THE BATTLE AGAINST SLAVERY
As far back as 1720 the spectre of the black slave began to cast its baleful shadow across the Illinois country. Previous to that date a few red slaves, prisoners of either war or debt, were held in bondage among the French colonists, yet the number was small, and would never have proven of any political consequence. It remained for Renault, business agent for the "Company of St. Philippe" to bring here the first African slaves, and thus lay the foundation for a bitter struggle, destined to last for more than one hundred years. Renault left France in 1719 with a cargo of mechanics, miners, and laborers, numbering some two hundred, and on his way stopped long enough at San Domingo to purchase five hundred black slaves. Accompanied by this extensive company, he voyaged slowly up the Mississippi, finally arriving in Illinois, where he established headquarters at the village of St. Philippe, in what is now the southeast corner of Monroe County. From there his parties of prospectors scattered widely, in a vain effort to locate precious mineral. In 1744, completely discouraged by lack of success in his mining ventures, he returned to France, but before going sold his remaining slaves to the surrounding French colonists.
By French law, under date of April 23, 1615, slavery in the American colonies had been duly legalized, and later, by the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the French inhabitants of Illinois were by England confirmed in their right to this species of property. When the United States came into possession of all this territory in 1784, the following stipulation in the deed of cession was naturally construed to imply the continuation of such enslavement, and practically so resulted: "That the French and Canadian inhabitants, and other settlers of the Kaskaskias, St. Vincents, and the neighboring villages, who have professed themselves citizens of the State of Virginia, shall have their possessions and titles confirmed to them, and be protected in the enjoyment of their rights and liberties." Later, when this question came up directly before Congress, in a bill providing "that after the year 1800 there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said States," to be formed out of this territory, it met with decisive defeat. At this time Indiana Territory, which included the Illinois country, contained a slave population of one hundred and thirty-three. In 1810, Illinois Territory alone had one hundred and sixty-eight slaves; in 1820, nine hundred and seventeen, probably including indentured and registered servants; and by 1830 these totalled seven hundred and forty-six.
The situation of Illinois, as well as the character and training of the earlier settlers, were alike conducive to the extension of slavery, at least throughout the more southern counties. Hence through all the earlier days it flourished, hut was finally checked by a strong opposition sentiment sweeping down from the North, brought by incoming settlers from New England. It seems strange now that this pro-slavery sentiment was not even more strong and abiding than it proved to be in time of final test. Geographically, Illinois projects far southward, and during all the earlier years she was in direct commercial contact with slave States; her first and more influential settlers came from such States, while the soil was adapted to the production of crops making profitable slave labor. To south and west were situated slave Territories, while Southern Indiana was strongly pro-slavery, both in sentiment and practice. Yet, from the first incoming of American pioneers, anti-slavery advocates were very much in evidence, and an earnest effort was made toward anchoring Illinois among the free States. Both parties took the matter to Congress, besides bringing it up in various forms before the legislature; but for a number of years no important change was effected, and Illinois practically remained pro-slavery. Not until as late as 1845 was the rightfulness to hold slaves in Illinois directly passed upon by any State Supreme Court. The first decision bearing upon this question occurred in Indiana. In this case, the mother of the plaintiff had been a slave in Virginia, was removed to Illinois before the Ordinance of 1787, the sixth article of which prohibited slavery in those territories lying northwest of the Ohio River, held in bondage there, both before and after its passage, and there the plaintiff was born after that date. It was held that she was free. The second case was passed upon by the Missouri Supreme Court, it being the case of Menard vs. Aspasia. The mother of the latter was born in Illinois before the ordinance, and held as a slave from birth. Aspasia, born after the ordinance at Kaskaskia, was likewise held as a slave. The Missouri Court held that she was entitled to freedom; upon a writ of error the question reached the United States Supreme Court, and its decision was similar – slaves born since the Ordinance of 1787 could not be held in slavery in Illinois. In 1845 this question came squarely before the Illinois Supreme Court in the case of Jarrot vs. Jarrot, when it was decided that descendants of the old French slaves born since 1787 could not be held in slavery. Many other similar decisions followed, which largely cleared the air, and aided ultimate freedom.
