William Lloyd Garrison Essay - Critical Essays

Garrison, William Lloyd


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.

Principal Works

An Address: Delivered Before the Free People of Color, in Philadelphia, New York, and Other Cities, During the Month of June, 1831 (speech) 1831

An Address on the Progress of the Abolition Cause: Delivered before the African Abolition Freehold Society of Boston, July 16, 1832 (speech) 1832

Thoughts on African Colonization (pamphlet) 1832

Address Delivered in Boston, New-York and Philadelphia: Before the Free People of Color, in April, 1833 (speech) 1833

*A Brief Sketch of the Trial of William Lloyd Garrison for an Alleged Libel on Francis Todd, of Newburyport, Massachusetts (nonfiction) 1834


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Lewis Tappan (essay date 1833)

SOURCE: Tappan, Lewis. “Lewis Tappan Praises Garrison.” In Great Lives Observed: William Lloyd Garrison, edited by George M. Fredrickson, pp. 74-76. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

[In the following excerpt from a speech delivered to the inaugural convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, Tappan praises Garrison as a pioneer of the abolitionist movement and defends him against his critics.]

Some men, Mr. President, are frightened at a name. There is good evidence to believe that many professed friends of abolition would have been here, had they not been afraid that the name of William Lloyd Garrison would be inserted prominently...

(The entire section is 959 words.)

Frederick Douglass (essay dates 1847 and 1855)

SOURCE: Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, edited by Philip S. Foner, pp. 217-60, 350-52. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

[In the following excerpts, from a speech and letter of 1847 and an 1855 lecture, Douglass honors Garrison the man, but critiques the Garrisonian anti-slavery doctrine in practice.]

Sir, the foremost, strongest, and mightiest among those who have completely identified themselves with the Negroes in the United States, I will now name here; and I do so because his name has been most unjustly coupled with odium in this country. [Hear, hear.] I will name, if only as an expression of gratitude on my part, my...

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Henry Wilson (essay date 1873)

SOURCE: Wilson, Henry. The History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, pp. 184-88. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1873.

[In the following excerpt, Wilson offers accolades to Garrison for his singular courage in promoting the anti-slavery cause.]

Mr. Garrison's partner in the publication of The Liberator was Mr. Isaac Knapp, a printer, like himself, and also a native of the same town. The paper was commenced without funds and without a single subscriber. Bearing the comprehensive and cosmopolitan motto, “My country is the world, my countrymen are all mankind,” it appealed to no party, sect, or interest for recognition and support. Both editor and...

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James Schouler (essay date 1889)

SOURCE: Schouler, James. History of the United States of America Under the Constitution, vol. 4, pp. 210-21. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1892.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1889, Schouler characterizes Garrison as a fanatical agitator whose radical methods demonstrated a complete lack of regard for constitutional law.]

This new abolition movement at the North did not, like the Quaker one of former days, respect constitutional bounds and seek mild persuasion of the white master who held the local law in his hands. It boldly proclaimed that the laws of nature were paramount to a human institution; it preached freedom as of divine...

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James Ford Rhodes (essay date 1892)

SOURCE: Rhodes, James Ford. History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850, vol. 1, pp. 56-63. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1892.

[In the following excerpt, Rhodes considers Garrison's work in relation to slave uprisings of the 1830s, and presents an assessment of his impact on mid-nineteenth-century American politics.]

In August of this year (1831) occurred the Nat Turner insurrection in Virginia, which seemed to many Southerners a legitimate fruit of the bold teaching of Garrison, although there was indeed between the two events no real connection. But this negro rising struck terror through the South and destroyed calm reason. The leader, Nat Turner, a...

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Leo Tolstoy (essay date 1904)

SOURCE: Tolstoy, Leo. Introduction to A Short Biography of William Lloyd Garrison, by Vladimir Tchertkoff and F. Holah, pp. v-xii. London: The Free Age Press, 1904.

[In the following essay, Tolstoy acknowledges Garrison's decisive articulation of “the principle of non-resistance to evil by violence,” which champions rational and moral persuasion over violent coercion.]

