The Emancipator, published in 1820 in Jonesborough, Tennessee, by Elihu Embree, was the first newspaper in the United States devoted entirely to the abolitionist cause. It was an outgrowth of Embree’s first newspaper, the Manumission Intelligencer, published the year before.
Embree, a Quaker whose family had prospered in the iron manufacturing industry in Greene County, was an active member of the Manumission Society of Tennessee. After witnessing the activities of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in Philadelphia, Embree decided to print a newspaper to spread the anti-slavery message in East Tennessee. The Manumission Intelligencer was a weekly publication, printed on Tuesdays, with an annual subscription rate of three dollars. One of the few newspapers in East Tennessee in 1819, and the only newspaper in Jonesborough, it included local news material in addition to its anti-slavery message. Only one copy of this paper is known to exist today.
A stipulation in the Manumission Society’s constitution required printed material to be approved by the society’s members, who met only periodically. This resulted in the infrequent publication of the Manumission Intelligencer, as well as Embree’s departure from the society. He ceased publication of the Intelligencer and began printing a second newspaper in April 1820, a monthly journal called the Emancipator. According to Embree, the purpose of the Emancipator was “to advocate the abolition of slavery and to be a repository of tracts on that interesting and important subject.”
The Emancipator 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.
The annual subscription rate of the Emancipator was one dollar per year, and it had reached a circulation of over two thousand by October 1820, with deliveries made to Boston and Philadelphia, as well as in the South. Embree mailed copies of his paper to the governors of all the southern states, but it was not well received. Many southerners erroneously thought Embree was an agent of northern abolitionist groups, sent to Tennessee to stir up trouble with his publication.
The paper ceased publication with Embree’s illness and death in 1820; the last edition was published on October 31. Benjamin Lundy continued the work of the Manumission Intelligencer and the Emancipator by moving to Greeneville in 1822 and using Embree’s printing press to publish The Genius of Universal Emancipation, which was ultimately discontinued at his death in 1839. The Emancipator was reprinted in its entirety by B. H. Murphy of Nashville in 1932.