In the years between these dates a continuous and bitter: warfare had raged over this important matter. Partially estopped by Congressional enactment, the advocates of slavery in Illinois resorted to various expedients to avoid the law, the most effective of which found expression in a Territorial enactment passed in September, 1807, which permitted slaveholders to have duly recorded an indenture between themselves and their slaves for a term of years, the children of said indentured slaves likewise to serve, the males until thirty, the females until twenty-eight years of age. Such servants might also be sold by an assignment of the indenture, thus practically making their condition one of absolute bondage, while technically avoiding the precise language of the Congressional ordinance. It is impossible here to follow in any specific detail the various subterfuges adopted from time to time to avoid what seemingly was the plain law of the land; courts were invoked, and legislatures convened for the sole purpose of handling this one absorbing question; but in the path of all further reform stood the absolute veto power of the Governor, and, on this matter, Governor Edwards, who was himself the owner of a number of indentured slaves, never failed to act promptly. Through these methods of administration the indentured s1ave became a recognized institution in Illinois, the slaves steadily decreasing in numbers, it is true, yet the institution was never wholly abolished until the adoption of the Constitution of 1848.
The "Black Laws," as adopted by the legislature in 1819, were very stringent, not to say barbarous. No negro or mulatto could reside in the State until he produced a certificate of freedom under court seal, which must be entered of record in the county where he settled. If he changed residence, the certificate had to be refiled. To emancipate slaves, an owner was required to execute a bond of one thousand dollars; neglecting to do this rendered him liable to a fine of two hundred dollars. To harbor any slave, or hinder the owner in retaking his runaway slave, was declared a felony; every black without proper certificate was held as a runaway subject to arrest, and could be publicly sold at the end of a year. Any slave, or servant, found ten miles from home without the written permit of his master was liable to arrest, and could be whipped on order of a justice; or if he appeared at any dwelling, without leave of his master, the owner of the place thus visited was authorized to administer ten lashes on his bare back. For being lazy, disorderly, or misbehaving generally, he could be corrected with stripes, and for every day he refused to work he was compelled to serve two. In all cases where free persons were punishable by fines, slaves and indentured servants were to be chastised by whipping, at the rate of twenty lashes for every eight dollars of fine, not to exceed forty stripes at any one time. Thus was the free State of Illinois provided with a complete slave code.
The most odious feature of this entire slave code, however, was the kidnapping clause, which, unfortunately, had been so worded as to make capture and punishment for this crime almost impossible. The inevitable result in so new a country, overrun with desperate men, many of them criminally inclined, was to make such kidnapping of free negroes and indentured servants a regular and profitable business. They were seized everywhere by force, or inveigled by strategy upon river boats, and taken South into the cotton States, to be sold to the highest bidder. No crime can be greater or more revolting than this, yet for many years southern Illinois afforded a safe retreat to these kidnapping outlaws, who became more and more numerous and bold. In some instances they were organized into regular bands, having rendezvous and passwords, leaders, and methods of distributing the spoils of their nefarious trade in human suffering. The rough hill country lying between the Ohio and the Mississippi witnessed in those days much of crime and sorrow never to be recorded. Very few cases, indeed, ever found permanent mention. The earliest conviction for this crime was that of Jephtha Lambkins, in Madison County, November 1822, but the details have not been preserved. On the night of May 25, 1823, a free colored man named Jackson Butler, his wife, and six children, residing in Illinois, a few miles from Vincennes, were kidnapped by a band of raiders from Lawrence County, in this State. Butler had belonged to Governor Harrison in Kentucky, had been brought to Indiana, had been indentured, and had faithfully worked out his term of service. His wife was born free, which rendered the children also free. They were taken down the Wabash to the Ohio, and from there disappeared farther South. Harrison, learning of the outrage, at once offered a large reward for the capture of the perpetrators. His name gave the matter wide publicity, and the Butlers were rescued at New Orleans, just as they were about to be shipped to Cuba.
This was merely one out of hundreds of similar instances, although few had so satisfactory an ending. The entire southern portion of the State was overrun by professional kidnappers, and free negroes were kept in constant terror. The Shawneetown "Mercury," as late as 1851,contains an account of a peculiar case illustrative of the class of men en-engaged at this work. A Mrs. Prather, of Tennessee, emancipated her slaves, and the latter removed to Gallatin County, Illinois. They were followed by a party of kidnappers, who conspired for their arrest as fugitive slaves. Judge Pope, of the United States Circuit Court, before whom the case came, decided that the Tennesseeans had not a shadow of a claim to them. While endeavoring to get hold of these negroes, a well-known Kentucky kidnapper, named Newton E. Wright, came to this State, and became acquainted with two Illinoisans in the same trade, – Joe O’Neal, of Hamilton County, and Abe Thomas. A little later, O’Neal stole three children from a negro named Scott, living in that county, ran them off, and sold them, partly on credit, to Wright, who immediately resold them to one Phillips at New Madrid. When O’Neal’s note matured he sent Abe Thomas to collect, telling him that Wright had some other business for him to attend to, for which he would be well paid. Arriving at Wright’s, the desperado was offered one hundred and fifty dollars to go to Hicco, Tennessee, and kill a Dr. Swayne, who had sued Wright on a note. This job was undertaken, and Thomas went to Hicco, gained Swayne’s confidence, and endeavored to carry out his contract, but merely succeeded in fracturing the Doctor’s arm by a hasty shot fired from behind. Thomas escaped, although closely pursued. A year later, an unexpected clew to the discovery of the felon was obtained. Two residents of White County, Illinois, chanced to meet Dr. Swayne, and heard him describe the man who shot him as having a nose flat at the base, projecting forward like a hawk’s bill. These Illinoisans at once recognized Abe Thomas, and a short time afterwards the fellow was seized by a party of Tennesseeans, taken to that State, tried, and convicted.
