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–by Joanna Hallac

This Friday, February 3rd, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society is presenting, in association with the Illinois State Society of Washington, D.C. and the Knox College Alumni Association of Washington, D.C. and as a part of its annual African American History Month lecture series, a lecture by Owen Muelder, Director of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center at Knox College, on Congressman Owen Lovejoy. In anticipation of this event, we decided to offer a preview of sorts and give our readers a glimpse into the life of this ardent abolitionist and U.S. Congressman. Enjoy!

Congressman Owen Lovejoy (IL) served in the U. S. House of Representatives from 1857 until his death in March 1864. Although born in Maine, he would follow his brother, Elijah, out to Alton, Illinois in 1836. Elijah Lovejoy was the publisher of an abolitionist newspaper there, the Alton Observer, while Owen studied theology. Sadly, Owen witnessed the murder of his older brother in November 1837; Elijah was killed by an angry, pro-slavery mob as he tried to defend a printing press that belonged to an abolitionist group, instantly becoming a martyr for the First Amendment. His brother’s murder only strengthened Owen’s resolve to dedicate himself to the cause of the abolitionist movement and would eventually thrust him into elected office.

Congressman Owen Lovejoy (courtesy of Dickinson College)

Following his brother’s death, Owen Lovejoy moved to Princeton, Illinois where he became a minister at a Congregational Church, a job he held for the rest of his life. When he first arrived in Princeton, he boarded with the Denham family on their farm (1,200 acres of farmland) and upon the death of Mr. Denham, Lovejoy married his widow, Eunice, where they raised her three daughters and six children of their own, as well as keeping up the work on the farm. The details of Lovejoy’s home are of the utmost importance because it was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping to secretly smuggle fugitive slaves out of the South and into the North. The “Lovejoy line” of the Underground Railroad would become a pivotal station for any slave escaping life in the South for freedom in the North and Canada, and his role as a conductor was well known. His fight for the abolition of human slavery inevitably led him down a political path.

Lovejoy was first elected to the Illinois State House of Representatives in 1854 and then elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1856. Lovejoy became a close friend to Abraham Lincoln, even getting a personal invitation from the President to be witness to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Although Lincoln initially rejected Lovejoy’s offer to join the newly formed Republican Party in 1854, he would later do so and run for the Senate against Stephen Douglas with the full and vocal support of his friend Lovejoy. Lincoln was said to have referred to Lovejoy as “my most generous friend.”

Congressman Owen Lovejoy (courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Owen Lovejoy died at the age of 53 from Bright’s disease (a liver and kidney disorder), too young even for 1864, but he would be remembered by many as the Civil War ended and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were ratified, knowing he was one of the early heroes of the abolitionist movement that helped contribute to what gains had been made by 1870. He passed away in Brooklyn, NY and his body was shipped back to Illinois by train. Upon hearing that she was on the train carrying Owen Lovejoy’s body, an African American woman said, “Such men should never die.”

We hope you enjoyed this sneak peak at some of what you may hear at Owen Muelder’s lecture on the life of Owen Lovejoy on Friday, February 3rd. The lecture begins at noon in Rayburn 2168 and is free and open to the public, but we ask that you RSVP ahead of time by emailing uschs@uschs.org. So, if you’re in the Capitol Hill neck of the woods on Friday and want to learn more about this fascinating crusader for the cause of the abolition of slavery, then come on over to Rayburn, as it promises to be a truly interesting and enlightening experience for all.

Sources consulted:

Congressional Bioguide

“His Brother’s Blood: Speeches and Writings, 1838-1864.” Edited by William F. Moore and Jane Ann Moore.