The Preachers: Owen Lovejoy (1811-1864)

Cordelia Perrine Harvey, a crusader for better hospitals for Union soldiers, encountered Congressman Owen Lovejoy one day as she was leaving the White House after an unproductive interview with the President. In reply to Lovejoy's question about how long she was staying in Washington, she said: "Until I get what I came after." Reverend Lovejoy was upbeat and encouraging: "That's right, that's right; go on, I believe in the final perseverance of the saints."1

Congressman Isaac Arnold recalled a conversation he had with President Lincoln and Congressman Lovejoy in the summer of 1862 at the Soldiers Home when Mr. Lincoln was attempting to get Border State congressmen to accept his idea of compensated emancipation. Said President Lincoln: "Oh, how I wish the border states would accept my proposition. Then, you, Lovejoy, and you, Arnold, and all of us, would not have lived in vain! The labor of your life, Lovejoy, would be crowned with success. You would live to see the end of slavery."2

Although Lovejoy clearly advocated eventual emancipation of all slaves, he did not actually support immediate interference in Southern slavery. Lovejoy, though an ardent abolitionist and an anathema to more moderate Republicans, understood the need for Republican political unity and consistently supported Lincoln's entry into the Party, presidential nomination (despite the preference in his congressional district for Seward), and presidential policies. Like Mr. Lincoln, he opposed the compromise efforts of late 1860 and early 1861. He used his influence in the House to fight the Crittenden Compromise and the proposed constitutional amendment which would have prohibited interference with slavery in the South. Speaking of the secession movement in the Republican caucus, Lovejoy said: " There never was a more causeless revolt since Lucifer led his cohorts of apostate angels against the throne of God; but I never heard that the Almighty proposed to compromise the matter by allowing the rebels to kind the fires of hell south of the celestial meridian of 36°30'!3

Isaac Arnold later maintained: "While the President, by his moderation, was seeking to hold the border states, and while his measures were severely criticized by many extreme abolitionists, he enjoyed to the fullest extent, the confidence of Lovejoy and other radical members from Illinois."4 Lovejoy biographer Edward Magdol wrote: that "Lovejoy exercised the utmost care in his relations with Lincoln. Whatever his discontent with the President-elect, he had since 1854 made prodigious efforts to work harmoniously with him."5

"Lovejoy is a large, powerfully built man, erect, handsome, with a dark face, curly gray hair, and blue eyes," wrote journalist Noah Brooks. "He speaks with his hands in his pockets, pressing forward against his desk, and has a queer way of turning his tongue in his mouth at the end of a sentence as though he were licking his chops. He is full of humor and runs over with as many Scripture quotations as ever had 'scripture Dick" of elder days. He is apt at repartee, and when he becomes warmed up in a speech he is fervent, impassioned and even eloquent."6

Although a Congregational minister, Lovejoy's morality was matched by his thoughtfulness and his wit. His sense of humor is reflected in his dismissal of a response to questions of Buchanan's Secretary of War John Floyd about a procurement contact: "...we ask for contracts and they send in a statement here which answers the demand of the resolution about as well as the return of a skeleton would answer the demand for the man. It may be very good as a study of comparative anatomy, but it does not answer the demand, and it is not the contract."7

Rev. Lovejoy played a pastoral as well as a political role with Mr. Lincoln - allegedly visiting the President on occasions to read with him the Bible. Former Illinoisan Brooks described Lovejoy as "stout, good-natured, bluff, and full of fun and Scripture quotations. He has not been in his seat much during the present [1864] session, being kept housed by a distressing malady which has bleached his iron-gray hair to whiteness and taken off much of his portly look."8

While suffering from cancer in December 1863, Congressman Lovejoy had visited the White House, where President Lincoln was suffering from variloid. As Lovejoy sat in the waiting room, he saw the President in his dressing gown at the door. "Lovejoy, are you afraid?" asked the President. "No, I have had the small-pox, come in," replied the congressman.9

