William Lloyd Garrison Introduction

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2,002 words.)