In 1824 a desperate effort was made to change Illinois into an openly slave State. There can be little question that from 1818 until this date, whenever the voice of the people found expression, they were strongly in favor of slavery. The subject was constantly kept astir, not only by local agitators, but by the continuous stream of Southern emigrants passing through on their way to Missouri. Many who had lands and property to sell looked upon the good fortune of Missouri with envy, while the lordly immigrant, as he passed along with his money and droves of negroes, took a malicious pleasure in increasing it, by pretending to regret the short-sighted policy of Illinois, which prevented him from settling there with his slaves, and purchasing the land travelled over. This growing dissatisfaction culminated in the fierce election contest of 1822, when slavery was practically the one great issue upon which votes were cast. Edward Coles was elected Governor by a small majority. He was openly opposed to slavery, and thus, apparently, the anti-slavery party won; but this was accomplished merely because there chanced to be two pro-slavery candidates in the field, – Phillips and Brown, – and the total pro-slavery vote polled was nearly two thousand in excess of that given Coles. Moreover, the legislature elected was strongly pro-slavery, and counteracted the best efforts of the executive.
The two radically opposed parties locked horns almost immediately, Governor Coles directing attention to this important question in his first communication to the assembled Legislature, and in clear, forcible language urging immediate emancipation. This served merely to fan into flame all opposition, and the pro-slavery advocates, confident in their apparent strength, determined then and there to fasten slavery permanently upon the State. There was but one legal way in which this could be accomplished – by an amendment to the Constitution. To attain this required first a two-thirds vote in each house passing the proposition submitting the question to a final vote of the people. In the Senate, this necessary two-thirds was easily found, but in the House just one vote proved to be lacking. To remedy this, an anti-slavery member, Nicholas Hanson, of Pike County, was unseated, and a contestant for his position, in the person of John B. Shaw, promptly given his place. His vote, thus easily secured, carried the day; but the unscrupulous manner in which it had been acquired later proved a boomerang, and contributed largely to influence the people in their decision at the polls. There followed a most desperately bitter campaign for votes, lasting nearly eighteen months, conducted violently by both parties throughout the entire inhabited portion of the State. In some respects the pro-slavery element had, at the start at least, a decided advantage because of the unequal apportionment of the State into representative and senatorial districts, pro-slavery sentiment being peculiarly strong in the old French settlements and along the Ohio, while farther north the people were numerically far in advance of the ratio of representation accorded them. The anti-slavery leaders perceived clearly that if they were to win at all it must be through the direct vote of the people, for if the question should be ever left with a chosen convention of delegates as the districts were then apportioned, slavery would unquestionably be fastened upon the State. Nerved by this knowledge, they devoted every effort to defeat the convention call before the people.
Never was such a canvass before made in the State. Young and old, without regard to sex, entered madly into the party strife; families and neighborhoods became divided, and entered into bitter, and at times violent, controversy. Detraction, personal abuse, acrimonious retorts were heard everywhere, and hand-to-hand combats were frequent. The entire country was on the verge of a resort to physical force to settle the angry question, and both threats and open intimidation were freely indulged. Newspapers were established by both parties to the controversy, and their columns teemed with incendiary utterances. Pamphlets were published and scattered broadcast; Governor Coles gave his entire salary to the cause; under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Peck, anti-slavery societies were organized throughout the State, the headquarters being in St. Clair County. The ministers of the gospel took active part in the canvass, for the moment forgetting their theological differences to unite against this one great sin, Tracts and handbills fluttered everywhere, and almost every stump held an impassioned orator, while the rank and file of the people wrangled and argued wherever they met. All commerce ceased, all work waited, while this great question was being fought out to a finish.
