Slavery, Race, and Democratic Activism in Antebellum Illinois

Saturday, April 17, 2021, 10:30 AM - 11:00 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Antebellum; Midwest


Race and slavery deeply shaped democratic norms in early Illinois. The southern settlers who predominantly settled Illinois Territory brought their slaves and racial attitudes with them. Slaveholders indentured their slaves to evade the antislavery provisions of the Northwest Ordinance and territorial leaders created punitive black laws to control indentured servants and to deter free African-Americans from settling in Illinois. Illinois’ proslavery movement, which flowered in the 1820s, revealed the antidemocratic implications of these early practices. Although the proslavery movement failed, a widespread commitment to white supremacy remained. Illinois’ black laws persisted until the Civil War. During the antebellum decades, Illinois’ abolitionists played prominent roles in the antislavery movement and in efforts to repeal the state’s black laws. Abolitionists considered the issues to be interwoven. They argued that both the black laws and slavery inhibited African-Americans’ natural right to worship God freely. They also knew that northern whites’ toleration of slavery and support for the black laws rested substantially on widespread racism. Northerners were unlikely to support the abolitionist movement unless they acknowledged African-Americans’ natural and civil rights. Changing Northerners’ racial convictions was therefore a central task for abolitionist reformers who imagined a more democratic America. Two of Illinois’ most prominent abolitionist newspaper editors, Elijah Lovejoy and Zebina Eastman, promoted democratic ideals and practices in keeping with antislavery policy and antiracist thought. Lovejoy’s democratic aspirations were initially fired by a desire to claim the West for Protestant Christianity, but he soon perceived that slavery posed a potent threat to both Protestantism and the nation. From his perspective, “every man” should vote “in the fear of God,” in what he called “a union of religion and politics.” He turned this religious viewpoint against slavery and became an abolitionist after witnessing the brutal treatment of slaves and free blacks in St. Louis. His death in November 1837 at the hands of an anti-abolitionist mob in Alton, Illinois made him a martyr to freedom and spurred the abolitionist movement in Illinois and throughout the nation. In Chicago, Zebina Eastman took up the torch by using the Western Citizen to promote political antislavery in the Old Northwest. Eastman juxtaposed the Declaration of Independence and the commandment to love thy neighbor under the masthead of the Western Citizen, which declared the "SUPREMACY OF GOD AND THE EQUALITY OF MAN." Following his own advice, he worked with African-American leaders, contributed to the Underground Railroad, promoted the humanity of blacks, and sought to fashion an antislavery political coalition. Abolitionist ideals enjoyed biracial support. In Peoria, as in some other communities in Illinois, black residents began to organize on behalf of antislavery and antiracism. They worked hand-in-hand with white abolitionists against slavery, but also labored amongst themselves to establish new institutions that served their community. Their efforts focused intensely on broadening democratic practice in Illinois, and they worked with other African-Americans in Illinois to establish equal rights. These determined abolitionist champions of reform helped fashion an America of expanded democratic horizons. 

Papers Presented

Elijah Lovejoy, Antislavery, and Nationalism 

Elijah Lovejoy is well known as a consequence of his murder by anti-abolitionists in Alton, Illinois in November of 1837. The murder precipitated outrage throughout the nation and became a touchstone in the abolitionist movement, and as a consequence has since received considerable scholarly scrutiny. However, the great fluorescence of scholarship on Lovejoy occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, and little work has been done on the subject since politician Paul Simon's book was published in 1994. Simon focused primarily on Lovejoy's religious views rather than his politics, and earlier historians likewise played down the political implications of Lovejoy's life and death. Lovejoy typically has been interpreted as a martyr to freedom of the press and a patron saint of abolitionism; he has not been considered significant to the development of antislavery politics. This paper will argue for the significance of Lovejoy to an emerging antislavery nationalism. The ideas that would later connect abolitionism to antislavery politics were reflected in what he wrote in the Alton Observer and in what others wrote as a consequence of the controversy, and gained salience because of his martyrdom. Indeed, the national publicity produced by the controversy and his murder strengthened a growing convergence of antislavery and nationalism. The connections are evident in his editorials, in the public response to his death, and in books published as a consequence of his murder.

Presented By
Graham A. Peck, University of Illinois at Springfield

Zebina Eastman’s Western Citizen and the Forging of “Practical Abolitionism”

