed by a mob at St. Louis, I came hither, as to 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? Have not I a right to claim the protection of the laws? What more can I have in any other place? Sir, the very act of retreating will embolden the mob to follow me wherever I go. No, sir, there is no way to escape the mob but to abandon the path of duty, and that, God helping me, I will never do.

"It has been said here that my hand is against every man, and every man's hand against me. The last part of the declaration is too painfully true. I do indeed find almost every hand lifted against me; but against whom, in this place, has my hand been raised? I appeal to every individual present; whom of you have I injured? Whose character have I traduced? Whose family have I molested? Whose business have I meddled with? If any, let him rise here and testify against me. No one answers.

"And do not your resolutions say that you find nothing against my private or personal character? And does any one believe that, if there was anything to be found, it would not be found and brought forth? If in anything I have offended against the law, I am not so popular in this community as that it would be difficult to convict me. You have courts, and judges, and juries; they find nothing against me. And now you come together for the purpose of driving out a confessedly innocent man, for no cause but that he dares to think and speak as his conscience and his God dictate. Will conduct like this stand the scrutiny of your country, of posterity, above all, of the judgment-day? For remember, the Judge of that day is no respecter of persons. Pause, I beseech you, and reflect! the present excitement will soon be over; the voice of conscience will at last be heard. And in some season of honest thought, even in this world, as you review the scenes of this hour, you will be compelled to say, 'He was right; he was right!'

"But you have been exhorted to be lenient and compassionate, and in driving me away to affix no unnecessary disgrace upon me. Sir, I reject all such compassion. You cannot disgrace me. Scandal, and falsehood, and calumny have already done their worst. My shoulders have borne the burden till it sits easy upon them. You may hang me up as the mob hung up the individuals of Vicksburg! You may burn me at the stake, as they did McIntosh at St. Louis, or you may tar and feather me, or throw me into the Mississippi, as you have often threatened to do; but you cannot disgrace me. I, and I alone, can disgrace myself; and the deepest of all disgrace would be, at a time like this, to deny my Master by forsaking his cause. He died for me, and I were most unworthy to bear his name should I refuse, if need be, to die for him!

"Again, you have been told that I have a family, who are dependent on me, and this has been given as a reason why I should be driven off as gently as possible. It is true, Mr. Chairman, I am a husband and a father; and this it is that adds the bitterest ingredient to the cup of sorrow I am called to drink. I am made to feel the wisdom of the Apostle's advice, 'It is better not to marry.' I know sir, that in this contest I stake not my life only, but that of others also. I do not expect my wife will ever recover the shock received at the awful scenes through which she was called to pass at St. Charles. And how was it the other night on my return to my house? I found her driven to the garret, through fear of the mob, who were prowling round my house; and scarcely had I entered the house ere my windows were broken in by the brickbats of the mob, and she so alarmed that it was impossible for her to sleep or rest that night. I am hunted as a partridge upon the mountains; I am pursued as a felon through your streets; and to the guardian power of the law I look in vain for that protection against violence which even the vilest criminal may claim.

"Yet think not that I am unhappy. Think not that I regret the choice that I have made. While all around me is violence and tumult, all is peace within. An approving conscience and the rewarding smile of God is a full recompense for all that I forego and all that I endure. Yes, sir, I enjoy a peace which nothing can destroy. I sleep sweetly and undisturbed, except when awaked by the brickbats of the mob.

"No, sir, I am not unhappy. I have counted the cost and stand prepared freely to offer up my all in the service of God. Yes, sir, I am fully aware of all the sacrifices I make in here pledging myself to continue this contest to the last. (Forgive these tears--I had not intended to shed them, and they flow not for myself, but others.) But I am commanded to forsake father, and mother, and wife, and children for Jesus' sake; and as his professed disciple I stand prepared to do it. The time for fulfilling this pledge in my case, it seems to me, has come. Sir, 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. It is because I fear God that I am not afraid of all who oppose me in this city. No, sir, the contest has commenced here, and here it must be finished. Before God and you all, I here pledge myself to continue it, if need be, till death. If I fall, my grave shall be made in Alton.

In person Lovejoy was well formed, in voice and manners refined; and the pathos of this last appeal, uttered in entire simplicity, melted everyone present, and produced a deep silence. It was one of those moments when the feelings of an audience tremble in the balance, and a grain may incline them to either side. A proposition to support him might have carried, had it been made at that moment. The charm was broken by another minister of the gospel, who rose and delivered a homily on the necessity of compromise, recommending to Mr. Lovejoy especial attention to the example of Paul, who was let down in a basket from a window in Damascus; as if Alton had been a heathen city under a despotic government! The charm once broken, the meeting became tumultuous and excited, and all manner of denunciations were rained down upon abolitionists. The meeting passed the resolutions reported by the committee, and refused to resolve to aid in sustaining the law against illegal violence; and the mob perfectly understood that, do what they might, they should have no disturbance. It being now understood that Mr. Lovejoy would not retreat, it was supposed that the crisis of the matter would develope itself when his printing-press came on shore.

