By Loreli Steuer
The story is true. Professor Jonathan Baldwin Turner, one of Illinois College's first instructors of rhetoric and publisher of an abolitionist newspaper, was a member of the Underground Railroad movement and a passionate antislavery activist.
Turner and a number of Illinois College students, some of the most notable being Samuel Willard, William C. Carter, and J. A. Coleman, all participated in assisting slaves escape to freedom through the network of the Underground Railroad. But participation didn't always come easy. Several of the students were arrested and threatened by proslavery sympathizers when found out. Each time Turner acted, he risked his job, his reputation, and his life.
Although Turner is the only known Illinois College faculty member to actively assist slaves escape, he was not alone at the college for speaking out against slavery. The seven Yale religion graduates (known as the Yale Band) who founded Illinois College were all strongly antislavery as was the College's first president, Edward Beecher. Beecher was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, who Lincoln once introduced as "the little lady who started the Big War." Further, the greater part of the faculty and trustees were steadfastly vocal about being antislavery from the college's founding through the Civil
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War, as were the majority of Illinois College students. When the Civil War broke out, all but one of the senior class enlisted to fight for the Union, although a dozen or more students later enlisted to return home and fight for the Confederacy.
While Illinois College became a center and symbol of antislavery sentiment in Illinois and generally supported the actions of abolitionists and the Underground Railroad, the school was by no means reflective of Jacksonville, the surrounding counties, or even of all the parents of its students. Proslavery advocates were many and made life difficult for those who supported immediate and total abolition. Proslavery newspapers castigated Illinois College for its open antislavery leadership and community activism, as revealed in the following excerpt from the St. Louis Missouri Republican:
Many of the young men of Missouri have been sent there for their education, and under proper auspices, we trust this would be the case; but with one so deeply identified with the abolition cause as The Rev. E. Beecher now is esteemed by all to be, it cannot expect either a continuance of the support of the citizens of this or of many of that state. For ourselves, we would much rather see a host of such men, as we esteem the president to be, sacrificed than that the prosperity of the college should be in the least affected by retaining him as its head.
One notable Illinois College student forced to withdraw from the college was William Herndon, Lincoln's friend, law partner of over twenty years, and later biographer. As Herndon wrote in his Life of Lincoln:
My father, who was pro-slavery in his ideas, believing the College was too strongly permeated with the virus of abolitionism, forced me to withdraw from the institution and return home. But it was too late. My soul had absorbed too much of what my father believed was rank poison.
The price paid by the college's unpopular yet unwavering stand was lost patronage from financial supporters; lost students whose parents—particularly from nearby border slave states—would not allow their sons to attend such a radical school; and a constant barrage of criticism, insults, and even threats from some of the more militant opposition.
Illinois College's great founding member, professor, and second president, Julian Sturtevant, wrote a letter in 1844 to a friend lamenting the suffering endured by the faculty
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because they dared follow principle over acquiescence. For Illinois College, he wrote, it was a time of "great and sore trial" and especially for the faculty. "It is certain," he said, "that from that time to the present, the faculty have passed few days which have not been rendered more or less unquiet by its relations to the slavery question." Still, Sturtevant observed, he wouldn't have consented to suffer "for any other consideration than the most imperious sense of duty."
For Sturtevant and the vast majority of the Illinois College community, including trustees, administration, faculty, students and alumni, American slavery was a "monstrous system." In the end, the college's tortuous struggle to maintain that "imperious sense of duty" proved right for the college—and for the nation. As Illinois College President Charles Rammelkamp wrote many decades later: "It would probably be absurd to say that if it had not been for Illinois College, the state might have joined the Southern cause, but it is not to be forgotten that where opinion was so evenly divided, men of intelligence, public spirit, and the courage of their convictions counted mightily."
This article first appeared as "Illinois College was Anti-slavery from its Inception," in a February 2004 edition of the Jacksonville Journal-Courier. Since that time, Illinois College has been listed by the National Park Service as one of the ten official Underground Railroad (UGRR) sites in Illinois. The college has also been given the Gillett House, one of the other prime UGRR sites in Jacksonville, for use as a center for studies of the Underground Railroad and other anti-slavery movements in antebellum America.
Loreli Steuer is Chair of the Underground Railroad Committee of the Morgan County Historical Society. She teaches a course entitled "Lincoln in Literature" at Illinois College, where she also performs many duties as the president's spouse.
Mary Turner Carriel, The Life of Jonathan Baldwin Turner, University of Illinois Press, 1961.
James E. Davis, Frontier Illinois. University of Indiana Press, 1998.
Charles M. Eames, Historic Morgan County and Classic Jacksonville, Daily and Weekly Journal Press, 1884.
Greg Olson, Illinois College: 175 Years—Leading the Way, Illinois College, 2004.
Charles Henry Rammelkamp, Illinois College: A Centennial History, Yale University Press, 1928.
Julian Sturtevant, Julian Sturtevant: An Autiobiography, Fleming H. RevellCo, 1896.
Iver Yeager, Julian Sturtevant: President of Illinois College, Ardent Churchman, Reflective Author, Illinois College, 1999.
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