Zebina Eastman’s editorial work as an antislavery voice in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa and beyond melded various strands of abolitionism in the Old Northwest states and territories. He assisted Benjamin Lundy on The Genius of Universal Emancipation in Illinois and partnered with Hooper Warren on The Genius of Liberty at Lowell, Ilinois. Underfunding brought Warren’s paper to an end, but Chicago abolitionists proposed to bring Eastman to the Windy City to inaugurate the Western Citizen. During the years from 1840 to 1855, Eastman propounded the “One Idea” that undergirded the abolitionists’ political affiliations from the Liberty Party to the Republican Party: the abolishment of slavery. He spearheaded the transformation of antislavery societies in Illinois into political action groups, which helped change the stigma of the “dirty abolitionist” into the image of an active citizen. This encouraged a wider audience, and figures like Abraham Lincoln read the Western Citizen and acquainted themselves with western abolitionism. In the 1850s, Eastman took it upon himself to interview Lincoln, satisfying himself and his constituency that Lincoln would carry freedom forward. Eastman was a coalition builder and a master architect of political activism. He built and maintained bridges between religious denominations (no easy task), political factions, and clashing personalities, all the while keeping African Americans’ struggles against bondage and racism at the center of the cause. He knew that the antislavery impulse in the West could not withstand the factionalism of eastern abolitionism, so he forged what he and others called a “practical abolitionism” built on the one idea that slavery must be abolished by any and all means. Keeping that idea in the forefront helped prevent western abolitionists from sidetracking into conflicting philosophies or tests of fellowship. As a practical abolitionist, he taught literacy to prominent African American leaders in Chicago, served on the Chicago Common Council, worked on the Underground Railroad, joined numerous antislavery and political organizations, and animated his Congregational beliefs by advocating freedom. He eulogized Lundy and his Quakerism yet held yearly memorials to John Brown. He despised Garrison’s disunionism, believing that reform and the principles of freedom and equality were best protected within the Union. His practical abolitionism sought to promote universal freedom in new states and territories, to imagine the possibilities of shared moral, economic, and political strengths, and to define a growing antislavery nationalism.

Presented By
Jeanne Gillespie McDonald, Waubonsee Community College

“Pelted with eggs”: The Challenges Facing Black and White Advocates for Freedom in Peoria, Illinois, 1840 to 1865

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Peoria was one of the fastest growing cities in Illinois. It was not, however, a hotbed of abolition. While other communities, especially in the northern half of the state, organized local anti-slavery societies in the 1830s, it was only in the early 1840s that local anti-slavery societies were formed, with Mary Brown Davis and other white women taking the lead. The vast majority of whites in the city remained, however, hostile to the abolitionist project. In May 1846, an angry mob terrorized a mass anti-slavery meeting. Two months later, Samuel Davis, a prominent newspaper editor, was brutally beaten for his efforts on behalf of the anti-slavery Liberty Party. While illuminating the travails of white anti-slavery advocates in Peoria, this paper will feature a virtually unknown story: the growing assertiveness of black Peorians in the fight against slavery and for civil rights. A small black community emerged in the mid-1840s, and numbered 100 persons by 1860. Black Peorians asserted their presence and aspirations by building institutions and hosting annual emancipation celebrations. They partnered with white allies to bring Frederick Douglass to their city in 1859. They also took active roles in statewide efforts by African-Americans for freedom and rights. Persistent discrimination and the seemingly unassailable power of slave interests led some members of the community to consider emigration. Yet with the coming of the Civil War, black Peorians signaled their determination to overturn traditional racial arrangements.

Presented By
James R. Ralph Jr., U.S. history

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Stewart L. Winger, Illinois State University
Stewart Winger is an Associate Professor of History at Illinois State University, Normal, IL. His first book, Lincoln, Religion, and Romantic Cultural Politics (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002), won the 2004 Barondess/Lincoln Prize. He has written articles and reviews on Abraham Lincoln, American Religion, and American Law and has received several teaching awards in the Department of History at Illinois State University. In 2013, he received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for his upcoming book The Fostering Care of Government: Lincoln, Republicanism, and an Egalitarian Market Economy. With Jonathan White, he has co-edited a book entitled Ex Parte Milligan Reconsidered: Race and Civil Liberties from the Lincoln Administration to the Wars on Terror (April 2020).

Presenter: Jeanne Gillespie McDonald, Waubonsee Community College
Jeanne Gillespie McDonald is Professor of English at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove, IL. She holds a Ph.D. in English Studies from Illinois State University, an M.A. in English from Western Illinois University, and an M.A. in Theology and Philosophy and an A.B. in Youth Ministry from Lincoln Christian University. She has written and presented on topics including the antislavery movement, learning assessment, teaching strategies, composition, creative writing and American literature, and is a book reviewer for the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. She has over thirty years teaching experience and was named the 2019 Outstanding Faculty member at Waubonsee. She was awarded a sabbatical during Fall 2019 in order to perform research for her forthcoming book on the Illinois antislavery movement.

Presenter: Graham A. Peck, University of Illinois at Springfield
Graham A. Peck is the Wepner Distinguished Professor of Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois in Springfield. He wrote, directed, and produced Stephen A. Douglas and the Fate of American Democracy, a prize-winning documentary broadcast in 2016 by WTTW Chicago. He is the author of Making an Antislavery Nation: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Battle over Freedom (University of Illinois Press, 2017), which won the 2018 Russell P. Strange Memorial Book of the Year Award from the Illinois State Historical Society and was selected as a finalist for the 2018 Gilder-Lehrman Lincoln Prize. In 2018, he produced a eight-episode podcast series on Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy.

Presenter: James R. Ralph Jr., U.S. history
Jim Ralph teaches American history at Middlebury College, where he also serves as the Dean for Faculty Development and Research and as the director of the Center for Teaching, Learning & Research. He is the author of Northern Protest: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement (1993) and co-editor of The Chicago Freedom Movement: Martin Luther King Jr and Civil Rights Activism in the North (2016).