Abolitionists in Wheaton
By Alberta Adamson, Center for History President & CEO
Photo courtesy of Center for History
Photo: Jonathon Blanchard
History tells us Wheaton was settled by abolitionists. Wheaton’s founding fathers, Warren and Jesse Wheaton and Erastus Gary migrated from Pomfret, Connecticut and were members of the Wesleyan Methodist Church which was known for its anti-slavery sentiment. In 1853 these men secured the establishment of the Illinois Institute, a school following their abolition principle.
The anti-slavery value progressed when Jonathan Blanchard was appointed president of the Illinois Institute in 1859. Blanchard, former president of Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois was an avid abolitionist. He stated, “God hath created all men free and equal, and hath endowed them with certain inalienable rights, which may not lay down, and which no man or body of men called a Legislature can take away without sin. This is why we may not make men slaves,” He was a man of conviction who wrote articles and traveled extensively preaching on the sins of slavery. .
Citizens of Wheaton and DuPage County quietly continued to spread the word on the evils of slavery. Helping a fugitive slave was against the law and if caught a person could be fined $1,000 or imprisoned for six months. Individuals kept their activity secret and trusted only those known to have the same principle. Records were not kept and sites on the Underground Railroad are difficult to confirm. Reverend Cross a teacher at the Illinois Institute was arrested for aiding fugitive slaves. When Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College was renovated there was no physical evidence that the original Illinois Institute section was used to harbor runaways. However, archival materials indicate Jonathan Blanchard had a room on the third floor of his home used to hide fugitive slaves. Using his own home was safer than jeopardizing the school’s charter by breaking the law.
The Underground Railroad was a well defined system weaving its routes through DuPage County and harboring hundreds of enslaved people running for freedom. Abolitionists took risks to support their belief that slavery should be abolished.
Mr. Lewis printed The Wheaton Flag, an abolition newspaper in Wheaton. In 1860, the masthead read, “Unalienable the rights of freeman.” In the “Old Time Democracy” column of the July 4, 1860 edition, quotes were printed:
I never would have drawn my sword in the case of America if I could have conceived that thereby I was helping to found a nation of slaves. –Lafayette
It is wrong to admit into the constitution the idea that there can be property in man.
Slavery is contrary to the law and nature. -William Writ
The Wheaton Flag offices were destroyed and never rebuilt. Subscription lists and advertisements in abolitionist newspapers such as The Wheaton Flag and the Western Citizen provide clues to those battling to abolish slavery.
Abolitionist James Burr is buried on the campus of Wheaton College. He wanted to be buried on “free” soil not in a cemetery where those who were pro-slavery might be buried.
Owen Lovejoy, another fiery abolitionist, preached from the pulpit on the evils of slavery. He was a founding Trustee of Wheaton College and the younger brother of Elijah who was murdered in Alton, Illinois over his public views on slavery he printed in his newspaper, Observer.
When the call for recruits for the Civil War came, Wheaton College students were among the first to enlist in support of abolishing slavery.
The Free Soil Party, active from 1848-1854, opposed the extension of slavery into the new territories acquired from Mexico and admission of new slave states into the Union. The Party’s slogan in 1848 was “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men.” Jesse Wheaton was a member of The Free Soil Party.
Faith in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has guided citizens in the 1800s and still is the foundation of today’s leaders in Wheaton.