I thank you very much for sending me your biography of Garrison.

Reading it, I lived again through the spring of my awakening to true life. While reading Garrison's speeches and articles I vividly recalled to mind the spiritual joy which I experienced twenty years ago, when I found...

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John Jay Chapman (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: Chapman, John Jay. “The Man of Action.” In William Lloyd Garrison, pp. 158-98. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1913, Chapman describes Garrison's forceful political activism, highlighting the unswerving religious and theoretical principals that guided his reformist course.]

Garrison was a man of action, that is to say, a man to whom ideas were revealed in relation to passing events, and who saw in ideas the levers and weapons with which he might act upon the world. A seer on the other hand is a man who views passing events by the light of ideas, and who counts upon his vision, not...

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Jesse Macy (essay date 1919)

SOURCE: Macy, Jesse. “The Turning Point.” In The Anti-Slavery Crusade: A Chronicle of the Gathering Storm, pp. 54-66. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1919.

[In the following excerpt, Macy recounts pivotal events in the American anti-slavery movement during the year 1831, including the first publication of Garrison's newspaper the Liberator and the Nat Turner slave rebellion.]

The year 1831 is notable for three events in the history of the anti-slavery controversy: on the first day of January in that year William Lloyd Garrison began in Boston the publication of the Liberator; in August there occurred in Southampton, Virginia, an insurrection...

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Russel B. Nye (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: Nye, Russel B. William Lloyd Garrison and the Humanitarian Reformers, pp. 198-206. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1955.

[In the following excerpt, Nye concentrates on Garrison's religious motivation to combat human evil by eradicating slavery. The critic also stresses exaggerations in the Garrison legend, while acknowledging Garrison's considerable historical and symbolic significance to American abolitionism.]

Garrison's mind worked on two levels, the moral and the practical. On the one, his approach to issues was determined by principle; on the other, by tactics and strategy. The level of his argument fluctuated, as it did during the Civil War when he...

(The entire section is 2389 words.)

John L. Thomas (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Thomas, John L. “‘Our Doom as a Nation Is Sealed.’” In The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison: A Biography, pp. 209-35. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963.

[In the following excerpt, Thomas probes the political context of Garrison's religious views, particularly his belief in the Christian doctrine of perfectionism in relation to the debate over constitutional reform that occurred in the United States during the 1830s.]

In the quiet of the Benson farmhouse, where he and his wife retired after his encounter with the Boston mob, Garrison took time to reflect on the progress of moral reform. “Much as my mind is absorbed in the anti-slavery cause,”...

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Howard Zinn (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Zinn, Howard. “Abolitionists, Freedom-Riders, and the Tactics of Agitation.” In The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists, edited by Martin Duberman, pp. 417-54. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965.

[In the following excerpt, Zinn addresses Garrison as a political “extremist,” discussing his overall influence on the attitudes of average Americans toward the slavery question in the mid-nineteenth century.]

“Extremist” carries a psychological burden when attached to political movements, which it does not bear in other situations. A woman who is extremely beautiful, a man who is extremely kind, a mechanic who is extremely...

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George M. Fredrickson (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Fredrickson, George M. Introduction to Great Lives Observed: William Lloyd Garrison, edited by George M. Fredrickson, pp. 1-8. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

[In the following essay, Fredrickson summarizes Garrison's theories of reform, nonviolent resistance, and social progress, while critiquing some of the more radical elements of his political position.]

William Lloyd Garrison did not, in any real sense, lead the American antislavery movement. Abolitionism was a decentralized enterprise subject to local variation and internal factionalism, and Garrison's control of tactics and strategy never extended far beyond the borders of New England (it...

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Aileen S. Kraditor (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Kraditor, Aileen S. “Religion and the Good Society.” In Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850, pp. 78-95. New York: Pantheon Books, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Kraditor examines Garrison's views on radical social issues of the mid-1800s, such as nonresistance (pacifism) and women's rights.]

In the fight over the woman question the anti-Garrisonian abolitionists showed their concern with what today would be called the movement's “public image.” This is particularly evident from the fact that the assault on the innovations in women's public activity originated with clergymen outside or on...