During the following three days there seemed to be something of a reaction. One of the most influential of the mob-leaders was heard to say that it was of no use to go on destroying presses, as there was money enough on East to bring new ones, and that they might as well let the fanatics alone.

This somewhat encouraged the irresolute city authorities; and the friends of the press thought if they could get it once landed, and safe into the store of Messrs. Godfrey and Gilman, that the crisis would be safely passed. They therefore sent an express to the captain to delay the landing of the boat till three o'clock in the morning, and the leaders of the mob, after watching till they were tired, went home; the press was safely landed and deposited, and all supposed that the trouble was safely passed. Under this impression Mr. Beecher left Alton, and returned home.

We will give a few extracts from Mr. Beecher's narrative, which describe his last interview with Mr. Lovejoy on that night, after they had landed and secured the press:--

Shortly after the hour fixed on for the landing of the boat, Mr. Lovejoy arose, and called me to go with him to see what was the result. The moon had set and it was still dark, but day was near; and here and there a light was glimmering from the window of some sick-room, or of some early riser. The streets were empty and silent, and the sound of our feet echoed from the walls as we passed along. Little did he dream, at that hour of the contest which the next night would witness, that these same streets would echo with the shouts of an infuriate mob, and be stained with his own heart's blood.

We found the boat there, and the press in the warehouse; aided in raising it to the third storey. We were all rejoiced that no conflict had ensued, and that the press was safe; and all felt that the crisis was over. We were sure that the store could not be carried by storm by so few men as had ever yet acted in a mob; and though the majority of the citizens would not aid to defend the press, we had no fear that they would aid in an attack. So deep was this feeling that it was thought that a small number was sufficient to guard the press afterward; and it was agreed that the company should be divided into sections of six, and take turns on successive nights. As they had been up all night, Mr. Lovejoy and myself offered to take charge of the press till morning; and they retired.

The morning soon began to dawn; and that morning I shall never forget. Who that has stood on the banks of the mighty stream that then rolled before me can forget the emotions of sublimity that filled his heart, as in imagination he has traced those channels of intercourse opened by it and its branches through the illimitable regions of this western world? I thought of future ages, and of the countless millions that should dwell on this mighty stream; and that nothing but the truth would make them free. Never did I feel as then the value of the right for which we were contending thoroughly to investigate and fearlessly to proclaim that truth. Oh the sublimity of moral power! By it God sways the universe. By it he will make the nations free.

I passed through the scuttle to the roof, and ascended to the highest point of the wall. The sky and the river were beginning to glow with approaching day, and the busy hum of business to be heard. I looked with exultation on the scenes below. I felt that a bloodless battle had been gained for God and for the truth; and that Alton was redeemed from eternal shame. And as all around grew brighter with approaching day, I thought of that still brighter sun, even now dawning on the world, and soon to bathe it with floods of glorious light.

Brother Lovejoy, too, was happy. He did not exult; he was tranquil and composed, but his countenance indicated the state of his mind. It was a calm and tranquil joy; for he trusted in God that the point was gained, that the banner of an unfettered press would soon wave over that mighty stream.

Vain hopes! How soon to be buried in a martyr's grave! Vain, did I say? No: they are not vain. Though dead, he still speaketh; and a united world can never silence his voice.

The conclusion of the tragedy is briefly told. A volunteer company, of whom Lovejoy was one, was formed to act under the mayor in defence of the law. The next night the mob assailed the building at ten o'clock. The store consisted of two stone buildings in one block, with doors and windows at each end, but no windows at the sides. The roof was of wood. Mr. Gilman, opening the end door of the third story, asked what they wanted. They demanded the press. He refused to give it up, and earnestly intreated them to go away without violence, assuring them that, as the property had been committed to their charge, they should defend it at the risk of their lives. After some ineffectual attempts, the mob shouted to set fire to the roof. Mr. Lovejoy, with some others, went out to defend it from this attack, and was shot down by the deliberate aim of one of the mob. After this wound he had barely strength to return to the store, went up one flight of stairs, fell, and expired.

Those within then attempted to capitulate, but were refused with curses by the mob, who threatened to burn the store, and shoot them as they came out. At length the building was actually on fire, and they fled out, fired on as they went by the mob. So terminated the Alton Tragedy.

When the noble mother of Lovejoy heard of his death, she said, "It is well. I had rather he would die so than forsake his principles!" All is not over with America while such mothers are yet left. Was she not blessed who could give up such a son in such a spirit? Who was that woman whom God pronounced blessed above all women? Was it not she who saw her dearest crucified? So differently does God see from what man sees!
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