William Lloyd Garrison

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2002

William Lloyd Garrison 1805-1879

American social reformer, journalist, nonfiction writer, speech writer, and biographer.

Generally regarded as the foremost figure of the United States abolitionist movement, Garrison was a widely recognized speaker, political agitator, and voice of reform in nineteenth-century America. Expressing radical views through his influential anti-slavery periodical the Liberator (1831-65), Garrison was an outspoken supporter of alcohol prohibition, women's suffrage, nonviolent resistance, and other social issues. Religiously devout and fervent in his opposition to injustice, Garrison earned a reputation for political extremism, once setting fire to a copy of the United States Constitution, declaring it “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell” for its sanction of slavery. In devoting three and a half decades of his public career to the complete elimination of slavery in the United States, Garrison contributed to the polarization of American society in the years leading up to the Civil War, and in his zealous drive toward racial equality he became a rallying figure for both adherents and opponents of abolitionism. Faced with the unforgiving task of rousing Northerners from their general indifference to slavery and condemning Southern slaveholders for their immorality, Garrison saw his goal realized with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which emancipated all black slaves in 1865. The remainder of his life Garrison devoted to less visible causes in the name of social and moral progress in American society.

Biographical Information

Born on December 10, 1805 in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Garrison was the son of a Nova Scotian immigrant, Abijah Garrison, and his wife Frances Maria Lloyd. His father abandoned the family before Garrison was three years old, leaving Garrison's mother to raise three children alone. Poor economic prospects prohibited the young Garrison from completing his education. After only a few years of grammar school he began a period of indentured labor, eventually becoming an apprentice printer with the Newburyport Herald in 1818. The apprenticeship lasted seven years and Garrison proved well suited to the work. He continued his career in journalism as editor of the Essex County Free Press in 1826. The newspaper failed, but Garrison persevered, transferring to the National Philanthropist, a Boston-based prohibition paper. His work with the National Philanthropist demonstrated the young Garrison's growing reformist zeal. He began to write editorials in favor of moral and political improvement, speaking out against the consumption of alcohol, sexual promiscuity, and the institution of slavery, among other social ills. With increasing visibility in the anti-slavery circles of New England, but little local response to his opinions on reform, Garrison accepted a position with the Genius of Universal Emancipation, a Baltimore journal he began to co-edit with abolitionist Benjamin Lundy in 1829. In its pages, Garrison advocated the full and immediate emancipation of all American slaves, an extremely radical anti-slavery position at that moment in United States history. He also rebutted arguments for the colonization of freed slaves in Africa, a position he had previously supported but no longer found suitable. Garrison's broadsides against slavery in the Genius of Universal Emancipation were accompanied by personalized attacks, including one aimed at Newburyport businessman Francis Todd for his involvement in the slave trade. Todd sued Garrison for libel after learning of the accusation, and a Baltimore court sentenced Garrison, who was unable to pay his fine, to six months in jail. During his incarceration, Garrison composed a small pamphlet entitled A Brief Sketch of the Trial of William Lloyd Garrison for an Alleged Libel on Francis Todd, of Newburyport, Massachusetts (published in 1834; but circulated in 1830). The sketch attracted the attention of philanthropist Arthur Tappan, who paid Garrison's fine, thereby securing the journalist's release after seven weeks of imprisonment. Returning to Boston, Garrison found support for his anti-slavery attitudes still modest, but on the rise. He initiated a new periodical, calling it the Liberator, in January of 1831. That year also witnessed the outbreak of the infamous Nat Turner slave rebellion. The insurrection, which resulted in the murder of sixty-one whites and the eventual execution of its black instigators, prompted a fevered outbreak of racial tension in the United States. Even as he decried the brutality of this rebellion, Garrison capitalized on the climate of unrest it had created to promote his abolitionist campaign in the Liberator. Meanwhile, the outspoken Garrison had attracted numerous detractors, culminating in a call by the Georgia state legislature in November of 1831 to arrest and abduct the Liberator's editor in exchange for a $5,000 reward. The payment was never claimed, and Garrison used the publicity to slight the moral disposition of the slaveholding South. In 1832, the reformer published his Thoughts on African Colonization. That year, the New England Anti-Slavery Society was assembled and named Garrison as its secretary. He sailed across the Atlantic for the first time in 1833 to meet with anti-slavery supporters in Great Britain. After his return in the fall of 1834, he married Helen Benson, daughter of an eminent New England abolitionist. Appearing at a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society the following year, Garrison was attacked by an angry mob. The intervention of city police allowed Garrison to escape unharmed. Later, he would parlay the incident into a public relations spectacle. In the ensuing years, divisions within the American abolitionist movement, especially between Garrison and members of the New England clergy, threatened his success. In the summer of 1840, Garrison returned once again to England, as a delegate to the International Anti-Slavery Convention in London. The segregation of women from the main convention floor, however, forced him to silently demur in protest for the duration of the conference. In 1843 Garrison became president of the American Anti-Slavery Society, occupying the position for more than two decades as the face of abolitionism in the United States. As the 1840s progressed, the nation witnessed a steady increase in public awareness of, if not direct sympathy with, the anti-slavery movement, in part due to Garrison's political agitation and speaking. Political tensions swelled as the union continued its westward expansion, culminating in the pivotal Compromise of 1850 and ratification of the notorious Fugitive Slave Law. Garrison decried the law and similar political concessions to the South. Having publicly denounced the framers of the United States Constitution for condoning slavery, Garrison refused to placate his enemies or soften the tone of his rhetoric. The infamous raid by abolitionist John Brown on a federal weapons arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October of 1859 once again stirred public unease. Brown was executed, and Garrison, while disparaging his violent methods, credited him as a champion of the abolitionist cause in the Liberator. The election of Abraham Lincoln to the United States presidency in 1860, followed by the secession of the Southern states and the eruption of the American Civil War in 1861 ensured a violent resolution to the anti-slavery conflict. Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which declared the freedom of all slaves, became the law of the land in 1865 after the conclusion of the war and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. With his efforts to eliminate slavery largely realized at this time, Garrison supported the dissolution of the American Anti-Slavery Society and retired from a prominent role in public life. He continued his social reform efforts, however, protesting against the sale and use of alcohol and tobacco, and working to protect the rights of women and Native Americans until his death on May 24, 1879.