The war had brought the two men closer together. Lovejoy introduced painter Francis Carpenter to President Lincoln. During a conversation with Carpenter in February 1864, Lovejoy rejected any Republican opposition to the President: "I tell you Mr. Lincoln is at heart as strong an anti-slavery man as any of them, but he is compelled to feel his way. He has a responsibility in this matter which many men do not seem to be able to comprehend. I say to you frankly, that I believe his course to be right. His mind acts slowly, but when he moves, it is forward. You will never find him receding from a position once taken." Lovejoy added: I have no sympathy or patience with those who are trying to manufacture issues against him; but they will not succeed; he is too strong with the masses."10

From his sick bed in late February 1864, Lovejoy wrote abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison "to express to you my gratification at the position you have taken in reference to Mr. Lincoln. I am satisfied, as the old theologians used to say in reference to the world, that if he is not the best conceivable President he is the best possible. I have known something of the facts inside during his Administration, and I know that he has been just as radical as any of his cabinet."11

Learning from Carpenter of Lovejoy's death in March 1964, Mr. Lincoln said: "Lovejoy was the best friend I had in Congress."12 "Our friend, whom we all so loved & esteemed, has so suddenly & unexpectedly passed away - Mr Lovejoy!" wrote Mrs. Lincoln to Senator Charles Sumner.13 Mr. Lincoln's attitude toward Lovejoy had undergone a remarkable transformation. He wrote John H. Bryant on May 30, 1864: "Many of you have known [Owen] Lovejoy longer than I have, and are better able than I to do his memory complete justice. My personal acquaintance with him commenced only about ten years ago, since when it has been quite intimate; and every step in it has been one of increasing respect and esteem, ending, with his life, in no less than affection on my part. It can be truly said of him that while he was personally ambitious, he bravely endured the obscurity which the unpopularity of his principles imposed, and never accepted official honors, until those honors were ready to admit his principles with him. Throughout my heavy, and perplexing responsibilities here, to the day of his death, it would scarcely wrong any other to say, he was my most generous friend. 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."14

Fellow Illinois Republican Shelby M. Cullom recalled: "I was at the White House when the news of his death was brought to Lincoln, and I recall the kindly manner in which he spoke of him. Lovejoy had been something of a radical in the House, and, although his radicalism had in a way aided Lincoln, there were times when it grew to strong for the good of the cause in hand. Speaking of Lovejoy on this occasion, Lincoln said, 'He was one of the best men in Congress. If he became too radical I always knew that I could send for him and talk it over and he would go back to the floor and do about as I wanted.'"15

Carpenter noted: "Lovejoy had much more of the agitator, the reformer, in his nature, but both drew the inspiration of their lives from the same source, and it was founded in sterling honesty. Their modes of thought and illustration were remarkably alike. It is not strange that they should have been bosom friends. The President called repeatedly to see him during his illness; and it was on one of these occasions that he said to him, 'This war is eating my heart out...I have a strong impression that I shall not live to see the end.'"16

Historian David Donald wrote "the President's most consistent supporter in Congress was Radical Representative Owen Lovejoy."17 Congressman Lovejoy seemed to moderate with Mr. Lincoln's presidency. "Lovejoy has toned down of late and is really radical only in past reputation. Some of the old-time Democratic conservatives are far ahead of him in antislavery and pro-liberal sentiments, so he delights to twit them for their excessive radicalism," wrote journalist Noah Brooks.18

Relations were not always so warm between the two men. Ever since his brother's Elijah murder by anti-abolitionists in 1835, Lovejoy had been one of Illinois most outspoken and radical antislavery activists. As such Owen Lovejoy was a lightning rod for criticism. Lovejoy had been elected to the Illinois legislature in 1854 and was one of the votes Mr. Lincoln counted on in his abortive Senate candidacy in early 1855. Mr. Lincoln wrote to Jesse Olds Norton after his defeat: "I have now been beaten one day over a week; and I am very happy to find myself quite convalescent. Your kind letter of the 20th of Jan'y I did not receive till the day before yesterday--owing, I suppose to our great snow-storm. The day after the election I wrote Washburne the particulars, tolerably fully. Through the untiring efforts of friends, among whom yourself and Washburne were chief, I finally surmounted the difficulty with the extreme Anti-Slavery men, and got all their votes, Lovejoy's included.19

