History Spotlight: Elijah P. Lovejoy, Colby’s Martyr

Ever wonder how Colby’s buildings were named? Bixler, Arey, Mudd; they all have different origins. Most, however, are named after significant people. One building in particular, Lovejoy, has an extremely important history behind its name. Not only is this building central to our academics, it commemorates an important part of Colby’s history— The Lovejoy building is named after a founder of the Abolitionist movement, a defender of the First Amendment, a martyr of slavery, and a Colby alumnus: Elijah P. Lovejoy.

Lovejoy was born in Albion, Maine, in 1802. Religion was a central part of his life, as his father was a Congregational Minister. He graduated from Colby’s predecessor, Waterville College,  as valedictorian and class poet. He consequently attended the Princeton Theological Seminary, where he earned a  license to Preach. Upon graduation, he moved to Missouri to preach and write, and  soon became the editor of the St. Louis Observer, where he first began to publicly denounce slavery.

Lovejoy had two platforms for voicing his anti-slavery views — his writing and his pulpit. At first, he wrote and spoke quietly of his abhorrence of slavery because Missouri was a slave state at the time. When pro-slavery mobs caught and killed a freed slave, he began to openly denounce slavery. He preached of slavery’s immoral role in America, and wrote boldly in support of emancipation, for which he often faced violent criticism. He received a letter from a pro-slavery group asking him to quiet his views both in the church and in his newspapers. He replied saying that he would not, as it was his constitutional right to say and write whatever he felt, and he felt truth and justice were important to preach and publish.

Because of his resistance, Lovejoy was forced to move his practice and his press from a slave state to a free state after mob threats became serious, and his home was burglarized. He moved to the free state of Illinois where he felt much safer voicing his opinion. However, regardless of being in a free state, there was still a big population that was against the abolitionist movement. He was burglarized multiple times and the threats against him continued, but Lovejoy carried on spreading his anti-slavery opinions. Lovejoy knew what was at stake, but he felt as though the reward outweighed the risk, and it was his constitutional right and duty to support emancipation.

On the night of Nov. 7, 1837, a pro-slavery mob gathered where Lovejoy’s press was located in Alton, Illinois. They began to throw rocks and set fire to Lovejoy’s building. Though he and his workers tried to fight them off, their efforts were useless when the mob began to shoot. Despite the mayor of Alton trying to cease the fighting, it continued. When trying to put out the fire that the mob set, Elijah P. Lovejoy was shot five times. Cheers came from the antagonists as they relentlessly tried to kill the rest of the workers inside. They then threw the printing press into a riverbank where it was destroyed. Lovejoy’s dead body remained undisturbed until the following morning, when his friends buried him in an unmarked location.

Elijah P. Lovejoy’s strength and courage made him a catalyst for the abolitionist movement and the Civil War. The location of Lovejoy’s death was also extremely vital; he was murdered in an area surrounded by states where slavery was legal, where everyone was exposed to both the violence of slavery and those who supported it. John Quincy Adams called Elijah P. Lovejoy the “first American martyr to the freedom of the press and the freedom of the slave.” Lovejoy’s martyrdom created a spark throughout America; anti-slavery views were inherited in the Church, and the First Amendment was strengthened through his words. The freedom of speech and the press was encapsulated by his courage and bravery.

Elijah P. Lovejoy deserved the Lovejoy building to be named after him, and so much more. He embodied many qualities valued by the liberal arts, including freedom, voice, courage, and bravery.

So the next time you are in Lovejoy for Spanish class, English class, or just to print a paper, remember the Colby College Alumnus who, over 150 years ago, defended your right to speak freely,  who bravely defended equality for all, and who paid the ultimate price for freedom in the United States of America.