A glance over the array of names prominent in this campaign makes it evident that the more talented, influential, and better-known men then in Illinois public life were enlisted on the side of the convention party, but in energy and zeal, enthusiasm and determination, the opposition proved the stronger. Moreover, they were better organized, and enjoyed the advantage of being able to press home on the individual conscience a great moral issue, to which the minds of the common people made response. Their attacks were based directly upon the merits of slavery; they dodged nothing, while their opponents endeavored to avoid the issue, and befog it. The open, straightforward, manly methods of the anti-slavery advocates inspired respect everywhere and won votes, while, in spite of aid extended to the pro-slavery forces from sympathizers without the State, the very length of the campaign was favorable to the steady growth of anti-slavery sentiment among the common people. On the day of election every possible effort was made to poll a complete vote. The aged, the crippled, the sick, all who could possibly be induced or even dragged from their homes, were brought to the polls. The result was that the convention scheme was emphatically defeated by some eighteen hundred majority. It was a notable victory for the cause of freedom, showing a distinct gain, exceeding thirty-five hundred votes over the gubernatorial contest of only two years previous. The total vote cast was 11,612, while at the Presidential election the November following, the total vote cast was but 4,707. Strange as it may seem, the angry feelings engendered by this prolonged and bitter contest for supremacy died rapidly away, and six months later, it is said, it would have been difficult to find a politician in the State who would openly favor the introduction of slavery. The people’s will was supreme. The victory thus won decided forever the position of Illinois on this momentous question.
But the liberty of men is more than a political question, and can never be settled until it is settled right. Illinois, by this decisive act of her voters, was indeed safely removed from the list of avowed slave States, but the curse of virtual slavery yet continued to cast its baleful shadow throughout the settlements. To the south lay Kentucky, a slave State; to the west, Missouri, a slave State, while nearly half of her own population were from birth and habit firm believers in the "peculiar institution." Kidnapping of free Illinois negroes became a recognized trade, in which many prospered. Regular routes were established leading southward, with convenient stations established along the way, by which men, women, and children were hurried into slavery. There are times when fire can best be fought with fire, and as arriving settlers from the New England States, men nurtured in the religion of abolitionism, began to flow into the more northern counties, they planned a somewhat similar scheme for the running away with colored folks, but for a nobler purpose. The Southern kidnappers stole the free, to sell them into hopeless slavery; the Northern abolitionists took the slave from his master and guided him into liberty. It was a dangerous service in those days, when the feeling between the factions was extremely bitter, and one could hardly be certain of the true sentiments of a neighbor. Yet little by little a trustworthy chain was formed the entire length of the great State; then another and another, until soon after 1835, and from then until the breaking out of the Civil War, an almost constant stream of black fugitives was passing along from station to station of the famous " Underground Railway" to ultimate safety in far-off Canada. We know little regarding those old secret routes now; they have left only dim traces, although a few hoary-headed men yet linger, who can tell thrilling stories of that little section on which they once faithfully served. It may be none were acquainted with the entire distance traversed; certain it is that all that any station-keeper needed to know was the location of the next station lying east or north of his own. The fugitives came to him in the dark hours before dawn; all that day they lay hidden securely from prying eyes, and when night again darkened he led them swiftly onward to another similar place of safety. No record was ever kept of the number that passed, but many a hundred, including men, women, and children, thus won their weary way to freedom across the night-enshrouded prairies of Illinois. One old settler in Knox County, pointing the present writer to the great attic in his quaintly fashioned house, said that often he had hidden there more than twenty fugitives. Sometimes it was but one, trudging painfully along on foot, to be followed a few nights later by a trembling band loaded upon lumbering wagons.
We know little of the details; it is doubtful if anyone now living could accurately trace the old routes along which these fleeing blacks travelled in the dark. There were three of these secret trails leading out form Missouri, across Illinois – one starting at St. Louis, and veering north until it intersected another having its western terminus at Alton, from which point it tended north of east, probably never far from away from the present line of the Big Four Railway. A third route led directly northeast from Quincy, passing through Knox, Henry, Bureau, and La Salle Counties on its way toward Lake Michigan. Galesburg in Knox, then Wethersfield in Henry County, were stations on this line, the next beyond being Princeton in Bureau, thirty-six miles distant.
