William Lloyd Garrison

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Lewis Tappan (essay date 1833)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 959

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 in our proceedings. Sir, I am ashamed of such friends. We ought to place that honored name in the forefront of our ranks. The cause is under obligations to him, which such an evidence of respect will but poorly repay.

The first time I ever heard of him was when he was in jail in Baltimore, where he was incarcerated like a felon, for pleading the cause of the oppressed, and rebuking iniquity. When I saw him, appearing so mild and meek as he does, shortly after he was liberated by a gentleman in New-York, I was astonished. Is this the renegade Garrison? thought I, as I grasped his open hand. Is this the enemy of our country? I shall never forget the impression which his noble countenance made on me at that time, as long as I live.

An anecedote is related of a gentleman—a Colonizationist—which is worth repeating in this Convention. That gentleman had purchased, without knowing who it represented, a portrait of Mr. Garrison, and after having it encased in a splendid gilt frame, suspended it in his parlor. A friend calling in observed it, and asked the purchaser if he knew who he had honored so much? He was answered “No—but it is one of the most godlike looking countenances I ever beheld.” “That, sir,” resumed the visitor, “is a portrait of the fanatic, the incendiary William Lloyd Garrison!” “Indeed!” concluded the gentleman, evidently much disconcerted. “But, sir, it shall remain in its place. I will never take it down.”

Who that is familiar with the history of Mr. Garrison does not remember the determination expressed in the first number of his paper—the Liberator—to sustain it as long as could live on bread and water? And, sir, I am informed that he has really practised what he so nobly resolved on the beginning.

Look at his course during his recent mission to England. He has been accused of slandering his country. Sir, he has vindicated the American name. He has not slandered it. He has told the whole truth, and put hypocrites and dough faces to open shame. He has won the confidence of the people of England. They saw him attached to his country by the dearest ties; but loathing her follies and abhorring her crimes. He has put the Anti-Slavery movement forward a quarter of a century.

A fellow passenger with Mr. Garrison from Europe—a clergyman of much intelligence—on arriving in this country heard that he was called a fanatic and a madman. “What,” said he, “do you call such a man a fanatic? Do you deem such a man insane? For six weeks have I been with him, and a more discreet, humble and faithful christian I never saw.”

Sir, we should throw the shield of our protection and esteem around Mr. Garrison. His life is exposed at this moment. At the door of this saloon, a young man from the South said to-day that if he had opportunity, he would dip his hands in his heart's blood. And, sir, there must be martyrs in this cause. We ought to feel this moment that we are liable to be sacrificed. But when I say this, I know that we are not belligerants. We would die in such a cause, only as martyrs to the truth. In this, our blessed Saviour has set the example.

I did not contemplate delivering a eulogy on Mr. Garrison, when I rose to speak to this resolution. I wish simply to express my heart-felt sympathy with an injured and persecuted man. Be it the honorable object of the members of this Convention to show to our countrymen that they have misunderstood the character, and misconceived the plans, of William Lloyd Garrison. He is said to be imprudent. What is prudence? Is it succumbing to a majority of our frail fellow mortals? Is it holding back a faithful expression of the whole truth, until the people are ready to say amen? Was that the prudence of the Apostle Paul, when he stood before the Roman Governor? Was that the prudence of William Penn, when he poured contempt on the regalia of Kings, by wearing before the king of England his broad beaver? Imprudence is moral timidity. That man is imprudent who is afraid to speak as God commands him to speak, when the hour of danger is near. If this reasoning be correct, Mr. Garrison is one of the most prudent men in the nation!

He is not perfect. He is frail, like the rest of human flesh. But if God had not endowed him as He has, and smiled propitiously on his imprudencies, we should not now be engaged in the deliberation of this most interesting and important Convention. God has raised up just such a man as William Lloyd Garrison, to be a pioneer in this cause. Let each member present feel solemnly bound to vindicate the character of Mr. Garrison. Let us not be afraid to go forward with him even into the “imminent breach,” although there may be professed friends who stand back because of him.

Frederick Douglass (essay dates 1847 and 1855)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1897

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 beloved, esteemed, and almost venerated friend, William Lloyd Garrison. [Loud and prolonged cheering.] Sir, I have now been in this country for nineteen months; I have gone through its length and breadth; I have had sympathy here and sympathy there; co-operation here, and co-operation there; in fact, I have scarcely met a man who has withheld friendship from me as an abolitionist, standing unconnected with William Lloyd Garrison. [Hear.] Had I stood disconnected from that great and good man, then numerous and influential parties would have held out to me the right hand of fellowship, sanctioned my proceedings in England, backed me up with money and praise, and have given me a great reputation, so far as they were capable; and they were men of influence. And why, sir, is William Lloyd Garrison hated and despised by certain parties in this country? What has he done to deserve such treatment at their hands? He has done that which all great reformers and pioneers in the cause of freedom or religion have ever been called upon to do—made himself unpopular for life in the maintenance of great principles. He has thrown himself, as it were, over the ditch as a bridge; his own body, his personal reputation, his individual property, his wide and giant-hearted intellect, all were sacrificed to form a bridge that others might pass over and enjoy a rich reward from the labours that he had bestowed, and the seed which he had sown. He has made himself disreputable. How? By his uncompromising hostility to slavery, by his bold, scathing denunciation of tyranny; his unwavering inflexible adherence to principle; and by his frank, open, determined spirit of opposition to everything like cant and hypocrisy. [Loud cheers.] Such is the position in which he stands among the American people. And the same feeling exists in this country to a great extent. Because William Lloyd Garrison has upon both sides of the Atlantic fearlessly unmasked hypocrisy, and branded impiety in language in which impiety deserves to be characterized, he has thereby brought down upon himself the fierce execrations of a religious party in this land.


… Mr. Garrison is the honoured centre of every circle into whose midst we are brought. His conversational powers are inexhaustible; he seems as fresh at midnight as at midday. Our friends eagerly flock around to hear his words of strength and cheer, while our enemies as eagerly draw around to catch him in his words. The former go away delighted with the man, while the latter skulk away, disappointed and chagrined, that they have found so little at which to be offended. Mr. Garrison's visit must do much to disabuse the public mind in this region, and to produce a mighty reaction in favour of radical Eastern Abolitionism. The Liberty party, and pro-slavery papers, have overshot themselves in regard to him.—They have so maligned and slandered him, and have so distorted, perverted, and misrepresented his views, that they have created the most intense curiosity among the people to see and hear him, and having associated his person with the representations of his mind, that his bare presence, without the utterance of a word, is all sufficient to create an impression most favourable to him, and at once to dispel the dread, and gloomy apprehensions created concerning him. When he opens his mouth, and pours forth his truthful voice, the dark and foul spirit of slander falls before him, like Dagon before the ark. People come expecting to see a fierce, proud, ambitious, and bitter looking man, a gloomy spirit, altogether dissatisfied with himself, and all the world around him; a stranger to peace, a man of war, if not of blood; completely wrapped up within the narrow limits of a single idea, perfectly above everything interesting to other men, an infidel, atheist, and madman, rejoicing over the triumphs of evil, and inflexibly bent upon the destruction of everything good. Such is the man which the pious, and pro-slavery papers of our land have taught the honest “Buckeyes” to look for in the person of William Lloyd Garrison, and in seeing him, they readily perceive how great has been the deception practiced upon them, and very naturally many of them are filled with indignation and loathing, for their mean and dastardly deceivers. …


I shall consider, first, the Garrisonian Anti-Slavery Society. I call this the Garrisonian Society, because Mr. Garrison is, confessedly, its leader. This Society is the oldest of modern Anti-Slavery Societies. It has, strictly speaking, two weekly papers, or organs—employs five or six lecturers—and holds numerous public meetings for the dissemination of its views. Its peculiar and distinctive feature is, its doctrine of “no union with slaveholders.” This doctrine has, of late, become its bond of union, and the condition of good fellowship among its members. Of this Society, I have to say, its logical result is but negatively, anti-slavery. Its doctrine, of “no union with slaveholders,” carried out, dissolves the Union, and leaves the slaves and their masters to fight their own battles, in their own way. This I hold to be an abandonment of the great idea with which that Society started. It started to free the slave. It ends by leaving the slave to free himself. It started with the purpose to imbue the heart of the nation with sentiments favorable to the abolition of slavery, and ends by seeking to free the North from all responsibility of slavery, other than if slavery were in Great Britain, or under some other nationality. This, I say, is the practical abandonment of the idea, with which that Society started. It has given up the faith, that the slave can be freed short of the overthrow of the Government; and then, as I understand that Society, it leaves the slaves, as it must needs leave them, just where it leaves the slaves of Cuba, or those of Brazil. The nation, as such, is given up as beyond the power of salvation by the foolishness of preaching; and hence, the aim is now to save the North; so that the American Anti-Slavery Society, which was inaugurated to convert the nation, after ten years' struggle, parts with its faith, and aims now to save the North. One of the most eloquent of all the members of that Society, and the man who is only second to Mr. Garrison himself, defines the Garrisonian doctrine thus:

All the slave asks of us, is to stand out of his way, withdraw our pledge to keep the peace on the plantation; withdraw our pledge to return him; withdraw that representation which the Constitution gives in proportion to the number of slaves, and without any agitation here, without any individual virtue, which the times have eaten out of us, God will vindicate the oppressed, by the laws of justice which he has founded. Trample under foot your own unjust pledges, break to pieces your compact with hell by which you become the abettors of oppression. Stand alone, and let no cement of the Union bind the slave, and he will right himself.

That is it. “Stand alone”; the slave is to “right himself.” I dissent entirely from this reasoning. It assumes to be true what is plainly absurd, and that is, that a population of slaves, without arms, without means of concert, and without leisure, is more than a match for double its number, educated, accustomed to rule, and in every way prepared for warfare, offensive or defensive. This Society, therefore, consents to leave the slave's freedom to a most uncertain and improbable, if not an impossible, contingency.

But, “no union with slaveholders.”

As a mere expression of abhorrence of slavery, the sentiment is a good one; but it expresses no intelligible principle of action, and throws no light on the pathway of duty. Defined, as its authors define it, it leads to false doctrines, and mischievous results. It condemns Gerrit Smith for sitting in Congress, and our Savior for eating with publicans and sinners. Dr. Spring uttered a shocking sentiment, when he said, if one prayer of his would emancipate every slave, he would not offer that prayer. No less shocking is the sentiment of the leader of the disunion forces, when he says, that if one vote of his would emancipate every slave in this country, he would not cast that vote. Here, on a bare theory, and for a theory which, if consistently adhered to, would drive a man out of the world—a theory which can never be made intelligible to common sense—the freedom of the whole slave population would be sacrificed.

But again: “no union with slaveholders.” I dislike the morality of this sentiment, in its application to the point at issue. For instance: A. unites with B. in stealing my property, and carrying it away to California, or to Australia, and, while there, Mr. A. becomes convinced that he did wrong in stealing my property, and says to Mr. B., “no union with property stealers,” and abandons him, leaving the property in his hands. Now, I put it to this audience, has Mr. A., in this transaction, met the requirements of stringent morality? He, certainly, has not. It is not only his duty to separate from the thief, but to restore the stolen property to its rightful owner. And I hold that in the Union, this very thing of restoring to the slave his long-lost rights, can better be accomplished than it can possibly be accomplished outside of the Union. This, then, is my answer to the motto, “No union with slaveholders.”

But this is not the worst fault of this Society. Its chief energies are expended in confirming the opinion, that the United States Constitution is, and was, intended to be a slave-holding instrument—thus piling up, between the slave and his freedom, the huge work of the abolition of the Government, as an indispensable condition to emancipation. My point here is, first, the Constitution is, according to its reading, an anti-slavery document; and, secondly, to dissolve the Union, as a means to abolish slavery, is about as wise as it would be to burn up this city, in order to get the thieves out of it. But again, we hear the motto, “no union with slaveholders”; and I answer it, as that noble champion of liberty, N. P. Rogers, answered it with a more sensible motto, namely—“No union with slaveholding.” I would unite with anybody to do right; and with nobody to do wrong. And as the Union, under the Constitution, requires me to do nothing which is wrong, and gives me many facilities for doing good, I cannot go with the American Anti-Slavery Society in its doctrine of disunion.

Henry Wilson (essay date 1873)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1564

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 printer labored hard and fared meagrely; and it was only thus—and a marvel it was at that—that their journal lived. But Mr. Garrison had a mission to fulfil, and he bravely met the conditions it imposed. For, whatever may be the estimate of his policy, and whatever may have been his mistakes, none can withhold the meed of admiration at the moral courage and faith he exhibited as he entered upon his life's work. Hardly grander were their exhibition when Kepler was working out his problem of the solar system, willing to “wait a century for a reader”; when Columbus was travelling through Europe, from court to court, from philosopher to prince, in the vain search for a convert to his new theory of a western passage to the Indies; or even when Luther was nailing his theses to the door of the church, and thus braving the thunders of the Vatican, than when that young man—with no advantages of birth or culture, with wounds still bleeding from his recent encounter with the dark and bloody tyrant, in his dingy room of sixteen feet square, at once his sanctum, workshop, and home—made assault upon a despotism which not only trampled millions of slaves in the dust, but dominated the whole country, binding both church and state in chains, and there forged his weapons of warfare from the indestructible materials of God's Word and the Declaration of Independence. It must have been something more than “the grace of indignation” which urged him on, which crowned him with the honors of imprisonment, gave him the garland of a rope, the escort of a mob of Boston's “respectability and standing,” and extorted such honorable mention by Southern governors and legislatures as can now be gathered from their records.

