Benjamin Lundy, like many young men of his time restless and sketchily educated, longed for new places and experiences. The slightly built, freckle-faced, redheaded, teenage farm hand left his Quaker family and meeting in Sussex County, New Jersey, walked to Wheeling, Virginia, and apprenticed himself to a saddler. During his four years there he became conscious of the wrongs of slavery. He saw "droves of a dozen to twenty ragged men, chained together and driven through the streets, bareheaded and barefooted, through mud and snow, by the remorseless sellers with horsewhips and bludgeons in their hands."
He walked westward to Ohio, where he set up a saddlery business in St. Clairsville, met and married Esther Lewis, prospered, and in four years had property worth more than $3,000. He wrote, "I had a loving wife, and two beautiful little daughters. I was at peace with my neighbors and knew not that I had an enemy. I had bought a lot and built myself a comfortable house. Prosperity seemed to shine on me." For ten years he had been thinking about what he could do to aid those in bondage. He sought counsel from Friends, and in 1815 he organized an antislavery association called the Union Humane Society and printed circulars addressed to the people of the United States urging the formation of antislavery societies. "The societies should cooperate in every way to adopt the same name and meet in convention to discuss policies and formulate a common program." This was the first formal antislavery society and was the beginning of the abolition movement.
Charles Osborne, of Mount Pleasant, Ohio, who published The Philanthropist, suggested that Lundy select material, write articles, and, finally, join him in the printing business. Then, for three years, Lundy ran his saddlery business, lectured at every possible gathering, and organized committed groups, beginning with his fellow Quakers. By 1835 there were about 1,000 societies.
Abandoning his prosperous business and leaving his young family in the care of local Friends, he loaded his stock of leather goods on a boat. With three apprentices, he set out on the Ohio river for St. Louis, where he hoped to dispose of his inventory to advantage.
He arrived late in the fall of 1819 in bad weather. The city was tense with the issues of the Missouri question and business was depressed. There is a record that he was made secretary at a society in Jefferson County, Missouri, and that he took an active part in the controversy then raging over the future of the state. He returned on foot in winter, a distance of 700 miles, after an absence of a year and ten months and having lost thousands of dollars. He found the printing business had been sold, leaving him without any business connections.
Deciding to publish an antislavery journal in which he could get out his ideas, in 1821 Lundy sold the first issue of The Genius of Universal Emancipation at a profit. It was to continue intermittently until Lundy’s death. No library possesses a complete file of The Genius, one of the most remarkable newspapers published during the slavery controversy, but separate copies help us piece together the story.
After printing the first eight issues in Ohio, Lundy moved his family to Greenville, Tennessee, where he took over the press of The Emancipator, and learned to set type but found himself in a hostile environment. When his life was threatened he felt it prudent to move his family back to Ohio. There he began traveling for the cause.
The printing was done in many different places: one number in New York and maybe the next from Hudson, the next from Rochester, and so on. Lundy carried his column rules, imprint, heading, etc., in his little trunk with his mail and direction book. With the help of a local printer he furnished his old subscribers while acquiring new ones wherever his foot travel took him. His newspaper sold well. He found warm hospitality among Friends and often plied his trade. Knocking on a door he would offer to mend a strap or harness, or repair a belt. He walked to the East Coast, along the way lecturing and organizing societies (20 while in Deer Creek, North Carolina).
In 1824 Lundy attended the American Convention for the Abolition of Slavery held in Philadelphia and met some of the leaders of the movement from the older states. Lyman Beecher of Boston promised "to flood the country with abolition tracts." Later Lundy invited William Lloyd Garrison to join him in publishing The Genius, but Garrisons’s extremist views brought libel suits and violated Lundy’s Quaker principles. They parted after a few months without rancor. Even so, Lundy was accused of being an agitator, a demagogue, and a madman. He received threats and in Baltimore was brutally assaulted by an angry slaveholder, but his gentle persuasion left small groups of awakened citizens and a trail of abolition newspapers.
Asking himself what was to be done with Africans when they were emancipated and assuming they would need to find homes somewhere other than the United States, he traveled twice to Haiti, where he was unsuccessful in persuading its unstable government to accept freed slaves. He returned from his first trip to find that his wife had died and that his children were being cared for by Quaker families.
Wilberforce, Ohio, Quakers had established a settlement of freed slaves in Ontario, but when he visited the community (in midwinter) he found only about 35 families, which was as large as it ever became. Some who had resettled there had moved on to western Canada, where there were a number of communities of freed slaves. He traveled twice to Texas, too, hoping that this could become a refuge, but after winning independence from Mexico, Texas voted for slavery.
Back in Philadelphia, Lundy published articles and pamphlets on the Texas-Mexican troubles, and in the summer of 1836 he established a new antislavery paper, the National Enquirer, continuing The Genius as a weekly. John Quincy Adams became one of his closest friends. One night they went to a large gathering of Friends in the home of James and Lucretia Mott. Slavery and the abolitionist movement were discussed until late in the evening. When an angry street mob threatened them, all escaped, but Lundy’s possessions, temporarily stored in Pennsylvania Hall, were destroyed by a fire set by the mob.
When Elijah Lovejoy, editor of the Alton Observer in Alton, Illinois, was murdered by a mob in November 1837, antislavery men, planning to start another paper, were delighted to learn that Lundy would be joining his children in Illinois and continuing publication of The Genius. It was hoped that his non-violent Quaker views would be tolerated in Alton, where there had been mob violence.
He turned over the National Enquirer to John Greenleaf Whittier and reached Illinois by stage coach in February 1839. Purchasing a farm near Clear Creek Meeting in McNabb and a printing office in the nearby new village of Lowell, he established his family and, temporarily, used the press in Hennepin to print The Genius.
In the July issue Lundy expressed his sorrow that failing health had required Whittier to relinquish the editorship of the Pennsylvanian Freeman as the publication was commenced by them under the National Enquirer.
Lundy edited but one more issue of The Genius of Universal Emancipation. He wrote that he was unable to perform his duties and complained of a fever. After an illness of two weeks, he died on August 22, 1839, and two days later was laid to rest in Friends Burying Ground of Clear Creek Meeting. The original stone marker is beyond deciphering.
One hundred years after his death, the Centennial Memorial Committee gathered at the grave site and dedicated a bronze plaque to the pioneer abolitionist. The tribute, from Whittier, reads, "It was his lot to struggle, for years almost alone, a solitary voice crying in the wilderness, and, amidst all, faithful to his one great purpose, the emancipation of the slaves."