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Surprising details emerge about Elihu Embree

Visitors in Jonesborough often take photographs of the sign at 130 West Main Street in Jonesborough that reads: “FIRST ABOLITION PUBLICATIONS – On this site, in 1819-1820, were published the Manumission Intelligencer and The Emancipator. Edited by Elihu Embree and printed by Jacob Howard, these were the first periodicals in the United States devoted exclusively to abolition of human slavery.”
The Tennessee Historical Commission marker prompts the question why this small community in Northeast Tennessee would have been the location of a newspaper devoted to the antislavery movement years before the outbreak of the Civil War.
Past president of the Washington County Historical Association John Nash explained the character of Elihu Embree in an article in “The History of Washington County Tennessee.” Nash wrote, “From his father, Thomas Embree, Elihu inherited an abhorrence of the institution of slavery and a vision of the American South without it.”
The family were Quaker in belief. Founded by Englishman George Fox in 1652, the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers as they were known, played a leading role in the nation’s efforts to abolish slavery. The 19th-century historian, Rev. E. E. Hoss, portrayed Elihu as a man with great compassion, despite a fiery temper.
Hoss called him “a dreamer of dreams” and “a radical, outspoken, and aggressive abolitionist at a time when New England had only a nascent conscience on the subject of slavery.”
As an insight into his character, Nash said, “Elihu Embree eventually joined the Society of Friends, but as a young man he regarded himself as a deist. Deism, a popular philosophy among intellectuals in the late 18th-century America, involved the belief that God created the universe but no longer participated in, or was interested in, its affairs.
On the other hand, deism held that justice was a divine attribute, attainable at least in the hereafter. Perhaps the combination of early thoughts on justice and the Quaker commitment to freedom explains the zeal with which he embraced the abolitionist cause.
Elihu’s grandfather, Moses Embree III established an iron business in the 1770s in what was to become Washington County. His eldest son, Thomas, expanded the business. Elihu, born in 1782, was the eldest of four children of Thomas and his wife Ester. Thomas built a rock house for his family in 1791 believed to have been a link in the Underground Railroad along which large numbers of slaves escaped to the free states in the North.
Nash lived in the Embree home. Elihu spent the latter part of his childhood in the rock house which stands today as a bed & breakfast in Telford. Concerning his education, Nash, a professor at East Tennessee State University, wrote, “Some accounts state that he attended nearby Washington College and was taught by the famous Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Samuel Doak. When he and his younger brother, Elijah, grew up, they too became ironworkers, expanding the family iron business into a major industrial endeavor.”
Embree married twice, first to Anne Williams and, after her death, to Elizabeth Carriger. The two marriages produced several children, all daughters. Elihu came to own several slaves as a result of his second marriage. In November 1809, he sold those slaves but he bought them back in 1812 in order to unite the family members.
He freed some of the slaves soon thereafter, but kept a female slave and her children until the end of his life.
Formation of the antislavery movement in the area began in 1814 when eight men from Jefferson County drew up the constitution of an abolitionist society. Nash wrote, “In February, 1815 the constitution was submitted to the Lost Creek (Quaker) Meeting in Jefferson County, resulting in the formation of the Tennessee Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves. On November 21 of the same year, similar antislavery societies assembled at the Lick Creek Meeting in Greene County to consolidate their efforts into the Tennessee Manumission Society. The new society committed itself to working toward the gradual elimination of slavery and the extension of the Declaration Independence to all Americans. By November 1816 the Manumission Society had 474 members divided into 16 chapters. Elihu Embree soon became prominent in the society.”
In 1817 Embree and other members of the Manumission Society delivered two “memorials” to the Tennessee State Legislature dealing with the slavery issue. The following year he visited Philadelphia on business where he met members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, the oldest such society in the United States.
Upon his return to Tennessee, Embree and his associates in the Manumission Society decided to publish a weekly newspaper. The Manumission Intelligencer appeared in 1819. Elihu put up the money and served as editor of the paper while Jacob Howard of Jonesborough printed the papers. The first issue of the paper appeared in March.
The Heritage Alliance’s Archive provided the following from a copy of the front page of Vol. 1, No. 1 of The Emancipator dated JONESBOROUGH, APRIL 30, 1820 – “ADDRESS OF THE EDITOR The EMANCIPATOR will be published in Jonesborough, Ten.
By E L I H U E M B R E E, on a fine superroyal sheet of paper, in octava form, at One Dollar per annum, payable on receipt of the first number.
“This paper is especially designed by the editor to advocate the abolition of slavery, and to be a repository of tracts on that interesting and important subject. It will contain all the necessary information that the editor can obtain of the progress of the abolition of the slavery of the descendants of Africa; together with a concise history of their introduction into slavery, collected from the best authorities.”
From an initial six subscribers, the paper reached a circulation of 2,500 copies. This total, according to one authority, was probably as large as that of any newspaper in the state due likely to the strong antislavery sentiment that prevailed in East Tennessee at the time. The Emancipator had an existence of only eight months because of the death of Embree, aged 38, on December 4, 1820 from “bilious fever.”
A full collection of the journal comprising 112 pages was reprinted in 1932 by B. H. Murphy. Another reprinting by Embreeville Publications took place in 1995. In 1974 the Tennessee State Legislature met in Jonesborough and a motion by Senator Avon Williams was adopted, honoring the memory of Elihu Embree for his work on behalf of the “universal and equal liberty of all men.”