It was not that Mr. Garrison discovered any new truths, or that he stood alone, which gave him his prominence from the start. The sinfulness of slaveholding and the duty of its immediate relinquishment had been as unequivocally proclaimed by others, and there were those then in the field as decided and pronounced as he. It must have arisen partly, at least, from the peculiar state of public opinion at that time. After the crowning triumph of the Slave Power in the Missouri Compromise, and in the sectional victory of the South, by the defeat of Mr. Adams and the election of General Jackson, there seemed to be a general acquiescence on the part of the people in these triumphs, and a growing disposition to remit further antislavery effort.

The nation had reached its nadir; for, though there were subsequently other aggressions, more flagrant outrages, and new concessions and compromises, yet never after that was the nation so voiceless and timid. Cowed and silent before the domineering Power, with the number of protestants growing fewer and feebler, the very boldness and seeming audacity of the young man in his attic, telling the nation that he was in earnest and would be heard, aroused attention. The very deliberation with which he heralded and began the assault, the stern defiance he bade the foe at whose feet he threw the gauntlet of mortal combat, made him the mark for criticism and hostile demonstration, as well as the rallying point of those who sympathized with him in spirit and in purpose. His impartiality, too, between sects and parties, men and schools, constitutions and laws, and whatever arrayed itself against the slave or remained neutral, increased that attention and criticism.

His pen, if possible, was more severe, caustic, and exasperating than had been his speech. While friends generally doubted and questioned, and the people condemned, the slaveholders were stung to madness. Before the close of the first year, the Vigilance Association of Columbia, South Carolina, “composed of gentlemen of the first respectability,” offered a reward of fifteen hundred dollars for the apprehension and conviction of any white person detected in circulating in that State “the newspaper called The Liberator.” The corporation of Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, passed an ordinance rendering it penal for any free person of color to take from the post-office “the paper published in Boston called The Liberator,” the punishment for each offence to be twenty dollars' fine or thirty days' imprisonment. In case the offender was not able to pay the fine, or the fees for imprisonment, he was to be sold into slavery for four months. The grand jury of Raleigh, North Carolina, at the instigation of the attorney-general, made an indictment against the editor and publisher of The Liberator for its circulation in that county. The legislature of Georgia proceeded to pass an act, which was promptly signed by Governor Lumpkin, offering a reward of five thousand dollars for the arrest, prosecution, and trial to conviction, under the laws of the State, of the editor or publisher “of a certain paper called The Liberator, published in the town of Boston and State of Massachusetts.”

But neither the doubts of friends, the condemnation of the North, nor the threats and offered rewards of the South, moved Mr. Garrison from his purpose. He bade defiance to his persecutors, and avowed his readiness to die, if need be. He stood, he says, “like the oak, like the Alps,—unshaken, storm-proof. Opposition and abuse and slander and prejudice and judicial tyranny add to the flame of my zeal. I am not discouraged; I am not dismayed; but bolder and more confident than ever.”

Nor is there any doubt that his voice and pen were among the most potent influences that produced the antislavery revival of that day. Antislavery societies were formed, antislavery presses were established, and antislavery lectures abounded. Nine years after the establishment of The Liberator there were nearly two thousand antislavery societies, with a membership of some two hundred thousand. This result, however, was not secured without agitation, controversy, and strife. Nor were these all outside of the societies. Within them were discords and dissensions, growing out of the nature of their work and the character of their members. For the latter were generally, and almost of necessity, persons of positive convictions and self-assertion, engaged in a work of appalling magnitude and beset with unanticipated difficulties. Especially true was this of those who gathered around Mr. Garrison, adopted and defended his views, and recognized him as their leader. Embracing many men, and especially women, of talent, culture, and eloquence, they were a small, compact, aggressive, and somewhat destructive body, who, with marked characteristics and occasional idosyncrasies, yet seemed to be swayed by a common impulse, and to be committed not only to a common object, but to the pursuit of that object by modes peculiarly their own.

In pursuance of their object, they avowed the purpose of granting quarter to nothing which, in their apprehension, interposed itself between them and that object. Not finding that hearty co-operation and ready acquiescence in their utterances and modes of action in church or state which they desired or hoped for, but oftener hostility and persecution, they soon arrayed themselves in antagonism to the leading influences of both. And so, singularly enough, they presented what appeared to their countrymen the practical solecism of endeavoring to reform the government by renouncing all connection with it; of seeking to remove a political evil by refusing all association with political parties, by whose action alone that evil could be reached; of depending alone on moral suasion, and an appeal to the consciences of the people, and yet coming out of all the religious associations and assemblies of the land. This arraying themselves against the patriotism, the partisanship, and the religious sentiment of the great body of the people prevented harmonious co-operation, and rendered inevitable, sooner or later, a disruption of the national society. In that separation, which took place in 1840, but a small part remained with Mr. Garrison,—probably not more than one fifth of the members of the antislavery societies then existing; and these were confined mainly to New England, and mostly to Eastern Massachusetts. Nor did their numbers increase during the conflicts of the subsequent twenty years. Indeed, it is doubtful whether, in 1860, when Mr. Lincoln was elected by a vote of nearly two millions, on a clearly defined and distinct issue with the Slave Power, there were more Abolitionists of that school than there were twenty years before, when the American Antislavery Society was rent in twain. During all this period, however, they acted, as they professed, “without concealment and without compromise.” Whatever may be the estimate of the weight of their influence on public opinion, none will ever doubt the sincerity of their convictions, the purity of their motives, the boldness of their utterances, or the inflexibility of their purposes.

James Schouler (essay date 1889)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2919

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 right and in defiance, if need be, of the enslaver. But in law-respecting communities like ours all such agitation bruised itself like a bird against the solid wall of the federal constitution, which, wisely or unwisely, surrounded the institution and sanctioned its existence within certain State confines. Antipathy to weaker men and races, and a dogged attachment to property as something with which none others are to interfere, save as their own property may be injured by it, are two strong traits of the Anglo-Saxon. He has a conscience, domestic virtue, and a restraining common sense to be influenced; but of woman herself Shakespeare's Petruchio talked like an Englishman rather than an Italian of his day, when he said, “I will be master of what is mine own.” And such was our slaveholder's response to the abolitionist when menaced where he stood. Pride and blind interest banded the southern masters in bristling defiance; patriots of all sections felt the constraint of the written law, and then abolitionism slid into an angry tirade against the constitution as a covenant with death and agreement with hell, and its creed became “no union with slaveholders,”—in a word, disunion, because instant and legalized abolition was impossible. We shall see in the angry years that follow southern secessionists and northern abolitionists standing upon essentially the same platform, though at opposite ends, both demanding that the American Union be broken up.

The boldest exponent of this new anti-slavery school, the pioneer and arch-agitator of immediate abolition, of conscience above the constitution, was William Lloyd Garrison. … With merciless severity, he arraigned the frozen apathy of the North and the prostitution of the South on the slavery question; he could not tolerate scruples on behalf of the written law; all doughfaces, apologists, and timeservers he wrote down as traitors and cowards, and unhesitatingly he declared slavery to be a crime and the slaveholder himself a criminal. “I am in earnest,” were his words, confessing his own severity; “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse; I will not retreat a single inch; and I will be heard.” …

Garrison soon found northern sympathizers, some of whom were ready to devote wealth and social influence to this new crusade; and among his earliest personal friends were Sewall and Ellis Gray Loring, of Boston, and the generous Tappan brothers, of New York. With the publication of the Liberator, the idea was put forth of organizing anti-slavery societies upon its aggressive platform; and Garrison looked to the abolitionists of England, whose work for the British colonies was greatly advanced by means of such associations. But here the practical obstacles were very great. Bible, tract, missionary, and temperance societies absorbed the zeal of thousands who were bent on doing good but dared not touch the plague-spot. Dr. Channing, New England's great leader of liberal thought, was a timid and critical observer, though slowly bracing himself to be outspoken as the friend of the slave; Webster wished for the constitution as it was, and the Union unimpaired; and Everett, as little of a soldier as ever breathed, offered to buckle on the knapsack, shoulder a musket, and march to the aid of his southern brethren, whenever their lives should be jeopardized by a slave uprising. Such influences dominated the vicinity. Not until the close of 1831 did the first of these new anti-slavery societies take initial steps, which led, early in the new year, to its organization on a dark and stormy night in the humble school-room of a colored Baptist church. Twelve persons, all white, subscribed their names and united as the “New England Anti-Slavery Society.” A national association, known as the “American Anti-Slavery Society,” was organized later. Ancillary societies sprang up rapidly at the North, though often dropping apart and recombining differently, since free-thinkers and disorganizers are not held easily to any plan of co-operation. None of their leaders, at all events, could command public opinion sufficiently to institute any real reform. But by lashing the Union into fury the abolitionists urged forward their cause; sleep was murdered when their harsh fire-bells startled the air. The early course of these societies showed indeed the radical difficulty they labored under of devising some plan, fair and feasible, for promoting their ends. They tended to anarchy, incendiarism, in all their actions; they sent not peace, but a sword. Garrison himself was a bomb-thrower, openly assaulting the constitution, because he saw it a strong prison-house. He tried in vain to induce freemen to abstain from buying slave-produced cotton and tobacco; instead of denouncing the crime of slavery, to identify the planter as a criminal, man-stealer, oppressor, pirate; to treat the constitution as a compact absolutely void for its guilt. None outside his small circle would embrace such tenets; to the constitution all true Americans clung as the ark of the covenant. But the new agitators were not long in sending a broadside into the American Colonization Society, now crippled with debt and seeking funds from the English abolitionists. Hastening abroad, as an emissary of the associations he had organized, Garrison, at the critical moment, assaulted that society so brilliantly on British soil as to destroy its prestige forever: the British philanthropists renounced its support, the great Wilberforce shortly before his death setting the example.

It was this same year that the great cause of emancipation in the British West Indies, to which Wilberforce, Clarkson, and their associates had so long directed their persevering efforts, triumphed in the passage of an act of Parliament. It provided a sort of preliminary apprentice system for the negroes, and compensation to their former owners. That statute which struck the fetters from eight hundred thousand colored people close to our Atlantic coast produced a profound impression upon our citizens, both South and North. In the glow of the moment, the Garrisonians, eager to infuse the British anti-slavery zeal into their own cause, committed a great indiscretion. They inflamed our sensitive community both by their unpatriotic comparisons, and by assuming to import foreign anti-slavery orators, as if to force the southern bulwark with the aid of the nation whose interference was of all foreign powers the most intolerable. Great Britain's abolition cause differed greatly from ours; hers was in a distant colony, ours at home; there insular opinion impressed a legislature competent to decree anything; and there, too, the freedom was not granted without terms considerate to the master, which our moralists scorned to imitate; for to recompense our slaveholder, so Garrison proclaimed, would be paying a thief for giving up stolen property and acknowledging his crime to be no crime.

The conflict thus violently opened did not cease in this Union until slavery was crushed by the heel of fratricidal war. The immediate fruit, at such a time, of inflammatory appeal on the one hand and slave insurrection on the other was mob outrage in northern cities, where the excitement most centred; and though, as in most mobs, the ignorant and vicious gained the upper hand, there was not wanting in these anti-slavery riots a sterling patriotism, which meant in its blind way to put down the wild anarchists, as they seemed to be, who were trying to subvert the pillars upon which rested the American fabric and the salvation of society. Bands of rowdies, during the turbulence of 1834 in Philadelphia and New York, broke up abolition meetings, attacked the presses, and threatened the persons of the chief agitators; they rampaged the negro quarters of the city, doing wanton mischief. But by 1835 the popular feeling against these “apostles of fanaticism” was exasperated by their own blind course of action. They had hired George Thompson, a British lecturer of imprudent speech, to harangue northern multitudes for immediate emancipation, a cause which northern States were powerless to effect peaceably. They had deluged the South with incendiary pamphlets, whose tendency, whether they so meant it or not, was to excite the slaves to rise against their masters. This latter appeal to terrorism was the device of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which set aside a large sum of money to circulate gratuitously their seditious writings where it was death to distribute them openly. Tracts and periodicals printed expressly for this purpose, with pictures even more inflammatory than the text they illustrated,—the master with scourge in his hand and his victim at his feet,—were struck off by the thousand, some printed on cheap muslin handkerchiefs, and deposited in the mails for the South. The best anti-slavery statesmen, such as Adams, have believed that the purpose was incendiary; and though agitators denied that they intended more than to reach the conscience of southern legislatures, this denial was not accepted; denying that they sent such documents to the slaves, they tacitly confessed mailing them to free blacks. The grave charge, never explicitly denied by them, that this was an experiment to terrify the master by kindling a new insurrection among the blacks, was made and reiterated by our whole people, and the abolitionists were deterred from trying such methods again. It was a foolish experiment; for, as white men handled the mails, the leather bags were sure to belch out this dangerous matter. A package of these tracts discovered at Philadelphia was taken to the middle of the Delaware river and sunk there. In Charleston the mail-pouches were emptied of such contents, and three thousand citizens gathered by night to see a bonfire made of the documents and the chief men of the anti-slavery societies hung and burned in effigy. A Richmond meeting invoked the interference of the Postmaster-General to stop the delivery of such infamous matter, and adjured all Union brethren at the North to repress the societies issuing them “by strong yet lawful means.” The North was not mute in this emergency. Meetings in New York, and in most other large cities, were held to denounce all Southampton methods of emancipation. In Boston's Faneuil Hall Mayor Lyman presided at a meeting of respectable citizens, who were addressed by Seth Sprague and Harrison Gray Otis. Instead of purging himself of suspicion, Garrison, in his paper, turned tauntingly upon this meeting: the cradle of liberty, he said, has become the refuge of slavery. This incensed the citizens more than ever against him; and it so happened that George Thompson, his imported friend, now upon his inflammatory tour, said in one of his intemperate speeches that southern slaves ought, or at least had a right, to cut the throats of their masters. Boston was becoming too hot to hold these two men. While Garrison kept out of the city, a double gallows was set up for a warning before his house; and when, a few weeks later, the British disturber was announced by posters to address a women's anti-slavery meeting by day in the busiest quarter of the city, a crowd which quickly swelled from a hundred to five thousand persons gathered about the building, which stood on the east side of Washington street, a little below the old State House, at that time occupied as the City Hall. It was early in the afternoon. Thompson, the chief object of their rage, did not arrive; and, increasing in turbulence with their numbers, the mob forced the women's meeting to adjourn. Still besieging the entrance to this building, they next turned their thoughts to the editor of the Liberator, who was known to be inside. Garrison fled by the rear, but, being caught, was led unresistingly from the back yard through a crooked lane into State street, a rope about his body and his clothing partly torn. While his captors were irresolute what to do with him, many proposing that he should be ducked in the frog-pond, a few stalwart men in the crowd, who pitied his plight and were unwilling that their own fellow-citizen should take the punishment intended for an English brawler, managed to hustle Garrison into the City Hall opposite, where, on the advice of the mayor, whom his press had been abusing, he consented to be put into a close carriage and driven through the crowd to the jail, where he remained all night, as if under arrest, and was then released. Escaping further violence by this stratagem, he left Boston secretly the next day, self-exiled for a season, though issuing his newspaper from that city as before. Thompson, the lecturer, warned in good season by the angry aspect of his audiences, suddenly disappeared, cutting his tour short, and was smuggled out of the United States in a sailing-vessel.

