Contextualizing the Founders: Knox College, Abolition, and Praxis

Because the Grimke sisters has such a profound consciousness of the inseparability of the fight for Black Liberation and the fight for Women’s Liberation, they were never caught in the ideological snare of insisting that one struggle was absolutely more important than the other (Angela Davis, 44)

Functionally, oppression is domesticating. To no longer be prey to its force, one must emerger from it and turn upon it. This can be done only by means of the praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it (Paulo Friere, 51) 

Abolition has a number of definitions. These definitions rely on the relationship between thought and action. The meaning of abolition refers to the ideology and potential praxis of emancipating Black people from the institution of chattel slavery. Abolition also signifies a commitment to anti-racism and to the praxis of liberation of Black lives by Black people or White people, often at the cost of personal safety. In modern terms, radical abolitionism is the commitment to a praxis of the deconstruction and freeing of oneself and other selves from an imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. I will situate Galesburg abolitionists, in particular Elijah Lovejoy and George Washington Gale as dissonant and will show that White abolitionist principles, practice, and/or morals conflicted with abolitionism on the ground and in thought.


Photograph of George Washington Gale 

For a time Galesburg was a unique colony situated in the Northern half of the United States. Illinois was home to several stops for the Underground Railroad, simultaneously, Illinois had permitted slavery, by law, confirmed in 1843 and potentially later. [1] Before the existence of the railroad Galesburg was, in this case specifically about abolition, a reformatory colony whose citizens were in agreement to support abolitionism.[2] Naturally, there was opposition to abolitionism in all colonies in the United States, to try and paint as broad of strokes as possible, Northern colonies were no exception. This is because White colonists wanted to maintain their White Supremacy, or absolute power, and continue to exploit, enslave and kill Black people for their labor because of White Supremacy and to drive a capitalist economy. George Washington Gale, the noted founding father of Galesburg, along with other men like Silvanus Ferris, Samuel Tompkins, Thomas Simmons, Hiram Kellogg, or William Holyoke contributed money to fund expenditures such as buying land, and their family lineages aided in colonizing the land known as the Galesburg settlement.


Photograph of Jonathan Blanchard 

The abolitionists in Galesburg were involved in local anti-slavery organizations and a part of the larger Illinois Anti-Slavery Society. Generally their abolitionism was in stride with the whole of the movement, advocating against Illinois’ black laws, calling for increased action against slavery, and leading a political campaign through the Free Soil, Liberty and Republican parties to nominate and elect anti-slavery candidates. George Washington Gale was involved with the above abolitionists activities of organized anti-slavery societies in Illinois. Gale’s abolitionist theory lagged behind, along with his abolitionist practice. Upon inspection of G.W. Gale’s letters to his family, friends, and sponsors of the colony, he does not speak of his time in the anti-slavery society, work as an abolitionist, or anti-slavery ideas or practices, and his abolitionism dramatically declines in the mid-1840s.[3] With the decline of Gale’s abolitionist work came the rise of the schism. The schism was a sectarian conflict between the Congregationalists, lead by Jonathan Blanchard, and Presbyterians, lead by George Washington Gale. The conflict was also politically sectarian; the Presbytarians objected to the college's radical anti-slavery reputation, and the Congregationalists advocated for further radical abolitionist ideology and action. George Washington Gale took a hardline conservative approach to his politics and Jonathan Blanchard a hardline radical approach to his politics, leaving the two in a gridlock, achieving nothing. Blanchard had a vested interest in reforming Knox College, he was on the faculty, he was a radical abolitionist, and he was the president of the college. George Washington Gale’s resistance, and subsequent trivialization of his own abolitionism is one of many examples of how white abolition was demented. This presents the idea of a white abolition that paradoxically erases Black experience. Thus the core tenets of abolition was commonly lost for white abolitionists because they framed slavery as a violation of their Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Quaker, or other Christian denominations’ morals. Furthermore white abolitionists had the promise of boosting their political careers as abolitionism became the populist progressive political movement for White Americans.


Portrait of Elijah P. Lovejoy 

As another example that demonstrates the gaps and contradictions of praxis and theory, Elijah P. Lovejoy, an Illinois abolitionist, is often hailed as a martyr for free-speech, and even as the first martyr of the American abolition movement. I call this into question through a comparison between Elijah P. Lovejoy and William W. Brown, a formerly enslaved abolitionist. Lovejoy exerted an appearance of an embodied praxis of abolitionism by living for abolition, by choosing to publish abolitionist ideology in his publication the Observer, by continuing to publish and continuing his determination to keep the Observer running after the destruction of his printing presses, and dying for abolition at the hands of a pro-slavery mob. Lovejoy’s white abolition praxis is in stark contrast to William W. Brown. William W. Brown’s autobiography was published in 1848, and in it he details the time his master loaned him to Elijah P. Lovejoy.[4] I call the integrity of Lovejoy’s abolition into question because what is the likelihood that this was a single occurrence of Lovejoy accepting an enslaved Black person. Why did Lovejoy not help Brown to secure freedom from slavery, and how many enslaved Black people did Lovejoy accept?

Without dedicated labor to praxis, there is White abolition without Black liberation. Abolition manifested for different people in many forms, from abolition that was racist, sexist, classist to one that was anti-racist, liberating, radical, moderate or conservative.  There are many nuanced and granular details to put the abolitionist movement into perspective. The reasons for White abolitionists’ dissonance and contradictory praxis are many-fold. It goes without saying, the unbridled advocacy, and staunch abolition from White and Black abolitionists lead to Black liberation. White abolitionists did not move stride for stride, and they often failed to center the very exploitation that they were working against.

Contextualizing the Founders: Knox College, Abolition, and Praxis