The nascent Republican movement included a number of disparate strains including anti-Nebraska Democrats, old-line Whigs, German- Americans, and abolitionists like Lovejoy. He was a delegate to the February 1856 Republican organizing convention in Pittsburgh, but he played little role in the Bloomington Convention beyond speaking in relatively moderate tones just before Mr. Lincoln. Known as an emotional and powerful speaker, Lovejoy spoke at Bloomington Convention just before Mr. Lincoln. Lovejoy's relatively moderate speech displeased his friends and comforted some of his enemies - who included David Davis and Jesse DuBois.

In July 1856, Lovejoy was nominated for Congress over Leonard Swett - an event that Mr. Lincoln said "turned me blind." He wrote David Davis: "When I heard that Swett was beaten, and Lovejoy nominated, it turned me blind. I was, by invitation, on my way to Princeton; and I really thought of turning back. However, on reaching that region, and seeing the people there - their great enthusiasm for Lovejoy - considering the activity they will carry into the contest with him - and their great disappointment, if he should now be torn from them, I really think it best to let the matter stand. It is not my business to advise in the case; and if it were, I am not sure I am capable of giving the best advice; but I know, saying what I do, will not be offensive to you. Show this to Gridley and other friends, or not, just as you may judge whether it do good or harm.20

Opposition to Lovejoy reappeared in 1858. David Davis, Jesse Norton, and Ward Hill Lamon conspired to deprive him of renomination. Davis himself sought the nomination. Mr. Lincoln had to anonymously defend David Davis against charges that he had abandoned the Republican nominee in 1856. According to Davis biographer Willard L. King: "When a key Champaign delegate defended Lovejoy to Davis, Davis exploded at his former law clerk, "You had better training than this. Mr. Lincoln's prudent interest should have left a deeper impression on you." The judge's public outburst was taken as a signal that he was whipped and Lovejoy eventually won renomination. In response, Davis wrote Lincoln that he was 'not disappointed" but that did not stop Lamon and himself from scheming to block Lovejoy.21

Mr. Lincoln he did not actively oppose Lovejoy and warned Judge Davis not to do so either. Davis at first tried to block Lovejoy with Judge T. Lyle Dickey. Henry Whitney, a foe of Lovejoy and abolitionists, warned Lincoln of the scheme and Lincoln was forced to intervene. Mr. Lincoln himself wrote Lovejoy:
I have just returned from court in one of the counties of your District, where I had an inside view that few will have who correspond with you; and I feel it rather a duty to say a word to you about it.

Your danger has been that democracy would wheedle some republican to run against you without a nomination, relying mainly on democratic votes. I have seen the strong man who could make the most trouble in that way, and find that they view the thing in the proper light, and will not consent to be used. But they have been urgently tempted by the enemy; and I think it is still the point for you to guard most vigilantly. I think it is not expected that you can be beaten for a nomination; but do not let what I say, as to that, lull you.

Now, let this be strictly confidential; not that there is anything wrong in it; but that I have some highly valued friends who would not like me any the better for writing it.22

Lincoln stopped Davis and wrote Lamon to desist in promoting an independent candidate for the seat: "in the first place whoever so runs will be beaten, and will be spotted for life; in the second place, while the race is in progress, he will be under the strongest temptation to trade with the democrats, and to favor the election of certain of their friends to the Legislature; thirdly, I shall be held responsible for it, and Republican members of the Legislature, who are partial to Lovejoy, will, for that, oppose me; and lastly it will in the end lose us the district altogether."23