Such were the early episodes which gave Garrison and his fellow-apostles a picturesque place in our annals, though the worst sufferers for the cause at present were the poor negroes their zeal had befriended. Subsiding now into smoother and more legitimate channels of influence, and dividing, moreover, among themselves upon the ways and means of agitation, they were soon favored by the current of events, though untractable theorists to the last. They were not actors in affairs, but agitators, critics, come-outers, coiners of cutting epithets, who scourged men in public station with as little mercy as ever the slave-driver did his victim, less pleased that their work was being done than displeased because it was not done faster. Their political blunders widened the chasm between North and South, and their constant instigation was to throttle that law which was the breath of our being, to trample down the Union rather than convert, constrain, or conquer slavery behind the shield of the constitution. This was because of their fanaticism. Not one leader of this school ever took a responsible part in affairs, or co-operated in lawful and practical measures for promoting the reform they caressed in their preaching. But whatever interpretation this crusade for immediate abolition might admit of, it could have no effect South, unless by terrifying the masters in the slave States, those robbers and man-stealers, who—strange paradox—were under the municipal law no robbers, no criminals at all. It did not terrify, but it hardened them; and wounded pride made them more determined than ever to maintain their system, come what might,—to rivet it more firmly upon the Union, or else to leave the Union and set up for themselves. In the North, however, the anti-slavery cause grew and continued to grow, for the agitators were felt to be in earnest and morally right. This early violence was regretted; it reacted favorably to abolition, and the abolitionists might scold and censure henceforth under the license of free discussion. The chief “apostle and martyr of emancipation,” though ceasing not to irritate, was molested no more at home; and Boston, the seat of Whig sobriety, was spared those grosser scenes of riot and destruction which disgraced the Jacksonian cities in these turbulent years. The Liberator still forged its thunderbolts, and, though social disdain long pursued Garrison and his friends, embittered by the caustic severity of their pen and speech, their moral firmness gained sympathizers, as it always does: their one idea was abstractly right. The essential gain of all this was to awaken the northern conscience from its long sleep, and force up opinion to the healthier plane of conforming the human decree to the divine; as for the slave, the negro, he rose to be an object of sentiment, rarely seen, little comprehended, never studied on his plantation surroundings, and personal or race sympathy had nothing scarcely to do with raising up champions for him. Garrison had the spirit of prophecy, nor was he wholly mistaken when, on taking up his parable, he wrote, “Posterity will bear testimony that I was right.” Better this agitation, though it sent a two-edged sword, than the poisonous lethargy before it; better a quarter-century of sharp collision, followed by the desperate struggle for the mastery, than another century of corrupt growth and bonded misalliance. Hate-producing as were the winged words of these agitators, no gentler purgative, perhaps, could have done the work; for in all moral reforms, as philosophy teaches us, and wherever God's image becomes distorted in the mirror of human custom, change works in a progressive cycle: fearless reproof brings persecution of the reprover, persecution brings sympathy, sympathy leads to reaction, and reaction to reformation. But too complex were the agencies which now began working out the slave's salvation for any one man or set of men to appropriate them. Whether one shall admire most the bold denunciator, whose speech irritates thought into action, or the enlightened statesman, who accomplishes for reform all that his age will admit and respects the limitations of social ordinance, or the grim warrior who wins the fight, his temperament must decide. History should do justice to all; and, though timid and truckling at times, that public conscience is not to be despised which long struggled between moral obligation and loyalty until loyalty itself opened the means of escaping the curse.

James Ford Rhodes (essay date 1892)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2185

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 genuine African of exceptional capacity, knowing the Bible by heart, prayed and preached to his fellow-slaves. He told them of the voices he heard in the air, of the visions he saw, and of his communion with the Holy Spirit. An eclipse of the sun was a sign that they must rise and slay their enemies who had deprived them of freedom. The massacre began at night and continued for forty-eight hours; women and children were not spared, and before the bloody work was checked sixty-one whites were victims of negro ferocity. The retribution was terrible. Negroes were shot, hanged, tortured, and burned to death, and all on whom suspicion lighted met a cruel fate. In Southampton County, the scene of the insurrection, there was a reign of terror, and alarm spread throughout the slave States.

This event, and the thought that it might be the precursor of others of the same kind, account for much of the Southern rage directed against Garrison and his crusade. Nor, when we reflect on the sparsely settled country, the wide distance between plantations—conditions that made a negro insurrection possible—and when we consider what it was for planters to have hanging over their heads the horrors of a servile war, will it seem surprising that judicial poise of temper was impossible when Southerners discussed the work of Garrison. They regarded it as an incitement for their slaves to revolt. But they did injustice to Garrison, for Nat Turner had never seen a copy of the Liberator, and the paper had not a single subscriber south of the Potomac. Nor did Garrison ever send a pamphlet or paper to any slave, nor advocate the right of physical resistance on the part of the oppressed. He was a non-resistant, and did not believe that force should be used to overturn legal authority, even when unjustly and oppressively exercised. The assertion that slavery is a damning crime is one thing; the actual incitement of slaves to insurrection is another. The distinction between the two was not appreciated at the South. Stringent laws were made against the circulation of the Liberator, and vigilance committees sent their warnings to any who were supposed to have a part in spreading its doctrines. In North Carolina Garrison was indicted for a felony, and the legislature of Georgia offered a reward of five thousand dollars for the arrest and conviction of the editor or publisher. One voice went abroad from public officials, popular meetings, and from the press of the South, demanding that the governor of Massachusetts or the mayor of Boston should suppress the “infernal Liberator.

The people of Virginia had often struggled to free themselves from the coils of slavery, and the Nat Turner insurrection furnished the occasion for another attempt. At the following session of the Legislature a proposition was made to inquire into the expediency of some plan of gradual emancipation. In the debate that took place on the subject, the evil of slavery was characterized in terms as strong as an abolitionist could have used. The alarm excited all over the South by the negro rising in Southampton County was not, one member explained, from the fear of Nat Turner, but it was on account of “the suspicion eternally attached to the slave himself—a suspicion that a Nat Turner might be in every family, that the same bloody deed might be acted over at any time, and in any place; that the materials for it were spread through the land, and were always ready for a like explosion.”

But a majority of the House of Representatives, in which the project was discussed, could not be had for ordering an inquiry, and the further consideration of the subject was indefinitely postponed. It has sometimes been asserted that had not the abolitionist agitation begun, this Virginia movement would have resulted in the gradual emancipation of slaves in that state; but there is, in truth, no reason for thinking that anything more would have come of it than from previous abortive attempts in the same direction. On many pages of Virginia history may one read of noble efforts by noble men towards freeing their State from slavery. But the story of the end is a repeated tale; the seeds sown fell among thorns, and the thorns sprung up and choked them.

Meanwhile Garrison and his little band continued the uphill work of proselyting at the North, and especially in Boston. Merchants, manufacturers, and capitalists were against the movement, for trade with the South was important, and they regarded the propagation of abolition sentiments as injurious to the commercial interests of Boston. Good society turned the back upon the abolitionists. Garrison had no college education to recommend him to an aristocracy based partly upon wealth and partly upon culture. The churches were bitterly opposed to the movement. Oliver Johnson, one of the early disciples of Garrison, relates that several times his efforts were in vain to persuade some one among a dozen white clergymen of Boston to open an anti-slavery meeting with prayer, and he was in each case forced at last to accept the services of a negro preacher from “Negro Hill.” The position of the church was well expressed by a noted clergyman, who attributed the sin of slavery to a past generation, and assigned the duty of emancipation to future generations. The abolitionists, however, gradually gained ground. The year 1833 was for them one of grateful memory. Then, at Philadelphia, the American Anti-slavery Society was organized by delegates who made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in numbers. The Declaration of Sentiments, drawn up by Garrison, was a paper worthy of the earnest and intelligent people who were its signers. It referred to the immortal Declaration adopted in the same city fifty-seven years before, and, as the strongest abolition argument that could be made, quoted the phrase “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It denounced slavery in vigorous terms, yet conceded that Congress had no right to interfere with it in the States; and while condemning the employment of material force in any way to promote abolition, the signers pledged themselves to use moral means, so far as lay in their power, to overthrow the execrable system of slavery. This was not an inflammatory and seditious appeal; the delegates were men of good character, pure morals, and were law-abiding citizens; yet it was necessary for the police to guard the convention hall against threatened mob violence. The meeting was regarded by all Southern people, and by nearly all at the North, in much the same way as we should now look upon an assemblage of anarchists. …

Excitement about the abolition movement characterized the year 1835. Numerous public meetings and the press of the South demanded almost with one voice that the abolitionists must be put down or they would destroy the Union. A suspension of commercial intercourse with the North was even suggested. The Charleston post-office was forcibly entered and a large number of tracts and papers sent there by the American Anti-slavery Society were seized; the next night these papers and effigies of Garrison and other abolitionists were burned in the presence of a large number of spectators. On a false alarm of a projected slave rising in Mississippi, several white men and negroes were hanged by vigilance committees. The wrath of the Southern people against the abolitionists was reflected at the North, and the feeling grew that the imputation of abolition ideas to the whole Northern community must be repelled. As the Liberator could not be suppressed, nor anti-slavery meetings prohibited by law, recourse was had to mob violence. Attacks upon abolitionists had previously been common, and this sort of warfare culminated in the year 1835. A ferocious anti-negro riot took place at Philadelphia. Rev. Samuel May, a devoted abolitionist and adherent of Garrison, was mobbed at Haverhill, Mass., the home of Whittier, and five times afterwards at different places in Vermont. A disgraceful anti-slavery riot occurred at Utica, N. Y. In Boston, on the same day, a mob, variously estimated at from two thousand to five thousand, including many gentlemen of property and influence, broke up a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-slavery Society. Garrison, one of the men against whom the mob directed its fury, had escaped from the hall in which the ladies were assembled, but he was seized and dragged bareheaded through the streets, subjected to indignity and insult, and his life was threatened. The mayor and police finally rescued him from the hands of the rioters, and put him in jail as a protection against further violence.

Yet the work of converting and creating Northern sentiment went on. In spite of misrepresentation, obloquy, and derision, the abolitionists continued to apply moral ideas and Christian principles to the institution of slavery. The teachings of Christ and the Apostles actuated this crusade, and its latent power was great. If one looks for its results merely to the numbers of congressmen chosen by the abolitionists, to the vote received by presidential candidates distinctively theirs, or even to the number of members enrolled in the anti-slavery societies, only a faint idea of the force of the movement will be gained. The influence of the Liberator cannot be measured by its subscribers, any more than the French revolutionists of 1789 can be reckoned as of no greater number than the readers of The Social Contract. If Rousseau had never lived, said Napoleon, there would have been no French Revolution. It would be historical dogmatism to say that if Garrison had not lived, the Republicans would not have succeeded in 1860. But if we wish to estimate correctly the influence of Garrison and his disciples, we must not stop with the enumeration of their avowed adherents. We must bear in mind the impelling power of their positive dogmas, and of their never-ceasing inculcation on those who were already voters and on thinking youths who were to become voters, and who, in their turn, prevailed upon others. We must picture to ourselves this process of argument, of discussion, of persuasion, going on for twenty-five years, with an ever-increasing momentum, and we cannot resist the conviction that this anti-slavery agitation had its part, and a great part too, in the first election of Lincoln. It was due to Garrison and his associates that slavery became a topic of discussion at every Northern fireside. Those who had heard the new doctrine gladly tried to convince their family and their friends; those who were but half convinced wished to vanquish their doubts or have put to rest the rising suspicion that they were partners in a great wrong; those who stubbornly refused to listen could not fail to feel that a new force had made its appearance, with which a reckoning must be made. Slavery could not bear examination. To describe it was to condemn it. There was a certain fitness, therefore, in the demand of the Southerners that the discussion of slavery in any shape should be no longer permitted at the North.

