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"Huck Finn and Jim" Lithograph by Thomas Hart Benton, Missouri State Historical Society

Two Kinds…

Although there were people in Missouri throughout the pre-Civil War period who abhorred the institution of slavery, those who advocated its abolition were a minority.  Their views were bitterly opposed and often suppressed by the irate proslavery forces.  There were two kinds of abolitionists:  (1) those who only advocated ending the system and (2) those who acted illegally to spirit slaves away.  The Missouri slaveholder did not discriminate between the two and considered the first as bad as the second. 

…Among Three Groups

Abolitionists in Missouri can be classified into three groups:  (1) certain ministers and journalists of the time who used the pulpit or press to condemn slavery; (2) some politicians – particularly those from St. Louis with its large slavery-hating German population-who quietly attempted to use their political skills and influence to effect abolition; and (3) the resolute outsiders who entered the state to impress Missourians with the need to destroy the institution. 

Certain Ministers

The first category of abolitionists were those associated with the churches and publications of the time.  The Referend John Clark, a Methodist minister who later embraced the Baptist Church, promoted the group known as the Friends of Humanity during Missouri’s Territorial Period.  The organization insisted that no one should be admitted ot the Baptist Church who believed in slavery as a permanent institution.  Dr. David Nelson, a Presbyterian minister, was the president of Marion College.  Although he was a southerner and a former slaveholder, he was forced to leave the state in 1836 after reading a paper which suggested a system of compensated emancipation.  The very next year the Reverend Elijah Lovejoy, who, like Nelson, was a Presbyterian minister, was forced to flee from St. Louis.  Although Lovejoy, the editor of the St. Louis Observer, had criticized slavery at an earlier time, he particularly angered the St. Louisans by censuring the mob which burned to death Francis McIntosh, a black accused of stabbing a policeman.  Lovejoy also called to task Judge Luke Lawless, who had publicly defended the mob’s action.  Although Lovejoy luckily escaped unscathed, his printing office was destroyed.  A minister of the Christian Church in Chillicothe in 1855, the Reverend David White, was forced to leave his church because of pressure from people who felt he favored the abolition of slavery.  The Industrial Luminary, a Parkville newspaper, publicly deplored the institution of slavery.  The editor of the paper was George S. Park, the founder of the town.  Park’s presses were thrown into the river by a mob in 1855.  About the same time, a citizen’s meeting declared a connection between the abolition movement and the Northern Methodist Church.  Among the resolutions adopted at the gathering was this:  “That we will suffer no person belonging to the Northern Methodist Church to preach in Platte County after date under penalty of tar and feathers for the first offense, and hemp rope for the second.”


There were also political leaders in Missouri who wanted to establish a plan of emancipation but they wished to avoid creating havoc in the state.  In the late 1820’s a private meeting of political leaders was held which included both Jackson and anti-Jackson supporters.  Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Senator David Barton are both reported to have attended this secret conclave.  It was their intention to establish a blueprint for the emancipation of slaves in Missouri.  However the Missouri project was dropped when a racial incident in New York stirred u anti-abolitionist sentiment in the nation. 

Late in his career as a senator, Thomas Hart Benton became a leader of the forces who wished to halt the spread of slavery.  A group of Missouri politicians gathered about Benton in the 1850’s and when farther than the senator in seeking the abolition of slavery in this state.  Among the leaders associated with this pro-Benton faction were B. Gratz Brown, Henry Boernstein, and Frank Blaire, all three from St. Louis.  Their antislavery views were consistent with those of the large German population of the city .  Among the Germans were many who had been exiled because of their liberal political views.  Having escaped from tyranny, the opposed any system which tended to exploit the individual.  These politicians were not in control of government during the 1850’s, but they became government officials later during the Civil War.  It should be noted that Frank Blair did not wish the freed blacks to remain in Missouri. As many abolitionists, Blair favored the return of the former slaves to Africa, or as an alternative their resettlement in Central America. 

And Those Outside Missouri

There were many other outside organizations or individuals who broadcasted their disapproval of slavery in Missouri.  Their views were not met with tolerance.  In 1855, an abolitionist from Leavenworth, Kansas, was seized in Weston, Missouri, and after the hair was shaved off half of his head, he was tarred, feathered, and in frontier fashion, ridden on a rail.  The episode ended in a ridiculous scene as the Weston mob held a mock auction of the abolitionist by a black auctioneer. 

In retrospect, the abolitionist movement in Missouri appears to have been a failure.  The antislavery group was not able to mobilize public support for its objectives, and even those who did agree with the abolitionists were often too frightened to express themselves because of the violent reaction of the pro-slavery groups in control of the state.  The operators of the Underground Railroad may have engaged in dangerous and exciting exploits, but they were able to free only a small number of slaves.  Their activities alerted Missouri slaveholders to the dangers of the time, and encouraged increased vigilance on their part. 

Source:  Meyer, Duane G., The Heritage of Missouri, 3rd edition,  River City Publishers Ltd., St. Louis Missouri, 1982, p. 325 ff.

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