The Abolitionist Movement
Around the 1820’s the abolitionist movement began to establish itself in the United states. 1 Based in religious principles, the movement called for an end to slavery, equal rights for slaves and an end to discrimination. 2 In the 1830’s the abolitionist movement picked up steam, establishing the Anti-slavery Society which branched out into many free states. 3 The movement inundated the north with abolitionist literature, mobilized politically to petition congress, and held mass meetings about the movement.4 Abolitionist papers were started to spread the word of the movement, and in 1831, the Boston-based abolitionist paper, The Liberator was established. 5 The suggested radical social change polarized the country, including anti slavery advocates and free soil advocates.6 These provocative ideas, in conjunction with the social and political realities at the time, created a highly emotional environment regarding the issue of slavery which played out in violent ways throughout the country. 7
The laws at the time were a reflection of deeply rooted political and social interests that suited the needs of certain groups of people, and that many did not adhere to. In Missouri, lawmakers reacted to the abolitionist press through a series of laws intended to reinforce the status quo of prevailing social attitudes.8 In 1837, Lawmakers acted to criminalize the publication, circulation and promulgation of abolitionist doctrines with increasingly harsh fines for those who were found guilty.9 In 1847, Missouri lawmakers enacted a harsh law criminalizing the education of ‘negroes.’10 Abolitionists flouted the Missouri law, but not without consequence.
In 1837 editor Elijah Lovejoy was ran out of St. Louis for working on his antislavery newspaper, The Observer. 11 He was ultimately killed by a pro slavery mob in Illinois. 12 In 1855, Reverend David White was forced to leave Chillicothe due to his pro abolitionist views.13
Missouri law, despite its slow creep towards into unconstitutionality, was a reflection of just how deeply emotional and polarizing the topic of slavery was, especially in a state that was bordered by free states, slave states, and the as-yet non-designated state of Kansas.