The historian Howard Zinn, author of the “People’s History of the United States.” once wrote: “History cannot provide confirmation that something better is inevitable; but it can uncover evidence that it is conceivable.”
The life of Princeton’s the Rev. Owen Lovejoy is testament to Zinn’s observation. This year is the sesquicentennial of his death.
U.S. Congressman, national anti-slavery activist, Underground Railroad conductor and former minister of Hampshire Colony Congregational Church, Lovejoy died on March 25, 1864. He had lived long enough to see American slavery abolished, but not long enough to see the end of the Civil War over which it was fought.
In June 1864, a few months after Lovejoy’s death, John Howard Bryant and other veteran Illinois activists in the anti-slavery cause gathered in Princeton to plan and raise money for a monument in memory and honor of Lovejoy.
The proceedings of the Lovejoy Monument meeting were published in the Bureau County Republican. While the language may be dated, the words Lovejoy’s compatriots used to describe his concern for the oppressed resonate even today:
Col. F.A. Eastman declared: “Princeton has suffered a great loss. A leading citizen of this place said to me: ‘In Owen Lovejoy we lost the soul of our community.’ And as I stepped into the street this morning from my hotel, a poor laborer exclaimed, ‘Owen Lovejoy was kind and noticed poor people, and ‘tis a pity he is dead.’ While other advocates of liberty were theorizing and explaining — too often apologizing — he at once took his stand with the lowly ... For years before Mr. Lincoln said ... ‘This country must be all free or all slave,’ Owen Lovejoy had resolved that all should be free.”
Likewise, W.T. Allan emphasized Lovejoy’s identification with the masses of humanity:
“If you destroy or outrage one human being, no matter how much strength or how much money, however many churches, how many schools, how many railroads, how much apparent prosperity you may have in various directions if you adopt the principle in your constitution of trampling upon any class, or one single human being, then you have the truth against you, the eternal and Omnipotent God is against you, and you must go down and perish in shame and everlasting contempt.”
President Abraham Lincoln himself offered his moral support for a Princeton memorial to Lovejoy in a letter to John Howard Bryant: “Let him have the marble monument, along with the well-assured and more enduring one in the hearts of those who love liberty unselfishly for all men.” In the mid-1850s, a more cautious Lincoln had been wary of Lovejoy, the outspoken abolitionist. But once he became president, Lincoln found in Lovejoy, who had been elected to Congress in 1856, an effective emissary to the other radical Republicans in the House. When Lovejoy died, Lincoln said: “I have lost the best friend I had in Congress.”
The Lovejoy Monument was erected in 1866 at the Lovejoy/Denham family plot in Oakland Cemetery. A sign at the east entrance to Oakland now directs visitors to it.
The poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant (and John Howard’s brother) had travelled from New York to Princeton for the 1864 meeting to plan the monument. He shared his hope for its eventual impact: “Let no man who looks at this monument ever be discouraged in a good cause.”
On the 150th anniversary of Owen Lovejoy’s death, one hopes that the life of a man once called “the soul of our community,” continues to inspire seekers of social justice everywhere.