Roughly half a century before Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a young fellow in Jonesborough proclaimed that “freedom is the inalienable right of all men,” and denounced slave-holders as “monsters in human flesh.” It was a noble cause for a man who’d seen first-hand the perils of slavery…not because he’d been a slave, but because he was once a slave-owner.
Elihu Embree was born to a Quaker minister in 1782. As a young men, he and his brother Elijah moved from Pennsylvania to Greene County, which had become a part of the new state of Tennessee just a few years earlier. They were prominent iron workers, and depended on slave labor to fuel their business. However, Elihu became displeased at the way many owners treated their slaves, and changed his whole perspective about the institution.
He set his slaves free, and became an ardent abolitionist. He also became a leader in the Manumission Society of Tennessee.
In 1819, Embree began publishing the Manumission Intelligencer, the nation’s first newspaper dedicated to the abolition of slavery. One year later, because of the paper’s dependence on multiple layers of approval (and subsequent infrequency), Embree started The Emancipator, which “advocated gradual emancipation and colonization of slaves, reprinted the proceedings and addresses of the Manumission Society of Tennessee, and published letters, articles, and poetry related to the abolition of slavery. In his newspaper, Embree celebrated slave owners who, like himself, had freed their slaves, and he recounted the “pitiful conditions” of many slaves in order to expose the institution and inhumane slave owners.”
A subscription to The Emancipator was one dollar per year, and by October of 1820, had reached a circulation of over two-thousand. It was delivered to Boston, Philadelphia, and throughout the south. And though it wasn’t always well-received below the Mason-Dixon line, it no doubt helped to influence many of those who had wavering opinions. Though he died later that year, Embree’s influence helped turn the tide of 200 years of oppression, culminating with the emancipation of all slaves in 1863.
Today, much of the Embree story lives on in the Tennessee Newspaper & Printing Museum in Rogersville. Located near the site where George Roulston and Robert Ferguson printed Tennessee’s First Newspaper, The Knoxville Gazette, in 1791, the museum houses replicas and original printings, as well as printing presses, linotype machines, paper cutters, type cabinets, and wire stitchers dating back almost 200 years.