But in what a state of turpitude the North would have been if it had not bred abolitionists! If the abolitionists had not prepared the way, how would the political rising of 1854-60 against the slave power have been possible? It is true that many ardent Republicans who voted for Lincoln would have repudiated the notion that they were in any way influenced by the arguments of Garrison and his associates. And it is equally true that in 1835 the average Northern man satisfied himself by thinking slavery in the abstract a great evil, but that, as it existed in the South, it was none of his concern; he thought that “God hath made of one blood all nations of men” a good doctrine to be preached on Sunday, and “all men are created equal” a fit principle to be proclaimed on the Fourth of July; but he did not believe that these sentiments should be applied to the social condition of the South. But that was exactly the ground on which the abolitionists planted themselves, and, by stirring the national conscience, they made possible the formation of a political party whose cardinal principle was opposition to the extension of slavery, and whose reason for existence lay in the belief of its adherents that slavery in the South was wrong.

Leo Tolstoy (essay date 1904)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1931

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 out that the law of non-resistance—to which I had been inevitably brought by the recognition of the Christian teaching in its full meaning, and which revealed to me the great joyous ideal to be realised in Christian life—was even as far back as the forties not only recognised and proclaimed by Garrison (about Ballou I learnt later), but also placed by him at the foundation of his practical activity in the emancipation of the slaves.

My joy was at that time mingled with bewilderment as to how it was that this great Gospel truth, fifty years ago explained by Garrison, could have been so hushed up that I had now to express it as something new.

My bewilderment was especially increased by the circumstance that not only people antagonistic to the progress of mankind, but also the most advanced and progressive men, were either completely indifferent to this law, or actually opposed to the promulgation of that which lies at the foundation of all true progress.

But as time went on it became clearer and clearer to me that the general indifference and opposition which were then expressed, and still continue to be expressed—pre-eminently amongst political workers—towards this law of non-resistance are merely symptoms of the great significance of this law.

“The motto upon our banner,” wrote Garrison in the midst of his activity, “has been from the commencement of our moral warfare ‘Our Country is the World; Our Countrymen are all Mankind.’ We trust that it will be our only epitaph. Another motto we have chosen is, ‘Universal Emancipation.’ Up to this time we have limited its application to those who in this country are held by Southern taskmasters as marketable commodities, goods and chattels, and implements of husbandry. Henceforth we shall use it in its widest latitude—the emancipation of our whole race from the dominion of man, from the thraldom of self, from the government of brute force, from the bondage of sin, and the bringing it under the dominion of God, the control of an inward spirit, the government of the law of love. …”

Garrison, as a man enlightened by the Christian teaching, having begun with the practical aim of strife against slavery, very soon understood that the cause of slavery was not the casual temporary seizure by the Southerners of a few millions of negroes, but the ancient and universal recognition, contrary to the Christian teaching, of the right of coercion on the part of certain people in regard to certain others. A pretext for recognising this right has always been that men regarded it as possiable to eradicate or diminish evil by brute force, i.e., also by evil. Having once realised this fallacy, Garrison put forward against slavery neither the suffering of slaves, nor the cruelty of slaveholders, nor the social equality of men, but the eternal Christian law of refraining from opposing evil by violence, i.e., of “non-resistance.” Garrison understood that which the most advanced among the fighters against slavery did not understand: that the only irrefutable argument against slavery is the denial of the right of any man over the liberty of another under any conditions whatsoever.

The Abolitionists endeavoured to prove that slavery was unlawful, disadvantageous, cruel: that it depraved men, and so on; but the defenders of slavery in their turn proved the untimeliness and danger of emancipation, and the evil results liable to follow it. Neither the one nor the other could convince his opponent. Whereas Garrison, understanding that the slavery of the negroes was only a particular instance of universal coercion, put forward a general principle with which it was impossible not to agree—the principle that under no pretext has any man the right to dominate, i.e., to use coercion over his fellows. Garrison did not so much insist on the right of negroes to be free as he denied the right of any man whatsoever, or of any body of men, forcibly to coerce another man in any way. For the purpose of combating slavery he advanced the principle of struggle against all the evil of the world.

This principle advanced by Garrison was irrefutable, but it affected and even overthrew all the foundations of established social order, and therefore those who valued their position in that existing order were frightened at its announcement, and still more at its application to life; they endeavoured to ignore it, to elude it; they hoped to attain their object without the declaration of the principle of non-resistance to evil by violence, and that application of it to life which would destroy, as they thought, all orderly organisation of human life. The result of this evasion of the recognition of the unlawfulness of coercion was that fratricidal war which, having externally solved the slavery question, introduced into the life of the American people the new—perhaps still greater—evil of that corruption which accompanies every war.

Meanwhile the substance of the question remained unsolved, and the same problem, only in a new form, now stands before the people of the United States. Formerly the question was how to free the negroes from the violence of the slaveholders; now the question is how to free the negroes from the violence of all the whites, and the whites from the violence of all the blacks.

The solution of this problem in a new form is to be accomplished certainly not by the lynching of the negroes, nor by any skilful and liberal measures of American politicians, but only by the application to life of that same principle which was proclaimed by Garrison half a century ago.

The other day in one of the most progressive periodicals I read the opinion of an educated and intelligent writer, expressed with complete assurance in its correctness, that the recognition by me of the principle of non-resistance to evil by violence is a lamentable and somewhat comic delusion which, taking into consideration my old age and certain merits, can only be passed over in indulgent silence.

Exactly the same attitude towards this question did I encounter in my conversation with the remarkably intelligent and progressive American Bryan. He also, with the evident intention of gently and courteously showing me my delusion, asked me how I explained my strange principle of non-resistance to evil by violence, and as usual he brought forward the argument, which seems to everyone irrefutable, of the brigand who kills or violates a child. I told him that I recognise non-resistance to evil by violence because, having lived seventy-five years, I have never, except in discussions, encountered that fantastic brigand, who, before my eyes desired to kill or violate a child, but that perpetually I did and do see not one but millions of brigands using violence towards children and women and men and old people and all the labourers in the name of the recognised right of violence over one's fellows. When I said this my kind interlocutor, with his naturally quick perception, not giving me time to finish, laughed, and recognised that my argument was satisfactory.

No one has seen the fantastic brigand, but the world, groaning under violence, lies before everyone's eyes. Yet no one sees, nor desires to see, that the strife which can liberate man from violence is not a strife with the fantastic brigand, but with those actual brigands who practise violence over men.

Non-resistance to evil by violence really means only that the mutual interaction of rational beings upon each other should consist not in violence (which can be only admitted in relation to lower organisms deprived of reason) but in rational persuasion; and that, consequently, towards this substitution of rational persuasion for coercion all those should strive who desire to further the welfare of mankind.

It would seem quite clear that in the course of the last century, fourteen million people were killed, and that now the labour and lives of millions of men are spent on wars necessary to no one, and that all the land is in the hands of those who do not work on it, and that all the produce of human labour is swallowed up by those who do not work, and that all the deceits which reign in the world exist only because violence is allowed for the purpose of suppressing that which appears evil to some people, and that therefore one should endeavour to replace violence by persuasion. That this may become possible it is necessary first of all to renounce the right of coercion.

Strange to say, the most progressive people of our circle regard it as dangerous to repudiate the right of violence and to endeavour to replace it by persuasion. These people, having decided that it is impossible to persuade a brigand not to kill a child, think it also impossible to persuade the working men not to take the land and the produce of their labour from those who do not work, and therefore these people find it necessary to coerce the labourers.

So that however sad it is to say so, the only explanation of the non-understanding of the significance of the principle of non-resistance to evil by violence consists in this, that the conditions of human life are so distorted that those who examine the principle of non-resistance imagine that its adaptation to life and the substitution of persuasion for coercion would destroy all possibility of that social organisation and of those conveniences of life which they enjoy.

But the change need not be feared; the principle of non-resistance is not a principle of coercion but of concord and love, and therefore it cannot be made coercively binding upon men. The principle of non-resistance to evil by violence, which consists in the substitution of persuasion for brute force, can be only accepted voluntarily, and in whatever measure it is freely accepted by men and applied to life—i.e., according to the measure in which people renounce violence and establish their relations upon rational persuasion—only in that measure is true progress in the life of men accomplished.

Therefore, whether men desire it or not, it is only in the name of this principle that they can free themselves from the enslavement and oppression of each other. Whether men desire it or not, this principle lies at the basis of all true improvement in the life of men which has taken place and is still to take place.

Garrison was the first to proclaim this principle as a rule for the organisation of the life of men. In this is his great merit. If at the time he did not attain the pacific liberation of the slaves in America, he indicated the way of liberating men in general from the power of brute force.

Therefore Garrison will for ever remain one of the greatest reformers and promoters of true human progress.

I think that the publication of this short biography will be useful to many.

John Jay Chapman (essay date 1913)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2984

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 upon his action, for influence. The seer feels that the mere utterance of his thought, nay the mere vision of it, fulfills his function. Garrison was not a man of this kind. His mission was more lowly, more popular, more visible; and his intellectual grasp was restricted and uncertain. Garrison was a man of the market-place. Language to him was not the mere means of stating truth, but a mace to break open a jail. He was to be the instrument of great and rapid changes in public opinion during an epoch of terrible and fluctuating excitement. The thing which he is to see, to say, and to proclaim, from moment to moment, is as freshly given to him by prodigal nature, is as truly spontaneous, as the song of the thrush. He never calculates, he acts upon inspiration; he is always ingenuous, innocent, self-poised, and, as it were, inside of some self-acting machinery which controls his course, and rolls out the carpet of his life for him to walk on. We must remember this; for it is almost impossible not to use words which imply the contrary in describing the acts of the practical man—the man who utters sharp sayings in order to gain attention, the man who gives no quarter when in the ring.

In reviewing the life of such a man we must take the logic of it as a whole; we must feel the unity of it as an organic process and torrent of force. It will contain many breaks in metaphysical unity; yet through these breaks may be seen the gushing stream of the spirit. I believe that Garrison shifted his ground and changed his mind less often than most men of that kaleidoscopic epoch. But we must not try to make him out more consistent than he was. All politics, including reform agitation, proceeds from day to day and from year to year under the illusion that the thing in hand is more important than it really is. All the actors are at every moment somewhat deceived; and to each of them the thing in hand ever a little blots out the sky. The agitator lives in a realm of exaggeration, of broadsides and italic types, of stampings of the foot and clenchings of the hand. He uses the terms and phrases of immortal truth to clamp together his leaky raft. The “belle réponse” of the martyr, the deep apothegm of the sage, and the words of Christ, are ever on his lips. Such things pass muster in politics without exciting comment. And yet, these statements of ideal truth, like the axioms of arithmetic, never quite square with the material world. They can only be felt and believed in mentally. You can never find or measure out an exact pound of anything or lay off a true mile; nor can you assign any accurate value to the influence of a good deed. Nevertheless, the inaccuracy which is permissible in the marketplace is very much greater than the inaccuracy permissible to the historian who sits in his closet endeavoring to think clearly upon the matter.

The source of Garrison's power was the Bible. From his earliest days he read the Bible constantly, and prayed constantly. It was with this fire that he started his conflagration. Now the Bible is many things. It is a key to metaphysical truth, it is a compendium of large human wisdom, it is a code of ethics, it is the history of a race, and many other things beside. To Garrison, the Bible was the many-piped organ to which he sang the song of his life, and the arsenal from which he drew the weapons of his warfare. I doubt if any man ever knew the Bible so well, or could produce a text to fit a political emergency with such startling felicity as Garrison. Take for example, the text provided by him for Wendell Phillips's speech on the Sunday morning following Lincoln's call for troops in 1861. “Therefore thus saith the Lord; Ye have not hearkened unto me in proclaiming liberty everyone to his brother, and every man to his neighbor: behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, saith the Lord, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine.”

I doubt whether Cromwell or Milton could have rivaled Garrison in this field of quotation; and the power of quotation is as dreadful a weapon as any which the human intellect can forge. From his boyhood upward Garrison's mind was soaked in the Bible and in no other book. His “Causes” are all drawn from the Bible, and most of them may be traced to the phrases and thoughts of Christ, as for instance Peace (Peace I give unto you), Perfectionism (Be ye therefore perfect), Non-resistance (Resist not evil), Anti-sabbatarianism (The Lord is Lord of the Sabbath). So also, a prejudice against all fixed forms of worship, against the authority of human government, against every binding of the spirit into conformity with human law—all these things grew up in Garrison's mind out of his Bible readings; as they have done in the minds of so many other men before and after him. He, himself, was not going to be bound, and never was bound, by any declaration nor by any document. He even arrived at distrusting the Bible itself, perceiving that the Bible itself was often a tyrant—much as Christ saw the tyranny of the law of Moses. All this part of Garrison's mental activity is his true vocation. Here he rages like a lion of Judah. By these onslaughts he is freeing people from their mental bonds: he is shaking down the palaces of Babylon.