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Walter M. Merrill (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Merrill, Walter M. Introduction to I Will Be Heard! 1822-1835: The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison. Volume I, edited by Walter M. Merrill, pp. vii-ix. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, The Belknap Press, 1971.

[In the following essay, Merrill encapsulates critical reaction to Garrison from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1960s and briefly characterizes the content of Garrison's correspondence.]

If Garrison could have looked across the century and witnessed the publication of the first volume of his letters, he would have considered the event propitious. In his nonviolent agitation for the black man he always had an uncanny sense of timing, a...

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James Brewer Stewart (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Stewart, James Brewer. “Petitions, Perfectionists, and Political Abolitionists.” In Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery, pp. 89-96. New York: Hill and Wang, 1976.

[In the following excerpt, Stewart surveys the broad-based, political radicalism associated with the term “Garrisonism.”]

William Lloyd Garrison, without question, served as … [a] focal point of dissension. It was he who first associated abolitionism with an even more radical opposition to religious and political institutions. As early as 1835, Arthur Tappan had shown discomfort over Garrison's harsh attacks on orthodox New England Calvinists. But by 1837 it seemed to many...

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David Henry (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Henry, David. “Garrison at Philadelphia: The ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ as Instrumental Rhetoric.” In Rhetoric and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Thomas W. Benson, pp. 113-29. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Henry conducts a rhetorical analysis of the American Anti-Slavery Society's “Declaration of Sentiments,” drafted by Garrison, and studies its links to the Declaration of Independence.]

In the opening chapter of Rhetorical Questions, Edwin Black attends to the relationship between his most recent book and the path breaking Rhetorical Criticism: A Study in...

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Robert A. Fanuzzi (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Fanuzzi, Robert A. “‘The Organ of an Individual’: William Lloyd Garrison and the Liberator.Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies 23 (1998): 107-27.

[In the following essay, Fanuzzi regards the tension between sentiments expressed by Garrison in his newspaper the Liberator and his self-portrayal as a disinterested public advocate who favored abolitionism and other social reforms in nineteenth-century America.]

The political agenda of William Lloyd Garrison and his adherents within the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (MASS) can be reconstructed with the rhetoric and practices of print culture, starting with its assumption...

(The entire section is 9381 words.)

Paul Goodman (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Goodman, Paul. “The Assault on Racial Prejudice, 1831-1837.” In Of One Blood: Abolitionism and the Origins of Racial Equality, pp. 54-64. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Goodman centers on Garrison's Thoughts on African Colonization as among the reformer's most critical efforts to educate the American public about race, promote absolute racial equality, and denounce the nineteenth-century movement in favor of black American colonization of Africa.]

In June 1831, full of optimism, William Lloyd Garrison made a tour of urban black communities, including New York City and Philadelphia, to speak directly with...

(The entire section is 4741 words.)

Christopher Castiglia (essay date spring 2002)

SOURCE: Castiglia, Christopher. “Abolition's Racial Interiors and the Making of White Civic Depth.” American Literary History 14, no. 1 (spring 2002): 32-59.

[In the following essay, Castiglia explores the dynamics of American social reformist discourse as mediated through a scheme of white sympathy and virtuous black suffering, using Garrison's writing and speeches as principal sources.]

How social order became understood in relation to the description and reform of specific types of citizens' interiority (their “natures” or “characters,” emanations of the “deep” self) is a topic central to understanding how social reform affected public opinion in the...

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Further Reading


Barnes, Gilbert Hobbs. The Antislavery Impulse, 1830-1844, pp. 55-170. New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1933.

Presents a revisionist judgment of the Garrison legend, maintaining the Garrison's role in the anti-slavery movement was largely that of a fanatical agitator whose real impact was negligible.

Browne, Stephen H. “Encountering Angelina Grimké: Violence, Identity, and the Creation of Radical Community.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 82, no. 1 (February 1996): 55-73.

Close analysis of a letter written by Angelina Grimké to Garrison regarding the symbolic uses of violence in the creation of a...

(The entire section is 469 words.)