The introduction to this series can be found here.
AMBIGUOUS ABOLITIONISTS: JAMES POUILLON, ELIJAH P. LOVEJOY ...AND JOHN BROWN
I write this at 3:52 in the morning on Saturday, September 12, 2009. My wife and kids are asleep, and all is peaceful.
Yesterday was the eighth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11. It was also the day that a little known man in Owosso, Michigan, named James Pouillon, was shot in front of a high school by a man who hated him for his speech.
The details are sketchy at this point. Pouillon, apparently a kindly person in his sixties, a man in generally poor health (he required oxygen tanks to get by), was locally notorious as "the abortion sign guy". He would sit in public places holding pictures of aborted babies, or sometimes would drive huge trucks around small towns in Michigan driving adorned with similar pictures of aborted children in living color.
That's terribly dangerous business. Nothing is more provocative than pictures of dead and mutilated babies. The tactic of confronting people with the visual evidence of abortion creates deep hostility in some, both among those who are "pro-life" and those who call themselves "pro-choice." One member of my family, for instance, who is profoundly pro-life, finds these pictures deeply abhorrent, and cannot abide either seeing the pictures themselves or those who would wave them in public, both because they are revolting and because they are disrespectful of the dead. Corpses are, or should be, apolitical.
Many agree: The pictures ARE abhorrent. They DO provoke. And, apparently, it cost him Mr. Pouillon his life.
But Mr. Pouillon did achieve something unprecedented: this is the first time to my knowledge that any pro-lifer has died in the cause of the abolition of abortion.
This is something new.
Let me preface the rest of this essay with the following notation: I am an unashamed advocate of immediate, absolute, complete, and utter suppression of legal abortion everywhere in the United States, at once, without exception, and without apology.
Abortion is evil. It must end.
I so believe just as I stand for the absolute, complete, and continued suppression of slavery: for the very same reasons. There is an undeniable parallel between the two, er, practices.
It is not civilized to kill helpless people, any more than it is to keep them in chains. And pretending that they aren't people says far more about the pretender than about the unborn (or the enslaved).
But--I'm not stupid. While I would love to see this occur, I also know that the time for it has not yet come, and will not come for many years. But come, eventually, it will.
I have no illusions that abortion can be totally suppressed. There will be criminals, always, always, who will perform clandestine abortions, just as there will always be car thieves. We still have slavery, even sex slavery, today, 150 years after Abolition. The well known case of Jaycee Lee Dugard illustrates that all too well.
Making abortion illegal won't make it completely disappear; but it certainly will reduce the number of abortions, just as abolition reduced 4,000,000 slaves in 1861 to, oh, one (that we know of) in 2008.
But that said: I do not know enough about James Pouillon to offer his biography in this collection. So, instead, I'd like to talk about two of his historical antecedents.... one as a comparison, and the other, as a warning.
ADDENDUM 15 SEPT 09: Jim Pouillon's obituary can be read here.
ELIJAH P. LOVEJOY
For the moment, I'll let the indispensable (well, to me, anyway) WIKIPEDIA, the source of all wisdom and knowledge, and their wonderful OPEN SOURCE LICENSE provision saves me the necessity, for now, to rewrite his biography. Here's what you need to know about the man.
Elijah Parish Lovejoy (November 9, 1802 – November 7, 1837) was an American Presbyterian minister, journalist, and newspaper editor who was murdered by a mob in Alton, Illinois for his abolitionist views.
He had a deeply religious upbringing, as his father was a Congregational minister and his mother a devout Christian. He attended Waterville College ... in his home state of Maine, and graduated at the top of his class. Afterwards, he traveled to Illinois and, after realizing that the area was largely unsettled, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1827. There, Lovejoy worked as an editor of an anti-Jacksonian newspaper and ran a school. Five years later, influenced by the Revivalist movement, he chose to become a preacher. He attended the Princeton Theological Seminary and became an ordained Presbyterian preacher. Once he returned to St. Louis, he set up a church and became the editor of a weekly religious newspaper, the St. Louis Observer. He wrote a number of editorials, critical of other religions and slavery. In May 1836, he was run out of town by his opponents after he chastised Judge Luke E. Lawless, who had chosen not to charge individuals linked to a mob lynching of a free black man.
Lovejoy moved to Alton, Illinois, where he became editor of the Alton Observer. On three occasions, his printing press was destroyed by pro-slavery factions who wanted to stop his publishing abolitionist views. On November 7, 1837, a pro-slavery mob approached a warehouse belonging to merchant Winthrop Sargent Gilman that held Lovejoy's fourth printing press. Lovejoy and his supporters exchanged gunfire with the mob. The leaders of the mob decided to burn down Gilman's warehouse, so they got a ladder and set it alongside the building. They attempted to climb up ladder to set fire to the warehouse's wooden roof, but Lovejoy and one of his supporters stopped them. After the mob set up their ladder along the side of the building for a second time, Lovejoy went outside to intervene, but he was promptly shot five times with a shotgun and died on the spot.