His age was the age of social experiments, and he was ever ready to take on a new one. This hospitality to new dogmas annoyed his associates, and led, as we have seen, to revolts, schisms, and heresies in the Anti-slavery ranks. Garrison seems to have been assailed by such multitudinous revelations from on high that he was obliged to publish one dispensation in order to clear the wires for the next. There is one of these manifestoes which reveals the impromptu character of them all. “Despite its length,” says the biographers, “the greater part of this important document must be given here.” There follow several pages of fine print, concerning the causes uppermost in Garrison's mind, which evidently had filled up all the space in the Liberator, or used up all the ink in the office; and yet it appears at the close, that Garrison has forgotten to say anything about woman's rights. And so he calls out, like a man upon a departing stage-coach: “As our object is universal emancipation, to redeem women as well as men from a servile to an equal condition—we shall go for the Rights of Women to their utmost extent.”

In those days societies were founded for everything. No one ever paused to consider what things could or could not be accomplished through organization, nor how far the sayings of Christ were parts of one another, nor whether at the bottom of all these questions there lay some truth which enveloped them all. Every one rushed to utterance, and Garrison more than all men put together. So long as we consider his utterances in the large, as part of the upturning of that age, as the sine qua non of a new epoch, we love and value them. It is only when we collocate them, analyze them, and try to find something for our own souls in them, that they turn out to be emergency cries. They were designed towards local ends, they were practical politics, they do not always cohere with one another.

The great thesis to which he devoted his life, however, was unquestionably sound. He thus announced it in the Liberator in 1832:

There is much declamation about the sacredness of the compact which was formed between the free and slave States, on the adoption of the Constitution. A sacred compact, forsooth! We pronounce it the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villainy ever exhibited upon the earth. Yes, we recognize the compact, but with feelings of shame and indignation; and it will be held in everlasting infamy by the friends of justice and humanity throughout the world. It was a compact formed at the sacrifice of the bodies and souls of millions of our race, for the sake of achieving a political object—an unblushing and monstrous coalition to do evil that good might come. Such a compact was in the nature of things, and according to the law of God, null and void from the beginning. No body of men ever had the right to guarantee the holding of human beings in bondage.

Who or what were the framers of our Government that they should dare confirm and authorize such high-handed villainy—such a flagrant robbery of the inalienable rights of man—such a glaring violation of all the precepts and injunctions of the Gospel—such a savage war upon a sixth part of our whole population? They were men, like ourselves—as fallible, as sinful, as weak, as ourselves. By the infamous bargain which they made between themselves, they virtually dethroned the Most High God, and trampled beneath their feet their own solemn and heaven-attested Declaration, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights—among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They had no lawful power to bind themselves or their posterity for one hour—for one moment—by such an unholy alliance. It was not valid then—it is not valid now. Still they persisted in maintaining it—and still do their successors, the people of Massachusetts, of New England, and of the twelve free States, persist in maintaining it. A sacred compact! a sacred compact! What, then, is wicked and ignominious?

It is said that if you agitate this question you will divide the Union. Believe it not; but should disunion follow, the fault will not be yours. You must perform your duty, faithfully, fearlessly and promptly, and leave the consequences to God: that duty clearly is, to cease from giving countenance and protection to Southern kidnappers. Let them separate, if they can muster courage enough—and the liberation of their slaves is certain. Be assured that slavery will very speedily destroy this Union if it be let alone; but even if the Union can be preserved by treading upon the necks, spilling the blood, and destroying the souls of millions of your race, we say it is not worth a price like this, and that it is in the highest degree criminal for you to continue the present compact. Let the pillars thereof fall—let the superstructure crumble into dust—if it must be upheld by robbery and oppression.

This statement of Garrison's is, to my mind, the best thing ever said about slavery in the United States. There is no exaggeration in the statement: it is absolutely true. It is a complete answer to the Constitutional point; and makes all our ante-bellum public men (including Lincoln) appear a little benighted. They are like men who have been born in a darkness and have lived always in a twilight. They all have a slight, congenital weakness of the eye, which prevents them from taking the daylight view of this whole matter.

We ourselves to-day are so habituated to the historic obfuscation of our ancestors that we make allowance for it—more allowance, indeed, than we ought to make. We have, by inheritance, rather weak eyes on this subject ourselves. The true cause for wonder as to the age of Abolition is not that Garrison was right, but that there should have been only one person in America with a clear head. Let us now turn forward over ten years of history—including all the pictures of struggle and incidents referred to in the earlier pages, and let us read Garrison's most famous exposition of his theme uttered in 1842:

We affirm that the Union is not of heaven. It is founded in unrighteousness and cemented with blood. It is the work of men's hands, and they worship the idol which they have made. It is a horrible mockery of freedom. In all its parts and proportions it is misshapen, incongruous, unnatural. The message of the prophet to the people in Jerusalem describes the exact character of our “republican” Compact: “Hear the Word of the Lord, ye scornful men that rule this people. Because ye have said, We have made a covenant with Death, and with Hell are we at agreement; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto us: for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves: Therefore thus saith the Lord God, Judgment will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet: and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the water shall overflow the hiding-place. And your covenant with Death shall be annulled, and your agreement with Hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through then ye shall be trodden down by it.”

Another message of the same inspired prophet is equally applicable: “Thus saith the Holy One of Israel, Because ye despised this word, and trust in oppression and perverseness, and stay thereon: Therefore, this iniquity shall be to you as a breach ready to fall, swelling out in a high wall, whose breaking cometh suddenly, At an Instant. And he shall break it as the breaking of a potter's vessel that is broken to pieces; he shall not spare: so that there shall not be found in the bursting of it, a sherd to take fire from the hearth, or to take water withal out of the pit.”

Slavery is a combination of Death and Hell, and with it the North have made a covenant and are at agreement. As an element of the Government it is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. As a component part of the Union it is necessarily a national interest. Divorced from Northern protection it dies; with that protection, it enlarges its boundaries, multiplies its victims, and extends its ravages.

These passages are too direct to be called extravagant. They are appalling. They are magnificent. And they came much nearer to expressing the general opinion of the country in 1842 than the milder words quoted above came to expressing the contemporary opinion of 1832. Education was marching, the case was beginning to be understood. Within three years after Garrison's denunciation of the Constitution as an agreement with Hell, the Annexation of Texas brought thousands of the most conservative minds in the country, including Channing, to the point of abandoning the Constitution; and when in 1854 Garrison publicly burned the Constitution on the Fourth of July, the incident was of slight importance. Civil War was already inevitable: the dragon's teeth had been sown: the blades of bright bayonets could be seen pushing up through the soil in Kansas.

We see, then, the profound unity of Garrison's whole course, and may examine with indulgence some minor failures in logic which are very characteristic of him—very characteristic, indeed, of all practical-minded men who, after making one fault of logic, proceed to joggle themselves back again to their true work by committing a second. It is apparent that a man who assumes Garrison's grounds as to the importance of the spirit, and the unimportance of everything else, can never turn aside and adopt any institution, without doing violence to his own principles. To disparage all government because it is “the letter that killeth,” and thereafter to swear fealty to some party, or adopt a symbol, or advise a friend to vote with the Whigs is inconsistent. One who believes in standing for absolute principle can never indorse some political scheme on the ground that “this time it doesn't count.” One who believes it wrong to meet force with force cannot retain the privilege of approving some particular war or some particular act of self-defense, which seems to him to be useful. Garrison had not the mental training to perceive this, and to do so would have involved his retirement from the camp to the closet: it would have involved his being someone else. Suffice it to say that from time to time his nature drew a veil over his theories, and so obscured them that he was able to support the Constitution of the United States, to rejoice in bloodshed, to take active part in political contests,—both in the great occasional National elections (as when he came out for Lincoln or Frémont), and in the continuous petty politics of the Anti-slavery cause.

After having supported one of these human institutions with zeal, and having justified his conduct with facile and self-deceiving casuistry, he would again ascend the mountain, the veil would be withdrawn from his intellect, and he would see his true vision once more and proclaim it with renewed fervor: the vision, namely, that no institution should be held sacred.

Jesse Macy (essay date 1919)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2575

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 of slaves led by a negro, Nat Turner, in which sixty-one white persons were massacred; and in December the Virginia Legislature began its long debate on the question of slavery.

On the part of the abolitionists there was at no time any sudden break in the principles which they advocated. Lundy did nothing but revive and continue the work of the Quakers and other non-slaveholding classes of the revolutionary period. Birney was and continued to be a typical slave-holding abolitionist of the earlier period. Garrison began his work as a disciple of Lundy, whom he followed in the condemnation of the African colonization scheme, though he went farther and rejected every form of colonization. Garrison likewise repudiated every plan for gradual emancipation and proclaimed the duty of immediate and unconditional liberation of the slaves.

The first number of the Liberator contained an Address to the Public, which sounded the keynote of Garrison's career. “I shall contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population—I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice on this subject—I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation—I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard!

The New England Anti-Slavery Society, of which Garrison was the chief organizer, was in essential harmony with the societies which Lundy had organized in other sections. Its first address to the public in 1833 distinctly recognized the separate States as the sole authority in the matter of emancipation within their own boundaries. Through moral suasion, eschewing all violence and sedition, its authors proposed to secure their object. In the spirit of civil and religious liberty and by appealing to the Declaration of Independence, to the spirit and letter of the Constitution, they exhorted the entire people to become an effective anti-slavery society. At the organization of the American Anti-Slavery Society a year later, the division of power between the separate States and the general Government, which found final expression in the platform of the Republican party in 1856, was recognized in its constitution, and in a declaration of principles written by Garrison himself occur the words: “We also maintain that there are, at the present time, the highest obligations resting upon the people of the free States to remove slavery by moral and political action, as prescribed in the Constitution of the United States.” All the abolitionists were united on the main lines of policy. In 1835 Garrison, in the Liberator, called God to witness that “we are not hostile to the Constitution of the United States.” It was many years before Garrison applied to the cause of abolition the peculiar doctrine of non-resistance and philosophic anarchy in such a way as to separate himself and his few followers from the great body of abolitionists. Not until 1843 did he place at the head of his paper the words: “The compact which exists between the North and the South is a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell—involving both parties in atrocious criminality and should be immediately annulled.” Eleven years later he publicly burned a copy of the Constitution in the streets of Boston, crying aloud, “So perish all compromisers with tyranny.”

In the meantime a division had arisen among New England abolitionists, and at the annual meeting of the national society in New York in 1840 the opponents of Garrison withdrew and organized the American and “Foreign” Anti-Slavery Society. The disagreement arose partly from a dispute over the question of the admission of women to membership, but chiefly because of Garrison's changing attitude towards participation in politics. Garrison's branch retained the old name and was designated as the “Old Society.” It was in fact, however, a brand-new society proclaiming doctrines and advocating policies in direct contradiction to those of the original organization. Probably not one in a hundred of even the New England abolitionists ever accepted the special views which the Garrisonian organization adopted after 1843.

The facts that Garrison himself had a leading part in formulating the principles and policies for political action which received new emphasis by the Liberty party of 1840 and 1844, by the Free-soil party of 1848, and later by the Republican party, and that nearly all of the abolitionists continued to be faithful adherents to those principles, are sufficient proof of the essential unity of the great anti-slavery movement. The apparent lack of harmony and the real confusion in the history of the subject arose from the peculiar character of one remarkable man.

The few owners of slaves who had assumed the rôle of public defenders of the institution were in the habit of using violent and abusive language against anti-slavery agitators. This appeared in the first debate on the subject during Washington's administration. Every form of rhetorical abuse also accompanied the outbreak of mob violence against the reformers at the time of Garrison's advent into the controversy. He was especially fitted to reply in kind. “I am accused,” said he, “of using hard language. I admit the charge. I have not been able to find a soft word to describe villainy, or to identify the perpetrator of it.” This was a new departure which was instantly recognized by Southern leaders. But from the beginning to the bitter end, Garrison stands alone as preëminently the representative of this form of attack. It was significant, also, that the Liberator was published in Boston, the literary center of the country.

There is no evidence that there was any direct connection between the publication of the Liberator and the servile insurrection which occurred during the following August.1 It was, however, but natural that the South should associate the two events. A few utterances of the paper were fitted, if not intended, to incite insurrection. One passage reads: “Whenever there is a contest between the oppressed and the oppressor—the weapons being equal between the parties—God knows that my heart must be with the oppressed, and always against the oppressor. Therefore, whenever commenced, I cannot but wish success to all slave insurrections.” Again: “Rather than see men wearing their chains in a cowardly and servile spirit, I would, as an advocate of peace, much rather see them breaking the heads of the tyrant with their chains.”

George Thompson, an English colaborer with Garrison, is quoted as saying in a public address in 1835 that “Southern slaves ought, or at least had a right, to cut the throats of their masters.”2 Such utterances are rare, and they express a passing mood not in the least characteristic of the general spirit of the abolition movement; yet the fact that such statements did emanate from such a source made it comparatively easy for extremists of the opposition to cast odium upon all abolitionists. The only type of abolition known in South Carolina was that of the extreme Garrisonian agitators, and it furnished at least a shadow of excuse for mob violence in the North and for complete suppression of discussion in the South. To encourage slaves to cut the throats of their masters was far from being a rhetorical figure of speech in communities where slaves were in the majority. Santo Domingo was at the time a prosperous republic founded by former slaves who had exterminated the Caucasian residents of the island. Negroes from Santo Domingo had fomented insurrection in South Carolina. The Nat Turner incident was more than a suggestion of the dire possibilities of the situation. Turner was a trusted slave, a preacher among the blacks. He succeeded in concealing his plot for weeks. When the massacre began, slaves not in the secret were induced to join. A majority of the slain were women and children. Abolitionists who had lived in slave States never indulged in flippant remarks fitted to incite insurrection. This was reserved for the few agitators far removed from the scene of action.

