Archer’s Angry Abolitionist succeeds in presenting an interesting, readable short biography that focuses on the difficulties and dangers that American social reformers faced in the years from 1830 to 1865. Archer had earlier written of another self-made printer, journalist, and reformer of this era in Fighting Journalist: Horace Greeley (1966). He points out in Angry Abolitionist that Garrison’s editing of the Liberator had inspired Greeley’s crusading weekly, the New York Tribune. Archer’s biographies of Greeley and Garrison speak to concerns of the 1960’s, when they were published, including the Civil Rights movement, women’s liberation, and the Vietnam War protest. Archer stresses that Garrison was a universal, radical social critic, a revolutionary reformer who opposed not only slavery but also every form of injustice that he saw: militarism and war, the subordination of women, rigid clericalism, corporal punishment and imprisonment, cruelty to animals, dueling, and alcohol abuse.
Yet Archer portrays Garrison as a radical moralist, one who put morality above the laws of government, as did many of the 1960’s protesters. Garrison, in the 1840’s, characterized the U.S. Constitution, then recognizing the legality of slavery, as a “covenant with death” to be dissolved by the secession of the North from the Union. Together with Greeley and Wendell Phillips, Garrison would pressure “a reluctant Lincoln” to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Along with Garrison’s angry idealism, Archer also emphasizes his deep devotion, kindness, love, service, and gentleness to family and friends. The author seems to argue that one can be fiercely dedicated to justice, can speak sharply and stand bravely, and at the same time can be a nonviolent, caring person, a view held by the nonviolent protesters of the 1960’s.
Archer’s biography shows his admiration for the self-educated, self-made Garrison, who rose from poverty not to riches but to a moral success. Garrison once said of himself, “In short, I did what I could for the redemption of the human race.” Archer has done what he could to honor Garrison’s work, having researched Garrison’s original correspondence in the Boston Public Library and studied his life in the authoritative sources listed in his bibliography. Archer’s clear, immediate prose suggests the urgency felt by Garrison and again felt by the moral idealists of the 1960’s.