David Davis' biographer King wrote that "all hope of blocking Lovejoy's nomination vanished when the McLean County Republican convention instructed its delegates for him. 'I believe the whole country is fast going to the Devil,' Lamon wailed to Lincoln. 'Judge Davis is, of course, out of the field....I presume Lovejoy will have no opposition in convention.' Many Republicans, Lamon declared, would vote for Douglas. What did Lincoln think about running an independent candidate against Lovejoy? 'My opinion,' Lincoln responded, 'remains unchanged that running an independent candidate against Lovejoy, will not do - that it will result in nothing but disaster all round.'"24

Commenting on Lincoln's House Divided speech at the 1858 Republican State Convention, Lovejoy said it would "shatter the doubtings of thousands of weak and timorous souls who are under the ban of pro-slavery sympathizing and small despots all about us. They can now defy these in the strength of Lincoln's leadership."25 In his renomination speech on June 30, Lovejoy played the role of unifier, saying: "The sooner we forget what we have been, and only remember that we are Republicans now, the better."26 Mr. Lincoln subsequently campaigned frequently with Lovejoy and Lovejoy was overwhelmingly elected.

Meanwhile, Douglas used Lovejoy's politics as a wedge against Lincoln at the opening Lincoln-Douglas debate on August 21 in Lovejoy's district - accusing Mr. Lincoln of surrendering to the radicals and agreeing to their 1854 platform. Lovejoy, on the platform, exercised self-control despite Mr. Lincoln's need to distance himself from the Congressman. Douglas also sought to provoke Mr. Lincoln by picking on Lovejoy in the Freeport debate. But Lovejoy did not stay quiet for long. According to historian Don E. Fehrenbacher, "When [Douglas] spoke at Joliet a few days later, the Little Giant was pestered with interruptions not only from Republicans in his audience but from the abolitionist congressman, Owen Lovejoy, who had seated himself uninvited on the speaker's platform."27 After Lincoln's official defeat on January 1859, Whitney upbraided Mr. Lincoln for bringing about his own defeat by supporting Lovejoy and other abolitionists. Replied the defeated Lincoln: "It is the people, and not me, who want Lovejoy. The people have not consulted me on the subject..."28

In Congress, Lovejoy was an advocate of free labor, free trade, free land, and hard money. As he said in one debate: "...when you undertake to build up national prosperity, by means of a paper currency which does not represent dollar for dollar, and is not convertible into specie, it will not stand. But, Sir, when you build it upon hard money, upon a metallic currency you have built your house upon a rock, and it will stand the test of all the storms that may beat upon it."29 He was a persistent thorn in the side of the Buchanan Administration on corruption matters and military appropriations.

Lovejoy became chairman of the Committee on Public Lands. Together with Galusha Grow, chairman of the Committee on Territories, he shepherded Homestead legislation through Congress only to have Buchanan veto it. On April 5 1859, Lovejoy gave a fervent speech against slavery that caused a near riot on the floor of the House when Lovejoy strayed onto the Democratic side of the House and insisted on the rights of slaves to fight for their freedom.

Lovejoy's political problems back in Illinois weren't over. Hard-drinking Ward Hill Lamon threatened to oppose him in 1860 but one Lamon friend wrote him: "You wouldn't do for Congress for you wouldn't reflect the high moral tone of this District - Lovejoy does do that."30

In the new Congress, Lovejoy was chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture. After the 1861 summer session, Lovejoy was briefly a colonel serving with Fremont in Missouri. In November 1861, speaking to his Princeton neighbors, Lovejoy said like cancer, slavery must be surgically removed: "The people are getting ready for it and President Lincoln is advancing step by step just as the cautious swimmer wades into the stream before making a dive....President Lincoln will make a dive before long."31

He pushed strongly for emancipation of slaves in the District of Colombia and use of former slaves in the Union Army. Although more radical than the President, never disrespected him the way other Radicals did. He frequently fought with border-state congressmen from Kentucky. In one such debate, he said: "Let Abraham Lincoln make himself, as I trust he will, the emancipator, the liberator, as he has the opportunity of doing, and his name shall not only be enrolled in this earthly temple, but it will traced on the living stones of that temple which rears itself amid the thrones and hierarchies of heaven, whose top stone is brought in with shouting of 'Grace, grace unto it.'"