Southern planters who had determined at all hazards to perpetuate the institution of slavery were peculiarly sensitive on account of what was taking place in Spanish America and in the British West Indies. Mexico abolished slavery in 1829, and united with Colombia in encouraging Cuba to throw off the Spanish yoke, abolish slavery, and join the sisterhood of New World republics. This led to an effective protest on the part of the United States. Both Spain and Mexico were advised that the United States could not with safety to its own interests permit the emancipation of slaves in the island of Cuba. But with the British Emancipation Act of 1833, Cuba became the only neighboring territory in which slavery was legal. These acts of emancipation added zeal to the determination of the Southern planters to secure territory for the indefinite extension of slavery to the southwest.

When Lundy and Birney discovered these plans, their desire to husband and extend the direct political influence of abolitionists was greatly stimulated. To this end they maintained a moderate and conservative attitude. They took care that no abuse or misrepresentation should betray them into any expression which would diminish their influence with fair-minded, reasonable men. They were convinced that a clear and complete revelation of the facts would lead a majority of the people to adopt their views.

The debate in the Virginia Legislature in the session which met three months after the Southampton massacre furnishes a demonstration that the traditional anti-slavery sentiment still persisted among the rulers of the Old Dominion. It arose out of a petition from the Quakers of the State asking for an investigation preparatory to a gradual emancipation of the slaves. The debate, which lasted for several weeks, was able and thorough. No stronger utterances in condemnation of slavery were ever voiced than appear in this debate. Different speakers made the statement that no one presumed to defend slavery on principle—that apologists for slavery existed but no defenders. Opposition to the petition was in the main apologetic in tone.

A darker picture of the blighting effects of slavery on the industries of the country was never drawn than appears in these speeches. Slavery was declared to be driving free laborers from the State, to have already destroyed every industry except agriculture, and to have exhausted the soil so that profitable agriculture was becoming extinct, while pine brush was encroaching upon former fruitful fields. “Even the wolf,” said one, “driven back long since by the approach of man, now returns, after the lapse of a hundred years, to howl over the desolations of slavery.” Contrasts between free labor in northern industry and that of the South were vividly portrayed. In a speech of great power, one member referred to Kentucky and Ohio as States “providentially designated to exhibit in their future histories the differences which necessarily result from a country free from, and a country afflicted with the curse of slavery.”

The debate was by no means confined to industrial or material considerations. McDowell, who was afterwards elected Governor of the State, thus portrays the personal relations of master and slave: “You may place the slave where you please—you may put him under any process, which, without destroying his value as a slave, will debase and crush him as a rational being—you may do all this, and the idea that he was born to be free will survive it all. It is allied to his hope of immortality—it is the ethereal part of his nature which oppression cannot reach—it is a torch lit up in his soul by the hand of the Deity, and never meant to be extinguished by the hand of man.”

Various speakers assumed that the continuance of slavery involved a bloody conflict; that either peaceably or through violence, slavery as contrary to the spirit of the age must come to an end; that the agitation against it could not be suppressed. Faulkner drew a lurid picture of the danger from servile insurrection, in which he referred to the utterances of two former speakers, one of whom had said that, unless something effective was done to ward off the danger, “the throats of all the white people of Virginia will be cut.” The other replied, “No, the whites cannot be conquered—the throats of the blacks will be cut.” Faulkner's rejoined was that the difference was a trifling one, “for the fact is conceded that one race or the other must be exterminated.”

The public press joined in the debate. Leading editorials appeared in the Richmond Enquirer urging that effective measures be instituted to put an end to slavery. The debate aroused much interest throughout the South. Substantially all the current abolition arguments appeared in the speeches of the slave-owning members of the Virginia Legislature. And what was done about it? Nothing at all. The petition was not granted; no action looking towards emancipation was taken. This was indeed a turning-point. Men do not continue to denounce in public their own conduct unless their action results in some effort toward corrective measures.

Professor Thomas Dew, of the chair of history and metaphysics in William and Mary College and later President of the College, published an essay reviewing the debate in the Legislature and arguing that any plan for emancipation in Virginia was either undesirable or impossible. This essay was among the first of the direct pro-slavery arguments. Statements in support of the view soon followed. In 1835 the Governor of South Carolina in a message to the Legislature said, “Domestic slavery is the corner-stone of our republican edifice.” Senator Calhoun, speaking in the Senate two years later, declared slavery to be a positive good. W. G. Simms, Southern poet and novelist, writing in 1852, felicitates himself as being among the first who about fifteen years earlier advocated slavery as a great good and a blessing. Harriet Martineau, an English author who traveled extensively in the South in 1835, found few slaveholders who justified the institution as being in itself just. But after the debates in the Virginia Legislature, there were few owners of slaves who publicly advocated abolition. The spirit of mob violence had set in, and, contrary to the utterances of Virginia statesmen, free speech on the subject of slavery was suppressed in the slave States. This did not mean that Southern statesmen had lost the power to perceive the evil effects of slavery or that they were convinced that their former views were erroneous. It meant simply that they had failed to agree upon a policy of gradual emancipation, and the only recourse left seemed to be to follow the example of James G. Birney and leave the South or to submit in silence to the new order.


  1. Garrison himself denied any direct connection with the Nat Turner insurrection. See William Lloyd Garrison, the Story of His Life told by His Children, vol. i, p. 251.

  2. Schouler, History of the United States under the Constitution, vol. v, p. 217.

Russel B. Nye (essay date 1955)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2389

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 scourged Lincoln on principles, yet pleaded the value of expediency. Fundamentally, his approach to things was simple and consistent. He judged everything by two standards of moral right—natural law as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and Christian ethic as expressed in the Bible. To him these were essentially one, emanating from the same divine source. Any idea or institution which violated either, in part or whole, therefore was wrong. The final judgment rested with individual conscience, the roots of which lay in God. A world of conscience so rooted was Garrison's “kingdom to be established on earth,” in which the individual's own soul became the arbiter of action and the judge of institutions—a kingdom in which men voluntarily ceased to sin, established justice, and worshiped God in a “magistracy of holiness and love.”

The central fact of Garrison's life was his religious faith. The Bible was the only book he ever really read, and his abolitionism itself sprang directly from his belief that slavery violated God's law. “It was not on account of your complexion or race, as a people, that I espoused your cause,” he told a Negro meeting in Charleston in 1865, “but because you were the children of a common Father, created in the same divine image, having the same inalienable rights. …” Despite the charge of “infidelity” that followed him wherever he went, he was a rigidly religious man. The bland neutrality of nineteenth-century Unitarianism was not for him. The finespun speculations of New England transcendentalism lay beyond his capacity; even Lyman Beecher's brand of modified Calvinism was too soft. Instead he returned to an earlier, rigorous faith, straight from his Bible. In 1842, stung to exasperation by accusations of “infidelity,” he published his creed in the Liberator:

I believe that, in Jesus Christ, the believer is dead unto sin, and alive with God—that whosoever is born of God overcometh the world—that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness, to everyone who believeth. … I believe that priestcraft, and sectarianism, and slavery, and war, and everything that defileth or maketh a lie, are of the devil, and destined to an eternal overthrow.

The language was the language of the Old Testament, the spirit that of third-century Christianity. He had the zeal and fanaticism of a Biblical prophet, combined with apostolic dedication. His religion, he said, was “that of the Jewish religionists of eighteen centuries ago,” and his God a Hebraic God who spoke directly to his conscience. Him and only Him would Garrison obey and call Master.

From this Godbased individualism flowed Garrison's revolt against manmade authority—abolition, disunion, pacifism, perfectionism, women's rights, and “infidelity.” “Individual, personal effort”—he wrote—

is the true foundation of all real prosperity in the social state, and all excellence of character. No form of Society can be devised which will release the individual from personal responsibility. … It would be the greatest curse that could be inflicted upon him.

Garrison thus did not belong in an age of conciliation and compromise, nor was he fitted for what his era called “the principle of association.” He liked, he said, “causes which, being righteous, are unpopular, and struggling, in God's name, against wind and tide.” With God and conscience on his side, turmoil was his natural element. “Hisses,” he once said, “are music to my ears.” Organizations strait-jacketed him; he accepted them only as utensils for his own use. Temperamentally he was a no-government man and his aversion to cooperation was as ingrained as Thoreau's.

Garrison was a true revolutionary individualist who accepted nothing beyond himself, no tradition or institution whose existence violated his own inner, higher law. There was something of the eighteenth-century rebel in him, and more of the seventeenth-century Puritan's self-righteous independence. Emerson, too, preached the sufficiency of self and the integrity of self-reliance as God-reliance, but Garrison's deity was no transcendental Oversoul. His was a stern, inflexible God of wrath and justice, his individualism a flinty, arrogant self-faith. Emerson's individualism was ascetic and intellectual; Garrison's was visceral, emotional. He could never have taken to the woods as Thoreau did. He was a social being, tied to humanity and incapable of acting without it. As Emerson shrewdly remarked, Garrison “would find nothing to do in a lonely world, or a world with half-a-dozen inhabitants.”

Acting from his own driving religious faith and within the terms of his society, Garrison had every reason to be what he was—the Reformer Incarnate. He conceived himself to be the tool of God, his followers “soldiers of God” with “loins girt about with truth” and “feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace.” His aim was nothing less than “the emancipation of our whole race from the dominion of man, from the thraldom of self, from the government of brute force, from the bondage of sin.” This was the New Jerusalem, the kingdom of God awaited by the Hebrew prophets. The complete freedom of man was to him the whole purpose of life, and he lived with singleminded devotion to it.

Those who accused Garrison of deserting the main battle of abolition for minor skirmishes failed to recognize that to Garrison no reform, however close to the lunatic fringe, was unrelated to the larger purpose. He was always, as he said late in life, interested in nothing less than “the redemption of the human race.” If the human race needed redemption from slavery on the one hand and cigar-smoking on the other, there was no reason to neglect one crusade for another if both could proceed at once. Bronson Alcott, of all Garrison's contemporaries, understood the grand sweep of his design and saw what the others missed. He was, Alcott wrote in his journal, wholly “intent on the melioration of human woes and the eradication of human evils.” Nothing else could satisfy him. Garrison was no intellectual, but a man of action. He never liked to speculate, and he had no reverence for reflection. Emerson once said that Garrison “neighed like a horse” when they discussed ideas. Unlike Emerson, Garrison never tried to search hard for truth, because he had it.

The moral self-righteousness that lay beneath Garrison's crusade for the kingdom of God on earth was difficult to accept. There was no vacillation in him, no gray in his thinking, only right and wrong, deep black and pure white. There could be no compromise with sin and only Garrison could define sin. To disagree with him was to disagree with Right personified. In the last analysis his final court of appeal was conscience, not mind. Moral judgment was his first and last line of defense, and for this reason it was almost impossible to persuade him he was wrong. Founded on God and conscience, his stand was impregnable.

This absolute self-confidence was one reason his band followed him with worship this side of idolatry. Garrison had no hesitations, no questionings, no doubts, and inspired the same self-assurance in others. His sincerity and courage attracted men so widely different as the gentle May, the urbane Phillips, the wildly unstable Foster, and the unpredictable Wright. Some of his twists and turns made his most ardent supporters swallow hard, but Garrison to the end of his life believed himself perfectly consistent and unassailably right. His enemies always respected his obstinate sincerity. They sometimes thought he was wrong, or arrogant, or unreasonable—but never insincere. He was capable of absolute identification with a principle. If he believed in an idea he would die for it, though it be ill-advised, wrong, or downright foolish. This monolithic self-confidence drew men to him.

Garrison's faith in himself made him unconsciously dictatorial. He genuinely considered himself a modest man, refusing personal praise and credit. Yet he constantly sought it with a real inward hunger. His personality felt a deep need for recognition. He never aspired to political office, though certainly after 1861 he could have had it. He paid little attention to money, security, or possessions. He simply neglected to write his memoirs when he could have made thousands, and the financial status of the Liberator was always more important to him than his own. But he was sure from the first that he was a man for the ages, and he felt compelled to keep reminding himself and others of the fact. His remarks in the Liberator, less than a year after its inception, were not those of a humble, self-effacing young man: “The present generation cannot appreciate the purity of my motives or the value of my exertions. I look to posterity for a good reputation. The unborn offspring of those who are now living will reverse the condemnatory decision of my contemporaries.” Again, a few months later, he turned to a companion on leaving a meeting to remark, “You may someday write my biography.”

Garrison was not averse to comparing himself to the Apostles, though he obviously possessed little of their patience and forbearance. He rarely forgot or forgave those who differed with him, and occasionally he took more credit where less was due without the slightest embarrassment. He had not, as Alcott put it trenchantly, “won those self-victories which lead to the superior powers of those who have won themselves.” Significantly, Garrison had only a limited circle of close friends—“God's choreboy” Samuel May, Johnson, Quincy, and, closest of all, George Thompson, a man much like himself. Garrison lived in terms of his future epitaph, and carried his own Westminster Abbey about with him.