Major Works

Garrison's written and oratorical works overwhelmingly demonstrate his radical approach to the major reform issues he recognized in nineteenth-century American society: moral laxity, the consumption of alcohol, deficiencies in women's rights, institutional corruption, and above all, the practice of slavery. In a series of fiery public addresses, delivered throughout New England, Garrison exhorted the American people to free themselves of non-Christian practices and to wage war against sin by supporting an impulse toward the universal abolition of black slavery. Garrison expanded his arguments to include other reformist inclinations, including his desire to promote the religious doctrine of perfectionism—the urge to emulate the perfected moral state of Jesus Christ—and his belief in nonresistance to violence—pacifism, or nonviolent civil disobedience—in the pages of his newspaper the Liberator. For Garrison, the journal became a personal mouthpiece of reform, and, despite its relatively small circulation, it exerted a major influence on public opinion about slavery. In numerous speeches Garrison articulated his confrontational and steadfast position. Among his notable addresses, No Compromise with Slavery (1854) endeavors to sway listeners to halt the unethical practice of slaveholding, and to undertake this mission without equivocation, conciliation, or appeasement. In his 1859 speech “No Fetters in the Bay State!” Garrison singled out the odious Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which allowed slaveholders to forcibly retrieve slaves who had fled north to freedom and return them to southern plantations, as a central example of the hypocrisy and moral vacuity of a nation that allowed and excused the practice of slavery. Among Garrison's written works, Thoughts on African Colonization (1832) details his arguments against the proposed recolonization of Africa by former slaves, a plan promoted by some moderate abolitionists but never actualized. In the work, Garrison laid bare the flawed nature of such a scheme that would presume to resolve the problem of slavery by sending American blacks to a continent where they would largely be received as outsiders and members of the underclass. A single example of his purely literary work, Garrison's collection of lyric verse Sonnets and Other Poems (1843) is thought to attest to the vigor of his moral conviction and sentiment, rather than to his talent as a versifier.

Critical Reception

Popular and critical reaction to Garrison during his lifetime was anything but ambivalent. As a provocative, radical, and highly visible agitator, actively engaged with the most hotly debated issue of social reform in nineteenth-century America, Garrison generally elicited views as extreme as his own. Supporters heaped praise, calling him a courageous champion of justice and morality. Detractors responded with vehement condemnation, labeling him a dangerous fanatic. Meanwhile, divisions within the antislavery movement in the 1840s and 1850s, frequently generated by Garrison's unswerving belief in his principles and complete refusal to compromise, caused even former adherents, such as the charismatic freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, to split with him over the methods of eliminating slavery and enacting social reform. Additionally, Garrison's tendency to denounce a host of social ills in conjunction with abolitionist claims, always with an unwavering, missionary zeal, frequently led to major rifts among his allies. With the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865 and the forthcoming era of black emancipation, however, the main thrust of Garrison's position on slavery had been realized. Moderate abolitionists tended to realign with Garrison, allowing him to enjoy victory as the most immediately identifiable hero of the movement. Nevertheless, by the late nineteenth century, social and political historians had begun to question elements of the Garrison legend. The appearance in 1913 of John Jay Chapman's adulatory biography of the reformer, which de-emphasized Garrison's radicalism in order to mold a figure more satisfying to the mainstream, did little to halt the process. In 1933, historian Gilbert Hobbs Barnes published his revisionist study, The Antislavery Impulse, a work that halted the conciliatory trend and forcefully questioned Garrison's success, accusing him of a counterproductive extremism that contributed to the outbreak of armed hostilities between North and South. Barnes's assessment dominated scholarly opinion of Garrison for two decades, until the mid-1950s when critics began the process of harmonizing extreme views. Since this time, contemporary critics have tended to accept Garrison's significance as a historical embodiment of American abolitionism, while noting that he did not actually lead the abolitionist movement, but rather served as a focal point. By the end of the twentieth century, few would dispute Garrison's overall influence as a reformer. Meanwhile, a number of postmodern commentators have shifted scholarly concentration away from historical assessments of Garrison in order to conduct rhetorical and literary analyses of his speeches and writing, usually within the cultural contexts of mid nineteenth-century America and from the vantage point of a contemporary awareness of the ongoing process of social reform.

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Principal Works