Speaking in his own Cooper Institute address in March 1862. Congressman Lovejoy argued:

The President is like a man driving a horse in the thrills of a buggy, and leading another behind him by the halter-strap. It is very awkward managing two horses this way, as I know from experiment. Now the President knows that the horse Radical that he is driving can go ahead, for he has by him been taken in handsome style into the Executive chair; but he is a little afraid that this mettlesome charger cannot be trusted going down hill, otherwise he would let go of the old rack o' bones that hobbles along behind. Now I do not propose to dash ahead so as to throw the President out or break the carriage but to go steadily that the Executive can be assured that he is safe with the Radical steed down hill as well as up and on level ground....If the President does not believe all I do, I believe all he does...If he does not drive as fast as I would, he is on the right road, and it is only a question of time.32

A month later, Lovejoy's praise of the President took flight in Congress: "I too have a niche for Abraham Lincoln, but it is in Freedom's holy fame and not in the blood-besmeared temple of human bondage; not surrounded by slave-fetters and chains, but radiant with the light of Liberty. In that niche he shall stand proudly, nobly, gloriously with shattered fetters and broken chains and slave-whips beneath his feet. If Abraham Lincoln pursues the path evidently pointed out for him in the Providence of God, as I believe he will, then he will occupy the proud position I have indicated. That is a fame worth living for...."33



  1. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 562 (Cordelia Perrine Harvey, from a lecture manuscript).
  2. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 251.
  3. Edward Magdol, Owen Lovejoy, Abolitionist in Congress, p. 273.
  4. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 229.
  5. Edward Magdol, Owen Lovejoy, Abolitionist in Congress, p. 277.
  6. P. J. Staudenraus, editor, Mr. Lincoln’s Washington: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 111-112 (February 15, 1863).
  7. Edward Magdol, Owen Lovejoy, Abolitionist in Congress, p. 186.
  8. P. J. Staudenraus, editor, Mr. Lincoln’s Washington: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 308 (March 9, 1864).
  9. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 477.
  10. Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House, p. 47.
  11. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 600 (Letter from Owen Lovejoy to William Lloyd Garrison, February 22, 1864).
  12. Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House, p. 18.
  13. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editor, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 174 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Charles Sumner, April 5, 1864).
  14. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 366.
  15. Nathan William MacChesney, editor, Shelby M. Cullom, Abraham Lincoln: The Tribute of a Century, 1808-1909, “Lincoln and His Relations with Congress”, p. 504.
  16. Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House, p. 17.
  17. David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, p. 114.
  18. P. J. Staudenraus, editor, Mr. Lincoln’s Washington: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 112 (February 15, 1863).
  19. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Second Supplement, p. 9-11 (Letter to Jesse Olds Norton, February 16, 1855).
  20. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, First Supplement, p. 27 (Letter to David Davis, July 7, 1856).
  21. Willard L. King, Lincoln's Manager, David Davis, p. 197.
  22. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 435-436 (Letter to Owen Lovejoy, March 8, 1858).
  23. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 458-459.
  24. Willard L. King, Lincoln's Manager, David Davis, p. 118.
  25. Edward Magdol, Owen Lovejoy, Abolitionist in Congress, p. 201.
  26. Edward Magdol, Owen Lovejoy, Abolitionist in Congress, p. 203.
  27. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850's, p. 102.
  28. Edward Magdol, Owen Lovejoy, Abolitionist in Congress, p. 219.
  29. Edward Magdol, Owen Lovejoy, Abolitionist in Congress, p. 174.
  30. Edward Magdol, Owen Lovejoy, Abolitionist in Congress, p. 249.
  31. Edward Magdol, Owen Lovejoy, Abolitionist in Congress, p. 302.
  32. Edgar DeWitt Jones, Lincoln and the Preachers, p. 66.
  33. Edgar DeWitt Jones, Lincoln and the Preachers, p. 69.