William Lloyd Garrison's place in history was hotly debated in his own time. His admirers made him a greater man than he was, and his opponents gave him less praise than he deserved. According to Wendell Phillips, Garrison “began, inspired, and largely controlled” the entire abolition movement from beginning to end. Another idolator called him “lawgiver at Washington, inspirer of Presidential policy, and framer of the greatest war of modern times.” But William Birney regarded Garrisonism as “the most utter abortion known in the history of this country,” and Henry Ward Beecher characterized him as “no more than a blister” on the antislavery movement. Neither the Tappans, nor Birney, nor Lundy, nor Weld, nor any of the pioneer abolitionists beyond New England thought of Garrison as more than an intractable, disturbing though sincere and devoted co-worker whose misguided zeal sometimes brought more harm than good to the cause.

The Garrison legend was partly the result of reams of uncritical praise poured out by Garrisonians—May, Johnson, Phillips, and others—in contrast to the comparative silence of those who opposed him. More than a little of Garrison's own conviction of immortality rubbed off on his followers. “Garrison has an army of men to write him up,” said E. L. Pierce in 1892, “and his writers are unscrupulous.” Those who admired Garrison gloried in praising him; those who opposed him charitably kept quiet.

It is only fair to grant Garrison pre-eminence in the first decade of abolition agitation. He personified its aggressive phase, publicized it for better or worse, and drove its issues deep into the national conscience. But he did not begin abolitionism, nor did he organize it. Weld and the Westerners, and the Tappans and the New Yorkers, deserve a large share of the credit; had Garrison never existed things might have been much the same. The movement, set in motion by others, was carried to its conclusion by methods he could not accept and ideas he could not understand. Abolition passed through him, not from him.

Yet Garrison was a person of real historical importance, for he was a symbol to his generation of the moral and ideological conflict that took its final shape in the Civil War. To the South, he represented all that was baleful and dangerous. Whatever his insistence on pacific intentions, he stirred up violent resentments and his appeals reached the passions rather than the consciences of slaveholders. His principle of “moral agitation” against slavery created only agitation. The proslavery forces, already consolidating, could concentrate all their fear and anger on him. If the approaching conflict was irrepressible, Garrison was at least a factor in convincing the South that it was so. By proslavery logic, Garrison led to John Brown; Brown led to Lincoln; Garrison, Brown, and Lincoln together led to an intolerable conclusion. It was easier for the South to argue from personalities rather than from principles, and Garrison was a personality no Southerner could overlook. By very little effort of his own he became a bogeyman to the South and a personification to it of things to come.

To the North, Garrison was a goad, a prick to the conscience, a symbol of the moral problem of slavery that remained unsolved despite compromises, conciliations, and tacit agreements to disregard it. Slavery, no matter how it was explained or rationalized, did exist; the fact of its existence was an anomaly in a nation dedicated to life, liberty, and the individual's right to pursue happiness. Garrison, more than any other one person, shattered the “conspiracy of silence.” One might decry his invective, censure his methods, or deny his appeal to disorder; one could never shut out his clamor. To disagree with Garrison men had to face up to the problem, rethink their beliefs, examine their own consciences. When men did this, slavery was doomed. Garrison contributed relatively little to the philosophy of abolitionism. He had only a single thought—that “slavery was a crime, a damning crime”—but he made other men think, though he sometimes muddled their thinking. Economic and political events that Garrison neither knew nor cared about made slavery a national issue and precipitated the war. But it had its moral causes too, which Garrison's career aptly symbolized to the victorious North.

John L. Thomas (essay date 1963)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8622

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,” he confessed to his sister-in-law Anna, “there are other great subjects that frequently occupy my thoughts, upon which much light remains to be thrown, and which are of the utmost importance to the temporal and eternal welfare of man.”1 The peace cause, the status of women, the Sabbath question, temperance, home missions—all of these projects he had flung aside for the hectic work of organizing abolition in New England. It was time to pick up the loose threads once more in the hope of making a pattern of Christian reform. Of all his interests the nonresistance cause seemed most important now. His pacifist beliefs had been on trial that day in October as he stumbled along State Street towed by the mob. By refusing to fight back he had tested his principles, found them sound, and could recommend them now as a model of Christian behavior. “I am more and more convinced,” he told Anna Benson, “that it is the duty of the followers of Christ to suffer themselves to be defrauded, calumniated, and barbarously treated, without resorting either to their own physical energies, or to the force of human law, for restitution and punishment.” His clash with Boston's outraged sensibilities had put a new edge on his old hunger for holiness. Admittedly, slavery was only part of the problem of human evil—why not cure all sin by following the example of Christ? Peace and perfection—gospel truths and God's prescription for the sins of the world. A radical cure, no doubt, but certain. As he began collecting his anti-slavery forces scattered by the October riot, the image of the Master forgiving sinful man and offering peace remained deeply etched in his mind.

He had been reluctant to leave the city but there was no other choice. The house in Brighton Street, which he took in order to be nearer his office, was proving far more costly than Freedom's Cottage. Then, too, his health had suffered from irregular hours and jangled nerves, and Helen constantly worried about his safety in the streets. She was expecting her first child—a son born in February, 1836, whom they named George Thompson Garrison. Thompson himself was gone, smuggled out of the city on the Saint John packet. The Liberator undoubtedly would have to be suspended unless Knapp worked a miracle. Although the mob had not ventured near the office, the owners of Merchants Hall, unwilling to offer provocation, had ordered Knapp to clear out. Knapp and Burleigh withdrew, taking with them all of their stock and what little money there was, but not before their creditors, sensing the Liberator's end had come, flocked in.

Knapp managed to pay the debts, but an audit revealed a hopeless tangle in the accounts. The financial snarl caused raised eyebrows among some members of the society who undertook to reprimand Garrison for his laxity. “I am inclined to think,” he complained in return, “that our friends, wholly ignorant as they are, generally respecting the losses and crosses of every newspaper concern, more or less, hardly do us justice as to our past management. I admit that we have not been methodical or sharp in keeping our accounts. … We have not squandered or misapplied, but, on the contrary, as a whole, been careful of our means.”2 Still, it was with relief that he learned of the decision to turn the financial responsibility for the paper over to Knapp and leave him free to manage the editorial work on a salary supplied by Loring and Sewall. He was happy to return to the more congenial task of baiting moderate abolitionists.

In November, 1835, William Ellery Channing's Slavery appeared in time to underscore the reaction of Bostonians to militant abolitionism, for Channing spoke with the authority of a veteran opponent of slavery. At the time of Lundy's first visit to Boston in 1828 he was already criticizing slavery while at the same time emphasizing the dangers of alienating the slaveholders. “It seems to me,” he wrote to Daniel Webster in that year, “that, before moving in this matter, we ought to say to them distinctly, ‘We consider slavery as your calamity, not your crime, and we will share with you the burden of putting an end to it.’” Ten years had scarcely altered this view. Although he subscribed to the Liberator, he had never approved of Garrison's “showy, noisy mode of action.” His scholarly habits and aristocratic tastes led him to prefer the language of reason to the enthusiasm of agitators who seemed to him to display more will than brains. The Southern counteroffensive against civil liberties heightened his disapproval of slaveowners but did not moderate his opinion of the abolitionists. In 1835 he told a friend that were he to publish his criticisms of slavery, he would feel bound not only to defend the abolitionists' rights but to enlarge on what he deemed their errors.

True to his promise, Channing examined the positions of slaveholders and abolitionists in his essay and found both of them wanting in common sense and Christian charity. He began by establishing “a first, fundamental truth—a human being cannot rightfully be held and used as property.” From this principle he proceeded to other natural rights—the right to seek knowledge, to better one's condition, to live as a member of a community under the equal protection of the law—rights violated by slavery. The initiative in removing slavery, however, he was prepared to leave to the slave-owner, who alone “has the intimate knowledge of the character and habits of the slave.” Abolitionists he thought culpable on two counts: first, for hastily adopting the unworkable formula of immediate emancipation, and secondly, for indulging in irrational propaganda. The abolitionists, he said, had done great mischief, nor was this mischief to be winked at simply because it had been done with the best of intentions. The anti-slavery party had fallen into the common error of enthusiasts of taking a too narrow view and believing that there was no other sin than the one they denounced. The cause of the slave required zeal, but also the wisdom of moderation. The abolitionists had only stirred “bitter passions and a fierce fanaticism” which shut every ear and every heart against the voice of conscience.

Many of the abolitionists, though “grieved at some few censures,” as Ellis Gray Loring explained, agreed with him in pronouncing “nineteen twentieths” of Channing's book sound in principle. A private dissenter was John Quincy Adams, who objected to the “jesuitical complexion” of Channing's arguments. “The wrong or crime of slavery is set forth in all its most odious colors,” Adams noted in his diary, “and then the explanation disclaims all imputation of criminality upon the slaveholders.” Adams's doubts were echoed loudly in the Liberator, which dismissed the author as an “Ishmaelite” and the pamphlet as “an inflated, inconsistent and slanderous production … a work in active collision with itself.”3 After appropriating every one of the abolitionists' arguments, Garrison complained, Channing neutralized their force by impugning their methods. “He modestly asks us to give up our watchword ‘Immediate Emancipation,’ to disband our societies, and to keep our publications from slaveholders.” What sort of give-and-take nonsense was this? The source of Channing's heresy, he argued, was his foolish belief that men were not always to be judged by their acts or institutions. From this delusion it followed that slaveowners, far from being the miserable sinners they appeared, might be thought to act from disinterested motives of benevolence! The cardinal point in immediate emancipation, on the other hand, was its identification of slavery as sin. Sin allowed of no degrees; no plan was needed to stop sinning. But Channing exonerated the sinner—he divorced the sinner from his sin. His work, therefore, was “utterly destitute of any redeeming, reforming power,” “calumnious, contradictory and unsound.” Such timeservers the abolitionists could well do without.

Garrison recognized Channing's pamphlet for what it was—a threat to the continued control of the pioneer anti-slavery men. As a liberal Channing was unable to remain silent any longer; as a moderate he was unwilling to swallow immediate abolition. To the Garrisonians his moderation seemed at best a shuffling policy. “The plain English of the whole of it,” Amos Phelps, Garrison's choleric friend, complained, “is this, that he—and he is but one of a hundred such—can't keep still any longer on the subject, but cannot bear to come out on the subject without taking sundry exceptions, just to ‘save their skins’ from the kicks we have had to take, as well as to seem to have some justification for their long and guilty silence.”4 The real issue, however, lay deeper than Phelps realized. It was this: Could anti-slavery, born in religious radicalism and nurtured by the New Theology of Beecher and Finney, withstand an accession of the moderates? Could it relinquish the notion of slavery as a sin and retain its purity? Could the abolitionist sect become a church without endangering its principles, let the unregenerate in without undermining its holy work? In short, could abolition survive success? Garrison thought not. Channing cried for moderation and understanding, but the Declaration of Sentiments of the national society branded slavery a sin. Channing proposed reflection and study, and meanwhile the slave languished in chains.

Channing represented a way of life that was hostile to evangelicalism. A man of breeding, he was first and last an intellectual who distrusted undirected moral energy. He believed in intelligence and leisure, education, good taste and social poise—all that was most suspect in the view of one who had been raised on the meager intellectual fare of the evangelists. Moreover, status meant more to Garrison than he would admit. The reverse side of his myth of the self-made man showed a sense of social inferiority tinged with envy. Although he worked closely with Boston patricians in the next few years—with Wendell Phillips, Edmund Quincy, Ellis Gray Loring, Henry Bowditch—the alliances were not of his making and the terms were always his own. Such a surrender could not be expected from Channing, in whose work Garrison sensed a note of social superiority. To Channing the Garrisonians were pious fools with violent impulses which sprang from too much goodness and too little lucidity. They were men who chose passion instead of reason which was the mark of a true morality. Garrison, on the other hand, viewed Channing as the potential Judas of Christian reform, a timid closet-philosopher half afraid of his own beliefs. He seemed to personify in his passivity the dangers of too much thinking. Of the two, Channing was perhaps the better judge of character and certainly the more magnanimous, for it was he who made the first tentative gesture of friendship. In March, 1836, he attended the hearings of the Lunt Committee, which had been appointed by the Massachusetts legislature to investigate the need for a gag law against the abolitionists, and in front of the assembled legislators approached Garrison and took his hand. Only the most sanguine of the anti-slavery men, however, believed that the gesture symbolized a new alliance between the Garrisonians and an emergent Northern liberalism.