Elijah P. Lovejoy was by our standards today a religious bigot. A fanatical Presbyterian, he attacked other religions openly in his writings. He once called a judge a "papist" for refusing to prosecute those who lynched a black man.
But there is also no questions that he stood up for the rights of black men and women in a time when they were not even recognized as human.
In St. Louis, Lovejoy quickly established himself as the editor of the anti-Jacksonian newspaper, the St. Louis Times, and as the headmaster of a coeducational private school. In 1832, upon influence of the Christian revivalist movement led by abolitionist David Nelson, he decided to become a preacher. He then studied at the Princeton Theological Seminary, and upon completion, went to Philadelphia, where he became an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church in April 1833. Upon returning to St. Louis, he set up a Presbyterian church and also became editor of a weekly religious newspaper, the St. Louis Observer. In 1835, Lovejoy married Celia Ann French, who would later bear him two children.
Lovejoy wrote various pieces expressing his siding with social reform movements and New School Presbyterian, as the editor of the “Observer”. Lovejoy criticized Baptists, Cambellites, Roman Catholics and pro-slavery advocates through his writing. He criticized the influence of the religion in St. Luis hardly, and sided with anti-Catholicism views of Lyman Beecher. Although many Missourians disapproved, he supported the freeing and emancipation of slaves. He maintained that he was expressing his freedom of speech, even though many threats were brought against the newspaper.
In May 1836, Frank McIntosh, a free black man who was jailed in suspicion of murder, was hanged by a mob. Lovejoy angrily cried out. The judge presiding over the grand jury investigation of the hanging, Luke E. Lawless, informed the jurors that an insane frenzy gripped the mob. Lawless said that legal action should not be taken against any particular individuals, because the jury did not know about the mob’s mentality. Lovejoy scolded Lawless for not caring about the lynching, calling him a “Papist”.
The day after Lovejoy published his comments... the same mob [returned and] destroyed his printing press. In response, he announced that the paper would move to Alton, Illinois. Once Lovejoy was in Alton, he became the editor ... the Alton Observer. However, his printing press was destroyed yet again by another mob.
Lovejoy’s printing press was stolen three times in Alton by ... pro-slavery groups, and was thrown into the river. He was given another printing press from the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. Once he had received his new printing press, word went out and pro-slavery mobs decided to destroy it. In October 1837, Lovejoy was asked to leave Alton by many leaders, but he rejected [such a move].... angrily argu[ing] that he has as much right to be [t]here than anyone else.
"Argu[ing] that he has as much right to be [t]here than anyone else"? Shades of Mr. Pouillon, who once sued in Federal court, obtaining $1 in damages, so that he could protest abortion on a public sidewalk.
Mr. Lovejoy, in spite of his name, in many ways does not seem like the kind of person who would be invited to soirees in Hollywood, New York, or Washington. People would view him today as a fanatic, a freak. Well, that he was. But he was an unapologetic advocate for the enslaved blacks held in bondage during a time when even mentioning the subject was considered a serious breach of manners.
Today, we view the advocates of slavery with a combination of loathing, contempt and pity, as well we should. We also remember with honor other advocates of abolition, such as William Lloyd Garrison, John Greenleaf Whittier; Harriet Beecher Stowe; Fredrick Douglass; Charles Henry Langston and John Mercer Langston. And of course, above all, Abraham Lincoln.
But we forget that the pro-slavery advocates had one motivation that we today choose to forget: at every moment, at every instant, owners of slaves were terrified of slave rebellion: the thought that the men who picked their cotton and the women who raised their children (and sometimes bore them!) would rise up one fine day and (to quote Ed Bearss in Ken Burn's The Civil War) "murder them in their beds." And they feared Abolitionists the same way that a man carrying an open gasoline can fears a lit cigarette.
Abolitionists in that century, just as prolifers in ours, were viewed as bloodstained fanatics with the blood of murdered innocents on their hands: the abolitionists with the victims of slave rebellion, and prolifers with the blood of abortionists.
Do not forget that Nat Turner, in 1831--only seven years before the death of Lovejoy--led a rebellion that killed 55 men, women, and children, before being suppressed violently and viciously by fanatical white militias that killed over 200 blacks in retaliation.
It is in view of this fear -- and rage -- that puts the mob that killed Lovejoy in proper context. Again, Wikipedia:
On November 7, 1837, pro-slavery partisans congregated and approached Gilman's warehouse, where the printing press had been hidden. According to the Alton Observer, shots were then fired by the pro-slavery advocates, and balls from muskets whizzed through the windows of the warehouse, narrowly missing the defenders inside. Lovejoy and his men returned fire. Several people in the crowd were hit, and one was killed.