Out of such conflicting interests as slavery engendered, from the suspicion rampant on all sides, and the intense bitterness of party strife, the mob spirit was naturally born. Violence was not uncommon during all of these formative years, and occasionally the smouldering fire burst forth into dangerous flame. Neighborhoods, churches, even families, were divided; the very word "Abolitionist" was hated by many lovers of liberty; yet so subtly did the spirit of abolitionism creep in that no man felt certain of his nearest neighbor. Suspicion filled the air, and stimulated men to acts which under saner conditions would have been impossible. Such, we may safely say, led to the Alton riots and the death of Elijah P. Lovejoy. This occurred in the Fall of 1837, soon after the formation in upper Alton, at the house of the Rev. Mr. Hurlbut, of the openly avowed Abolition Society in the State. Mr. Lovejoy, who may justly be named Illinois’ first martyr to liberty, came to Alton, from St. Louis, July 21, 1836. He was then thirty-four years of age, and had been for three years editor of a paper in the latter city, in the columns of which he had so fearlessly expressed anti-slavery views, as to make it necessary for him to flee from the place by night. Determined to be heard, he shipped his press to Alton, where he proposed re-establishing himself. It chanced to be Sunday, and consequently his goods were lying unguarded on the wharf, no one supposing any trouble would occur. That night the boxes were broken open, and the printing –press was thrown into the river.
This act aroused great indignation in Alton, and a meeting of protest was held in the Presbyterian Church, at which Mr. Lovejoy and others spoke. In this address the declaration was clearly made that he was not an Abolitionist, but looked to colonization as the best means of ridding the country of the curse of slavery. He stated his desire to establish a religious paper in Alton, and used language which his listeners interpreted to be a personal pledge that its columns should be kept free from all future discussion of the slavery question. As a direct result of this meeting, funds were raised, another press was sent for, and on September8, 1836, the first number of the Alton "Observer" was issued. It was a success from the start, and soon gained a wide circulation, but it was not long before its editor again boldly attacked slavery. It could hardly be otherwise in that day when no true man could long remain neutral or indifferent. In the issue of June 29, 1837, he favored a petition for the abolishing of slavery in the District of Columbia, and in the next advocated the organizing of an anti-slavery society in Illinois. A committee communicated with the editor, warning him to desist, to which he replied somewhat tartly, denying the right of anyone to dictate to him what he should discuss, and offering them the use of his columns to answer his arguments.
They chose, however, a different method, and on the night of August 25 a mob suddenly stormed down upon the once, wrecked it with bricks and stones, drove out the employees, and completely demolished the press. The anti-slavery party at once rallied about their champion, and a third press was sent for; but when it arrived in September, Mr. Love-joy chanced to be away, and it was immediately seized by another mob, and promptly thrown into the river. Again and again during these weeks of continued excitement the life of the editor was threatened, and twice he was the victim of vicious assaults. But his friends sent for a fourth press, and he remained undaunted at his post.
November 7, 1837, the boat arrived bearing the fourth press, which was at once removed to the stone warehouse of Godfrey, Gilman & Co. Mr. Lovejoy and a number of friends assembled with arms for its defence. No trouble occurred until night, when a mob of perhaps thirty persons, mostly intoxicated, demanded that the press be surrendered to them. Refused this, they at once commenced a fierce attack on the building with stones, brickbats, and guns. Those within fired, killing one of the mob and wounding several others. Soon after, the city bells were rung, horns were blown, and a maddened multitude surged down toward the besieged warehouse. Ladders were placed against the windowless sides, and a number ascended to set fire to the roof. Mr. Lovejoy, with a few others of the defenders, fired upon these, and drove them away, returning below to reload their guns. Shortly after, he again stepped out on the roof to reconnoitre. But this time concealed members of the mob were watching; a number fired, and five bullets entered his body. He fell, crying, "My God, I am shot!" and instantly expired. With his death, the others surrendered, and the mob broke the press into fragments, and flung them into the river.
The day following, a grave was dug on a high bluff; in the southern part of the city, and the body, without any religious ceremony, was thrown into it and hastily covered up. Some years later this spot was chosen as the site of a cemetery, and the main avenue chanced to pass over the neglected grave of Lovejoy. To obviate the difficulty, his remains were removed to a new locality, and, later still, a simple monument erected over them, bearing the inscription: "Hic jacet Lovejoy; jam parce sepulto." Punishment for his murder seemed to follow without human intervention: the leader of the mob became a prisoner in the Ohio penitentiary, the person most instrumental in the committing of the crime was killed in a brawl at New Orleans, while many others are reported to have ended their lives in violence and disgrace.
But great questions, like the issue of slavery, are not to be settled by mob action. The death of Lovejoy merely fanned the flame, and made agitation more aggressive. Illinois became a battleground, nor did the gigantic struggle cease until the surrender of the Confederacy at Appomattox. To the last, pro-slavery sentiment remained strongly entrenched throughout all the southern counties, and from them many a volunteer went forth to don the gray and battle for his faith. But Illinois stood firm for freedom, and during that awful struggle, which broke the last chains from off the limbs black slaves, she gave of her best manhood 29,588 lives in sacrifice. In that hour of supreme trial she saw her duty, and performed it.
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