As some began to demand the warehouse be set on fire, leaders of the mob called for a ladder, which was put up on the side of the warehouse. A boy with a torch was sent up to set fire to the wooden roof. Lovejoy and one of his supporters, Royal Weller, volunteered to stop the boy. The two men crept outside, hiding in the shadows of the building. Surprising the pro-slavery partisans, Lovejoy and Weller rushed to the ladder, pushed it over and quickly retreated inside.
Once again a ladder was put in place. As Lovejoy and Weller made another attempt to overturn the ladder, they were spotted. Lovejoy was shot with a shotgun loaded with slugs and was hit five times; Weller was also wounded. Suffering the same fate as its predecessors, the new printing press was destroyed; it was carried to a window and thrown out onto the riverbank. The printing press was then broken into pieces that were scattered in the river.
And so died Elijah P. Lovejoy, with five shotgun slugs in him.
Let it not be forgotten that Mr. Lovejoy died with a gun in his hand--and that, in providing a defense to the building and those inside it, several of the mob had been shot, and one (not further identified) was killed. Mr. Lovejoy died in an act of violence in which he directly participated.
This makes him naturally somewhat ambiguous. Did he contribute to his own death? Almost certainly. And he certainly contributed to the death of the man who attacked his warehouse, if not directly, than as an accomplice.
But one has the option of using deadly force in defense of an occupied building being attacked by a violent mob. That point is established law and was so even then. (To illustrate the point: Here in Detroit, we remember and honor one Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black doctor who was put on trial in for killing a white man while defending his home in 1925 under similar circumstances. Dr. Sweet was eventually acquitted. The judge in his case, Frank Murphy, is honored today by the court building in Detroit that bears his name.)
In short, you have no right to shoot to kill someone to defend an unoccupied building. You can kill to defend one that is occupied. End of story. So the shooting of the man in the mob was, by any standard, a justifiable act of self-defense.
Still. It is possible that a more passively resistant response, a la' Mohandas K Gandhi, would have spared the life of the arsonist trying to burn down the building. It might well also have led to the burning death of everyone inside. (With all respect to the Mahatma, I'll take death by five shotgun slugs over being burned to death any time.)
So Mr. Lovejoy was not a nice guy. He was a fanatic, a religious bigot, and an advocate of something that could have led (or so it was thought) to the murder of innocent (yes, white) people.
He dedicated his career, his work, and ultimately his life, to the cause of the abolition of slavery. He didn't have to do this. He could have just stayed home.
But he didn't. Something made him hear the call of duty at that crucial time and say... "I will do this."
He also spoke the absolute truth: slavery was a crime and those that maintained it were morally criminal.
He stood up and spoke truth, not just to power, but to a raging mob. He paid for his courage with his life.
He was the first white man to die in defense of abolition. And in so doing, he changed the world.
He is however also called today by some the first casualty of the American Civil War.
Let us pray that Mr. Pouillon, God rest his soul, does not come to bear a similar title.
The sequel to the death of Mr. Lovejoy came a few days later at a memorial service in his name. A strange, gaunt man, an utter failure in life in everything he tried, stood at the back of a church and said, "I hereby dedicate my life to the absolute abolition of the institution of slavery."
This man was John Brown.
I will not honor Mr. Brown with a full biography. I believe he was a terrorist. He was viewed by many contemporaries, even Lincoln and Grant, as a misguided fanatic.
Before the Raid at Harper's Ferry, John Brown and his sons murdered five pro-slavery men with swords. And while his actions at Harper's Ferry were for what cannot be denied was a very good cause, they led to the greatest war this nation has ever known.
John Brown has one 20th century parallel, and I do not mean this comparison as a compliment to either man: Timothy McVeigh. Both men were outraged at a vile injustice: Brown's being slavery, McVeigh's being the 1993 deaths of the Branch Davidians at Waco. But their rage at these injustices consumed them and turned them into the very monsters they thought they were fighting. Nietzsche warned us: "Who stares into the abyss should beware, eventually the abyss may stare back at you!" So here.
Both were justly executed.
It is likely that, given the circumstances of the nation in the late 1850s, that armed conflict was the only way to extirpate slavery. But let us also remember the words of Lincoln at the Second Inaugural Address:
The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
Let me repeat it: "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh."
Woe to the slave owner. But woe, too, to the men who pointlessly and needlessly murdered in the cause of abolishing slavery.
Let Brown be a warning to the rest of the Tattered Remnant. Don't let rage at injustice turn you into the monster that you wish to fight.