The Lunt Committee was the Massachusetts answer to Southern clamor against the abolitionists. At the suggestion of Governor Everett a joint committee was appointed to consider a law curtailing anti-slavery publications and meetings. Immediately the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (as the old New England Society was now called) requested a hearing, which was held on March 4, 1836. At their briefing sessions the society chose their speakers carefully. The burden of their case was carried by Loring, Sewall, and Follen, the first two respectable if not brilliant speakers, the last an eloquent and persuasive lecturer. The gallery of the Chamber of Representatives was packed with members of the society and anti-slavery sympathizers. All went well at the first hearing as long as Loring and Sewall held the floor, but when Follen mounted the rostrum and unleashed an attack on the “mobocrats” of Boston and their “blood-hounds” who made the streets of Boston unsafe, Chairman George Lunt lost patience. “Stop sir! You may not pursue this course of remark. It is insulting to the committee and to the Legislature which they represent.” Forbidden to continue, Follen sat down, the abolitionists flatly refused to proceed, and the hearing was adjourned. Next day the society drew up a memorial to the legislature complaining of the uncivil treatment they had received and demanding a free and open hearing, which demand was granted and a second hearing arranged. At the new hearing the Garrisonians fared little better. William Goodell, Garrison's waspish companion in the days of the National Philanthropist, arrived from New York and was quickly added to the list of speakers. Goodell had lost none of his bite since he and Garrison, seven years before, had argued the merits of colonization; and he immediately took the offensive by charging the committee with a “foul conspiracy” to subvert American freedom, only to be shut off by Lunt. Unnerved by its encounter with professional agitators, the committee adjourned never to meet again. Though it censured the anti-slavery party, the Lunt Committee failed to recommend measures for controlling their activities. Free speech had won a notable victory.

Garrison's remarks at the hearing, sandwiched in between the heavy arguments of Loring and Sewall, went almost unnoticed in the ensuing uproar. Those who troubled to listen caught a new note of sectionalism in his reference to American civil liberties. “Sir, we loudly boast of our free country, and of the Union of these States. Yet I have no country! As a New Englander, and as an abolitionist, I am excluded by a bloody proscription from one-half of the national territory. … Where is our Union? … The right of free and safe locomotion from one part of the land to the other is denied to us, except at the peril of our lives! … Therefore it is, I assert, that the Union is now virtually dissolved.”5

Virtually but not actually. Garrison was not a disunionist yet: although he indulged freely in propaganda and prophecy, he was not ready to admit that the Constitution was a proslavery document. Like most of the abolitionists, he had veered with the winds of political change, first denouncing the Constitution as a “heaven-daring compact” and a “corrupt bargain” and then discovering in the Congressional power over the District of Columbia a beacon for Southern states. Reluctantly he had come to accept the best abolitionist opinion that Congress had no power to regulate slavery in the states. As hope for effective state action receded in the Thirties, however, and the abolitionists began to doubt their ability to convert the South, they recognized the need for capturing the Constitution. How much more effective their campaign would be, how much more important the petition and the vote, if they could prove that the Constitution was really an anti-slavery document. If it encompassed the abolition of slavery throughout the Union, then abolitionists in agitating for immediate action were only demanding due enforcement of fundamental law. A tidy syllogism, simple, unhistorical, and unrealistic. It was a measure of his deep concern with politics in an election year that despite his predictions of disunion Garrison recognized the importance of an anti-slavery interpretation of the Constitution and tried to achieve one.

The task he set himself—that of producing a consistent reading of the Constitution—was beyond his powers, for it required the kind of reasoned historical method which he had always disparaged. In the next few years other abolitionists, better equipped and more persevering, worked out dozens of theories of the unconstitutionality of slavery, all of them ingenious, none of them convincing. In 1836, however, Garrison was pioneering in a juridical wilderness with no compass to guide him. That he soon lost his bearings is hardly as surprising as that he should have attempted the discovery at all.

He found his clue to the anti-slavery character of the Constitution in the preamble, which, he announced, “presupposes oppression and slavery, in any and every form, wholly unwarrantable, and consequently is a warrant for a general emancipation of the slaves.” Emancipation as implied in the preamble ought to be the work, not of Congress nor yet of the state legislatures, but of “the people of each State, and of the several States,” presumably gathered in special convention. As for Article IV, Section 2, which provides for the return of persons held to service and labor, this clause does not apply to slaves because by law slaves are not “persons” but “things.” By the Constitution American slavery is a thing unknown—every bondsman is therefore a freeman! “The conclusion, then, to which people of the free States must come, is this—that southern slavery is a violation of the United States Constitution, that it must be resisted as such.”6 He granted that this new reading of the Constitution marked a departure from his initial views. “We have often had occasion to speak of the wickedness of the national compact,” he conceded but added quickly that his denunciation had been “extorted in view of the construction which has been put upon certain articles in the Constitution of the United States, by the supreme and inferior courts—by the physical cooperation of the free States to keep the slaves in bondage—and by the tacit recognition of slavery which was made on the adoption of the Constitution, between the several States.” Now with a proper understanding of the Constitution, the abolitionists had only to uphold the fundamental law of the land. In a single stroke he had legitimized abolition and committed his followers to political action.

First and most important in his program of constitutional action was the vote with which abolitionists could organize a Christian party in politics “not made up of this or that sect or denomination, but of all who fear God and keep his commandments and who sincerely desire to seek judgment and relieve the oppressed.” Politics was admittedly a dirty business and weak men might be tempted to sell their principles for political gain. But changing the world meant accepting the realities of political power. “I know it is a belief of many professedly good men,” he had written in 1834, “that they ought not to ‘meddle’ with politics; but they are cherishing a delusion, which, if it do not prove fatal to their own souls, may prove the destruction of the country.”7 However logical the use of the ballot now seemed to him, there were those abolitionists in 1836 to whom it was a snare. They argued that from its inception the anti-slavery movement had been a moral crusade, and they cited Garrison's own Declaration of Sentiments of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which nowhere mentioned the duty to vote, as proof that the founders had not meant to rely on the whims of mere politicians. Impatiently Garrison brushed these objections aside with the remark that since he had drawn up the declaration, he might be assumed “competent to give an exposition of its doctrines.”8 The founders had clearly intended that both moral suasion and the franchise be brought to bear on slavery. Arguments without votes, he insisted, accomplished nothing.

To show the extent of his political commitment he supported Amasa Walker, the Democratic candidate for a Congressional seat, against the conservative Whigh, Abbott Lawrence. “Ordinarily, I perceive little intelligence, and scarcely any conscience, or honesty, or fear of God, at the polls,” he admitted to Boston's Negro voters. “The politics of this nation, at the present time, are corrupt, proscriptive, and even ferocious.”9 The Whig cause, which he used to think “essentially a good one,” had fallen to the trimmer Clay; and Jacksonian Democracy, conceived in iniquity and unbelief, was slavery's behemoth. Nevertheless, it behooved abolitionists to study the Southern stratagem and, as he explained, “to be competent fully to unravel its political relations and hearings. … Although we may not, in the technical sense of the term, become politicians ourselves, yet it is vastly important that we should watch, and expose mere politicians—such men as Van Buren, Calhoun, Pinckney, and the like—and the latest movements of the State and National Governments, in their opposition to inalienable human rights should be made manifest before all the people.”10

As the Presidential campaign entered the summer of 1836 and the election in Massachusetts narrowed to a choice between the Little Magician and the trimmer Daniel Webster, Garrison understood for the first time the nature of the abolitionist dilemma. “Political abolitionists are now placed in an awkward predicament,” he admitted to his friends.11 Both candidates had come out against abolition and had tried to check the spread of anti-slavery influence. How could an abolitionist vote for either of them? “To this I reply,” Garrison wrote a week before the election, “it is not necessary that they should cast their votes in favor of any Presidential candidates, nor do we see how they can properly do so.”12 True abolitionists belonged to no party or sect; they had emancipated themselves once and for all from political shibboleths and sectarian fetters. Abolition alone claimed their loyalty, and “this cause they can never abandon, or put in peril, on any pretext whatever.” Since both parties had officially declared their hostility to anti-slavery, reformers must be wary “lest they be seduced from their integrity of character by political intrigue” even if it meant relinquishing their right to vote. Such was the origin of the revolution in the Garrisonian attitude which was to end a few years later in the doctrine of disunion. Faced with a decision that involved choosing the lesser of two evils—a cardinal rule in democratic politics—Garrison refused to take the step which he believed an abandonment of principle. In thus committing his followers to a boycott of elections he was in effect challenging the democratic process. His theory of disunion did not appear in all its splendid simplicity for two years, but the decision to “come out” from a corrupt society was the result of his disillusionment with the Presidential campaign of 1836. Henceforth the main avenue of political reform remained closed to Garrison and those like him who preferred righteousness to success.

For a while during the election year it seemed that an alternative political route lay through Congress, where petitions might do the work of ballots. Garrison had pioneered in the organized use of the anti-slavery petition in Vermont back in 1828 and was well aware of its advantages. In the first place, the right of petition was guaranteed in the Constitution: Congress was obliged to receive petitions and to take some kind of action, however unfavorable, which meant invaluable publicity for the abolitionists. Then, too, petitions were cheap, easy to circulate, and effective in bringing the slavery question before the country. Garrison's first petition campaign in 1828-1829 had provoked a lengthy and acrimonious debate in the House before the members rejected abolition of slavery in the District as inexpedient and dangerous. The advantages of a petition flood were too obvious to be ignored.

He was not alone in recognizing the possibilities of the petition. The national society, disappointed by the meager results shown by the anti-slavery pamphlet, was turning to what everyone agreed was a more economical and effective propaganda device. By the middle of the decade pamphlets had proved a costly failure. To be sure, they had won the support of a few liberals chiefly concerned with civil liberties, but this gain had been more than nullified by the problems of cost and waste. No pamphlet paid for itself, distribution was haphazard, and agents seldom knew whether the thousands of tracts they scattered over the countryside were even read. Petitions, on the other hand, were economical and effective. As local and state societies took up the strategy in earnest, the number of petitions forwarded to Congress, twenty thousand in 1836, jumped to over three hundred thousand two years later. Petitions against the foreign-slave trade, petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, petitions against the admission of new slave states, even petitions asserting the right of petition. A deluge of signatures poured into Congress in a steadily increasing volume until the Senate and House of Representatives finally found a way to divert the flood they could not shut off.

At first Garrison supported the petition campaign with enthusiasm. He gave orders to Knapp “to make everything give way (communications, editorials, and all) to the debates in Congress upon the petitions.”13 Feverishly he directed their distribution and collection, and gloated over the increasing number of signatures. “Send me your petitions to Congress,” he ordered George Benson in January, 1836. “‘Keep the mill a-going,’ as the saying is. The blustering of the southern members in Congress is ludicrous enough. The knaves and cowards!”14 In April, when a bill for the admission of Arkansas stalled in the House, he hastily collected and forwarded petitions to keep it there. His enthusiasm waned, however, when the Southern caucus in Congress rallied to retaliate. As early as January, John C. Calhoun, sensing the need for a countermeasure against petitions, urged his colleagues to meet the danger now before it was too late. Thereupon he moved to table all anti-slavery petitions as “a foul slander on nearly one-half of the states of the Union.” After a heated debate Calhoun's motion was replaced by a compromise offered by James Buchanan of Pennsylvania which avoided outright denial of the right of petition by providing for the reception of all anti-slavery petitions coupled with a rejection of their contents. Buchanan's rule became standard Senate procedure for dealing with the abolitionists. The House had John Quincy Adams to contend with, and Adams waged a oneman war against the “gag rule.” Over his protests a special committee of the House reported three resolutions drawn up by its chairman, Henry Laurens Pinckney of South Carolina. The first denied the power of Congress to abolish slavery in the states; the second declared that slavery in the District of Columbia should be left alone; and the third provided that “all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers relating in any way to any extent to the subject of slavery shall, without being printed or referred, be laid upon the table and that no further action whatever be taken thereon.” The Pinckney gag became the first of a series of gag rules designed to meet the abolitionist challenge. Not even Adams's parliamentary skill could prevent this biennial infringement of civil liberties: a gag rule was passed at the beginning of each new session until finally, in 1845 at the height of the Mexican crisis, the last of them was repealed. By that time Garrison was well down the road to disunion in his retreat from politics—a withdrawal that began with the Pinckney resolutions in 1836.

From the White House, where Demon Democracy was to rule for four more years, and from a Congress dominated by apostate Pinckneys and Calhouns, Garrison turned hopefully to the church only to find theocratic conservatism in the person of Lyman Beecher in the pulpit. In 1836 Beecher still dreamed of a Christian America united in a single Protestant church, and he was still determined to ignore any social issue too thorny to be settled by love and charity. Beecher's difficulties proceeded from his bland assumption that no differences were too great to be reconciled by a strong and united church. He easily identified the chief dangers to the country—“political atheism,” “power-thirsty politicians,” “the corrupting influence of preeminent prosperity,” and “universality of the suffrage.” To combat these unwholesome influences he invoked the power of church institutions, an educated clergy, and, above all, the authority of the Bible. In the summer of 1836 he delivered a ringing defense of the divinity of the Sabbath as the moral sun of the universe and God's instrument for man's salvation. The fourth commandment, as he explained it, emerged as the sublime ordering principle of Christian life, a moral law enforced by a learned clergy and offering the only permanent solution to the problems of democratic society. Beecher's sermon sounded the call to the conservative clergy to meet the challenge of Garrison and his race of “impudent young men” whose defiance of church law and clerical authority presaged a new age of barbarism.

Garrison seized on Beecher's sermon as a lever with which to pry open the whole question of slavery and the church. It was not just that the good doctor's language was “extravagant and preposterous,” he complained. Beecher offered no Scriptural authority for the divinity of the Sabbath. Even more serious was Beecher's hidebound conservatism drawn from the letter of the law rather than the spirit of Christ, his program to make “the outward observance of one day of the week … of paramount importance to every thing else in the moral and spiritual world, instead of being subordinate and cooperative.”15 True Christianity required the “service of God, who is a spirit, and must be worshipped in spirit and in truth,” but Beecher and the theocrats believed that law might do the work of spirit. They were loud, earnest, and eloquent in behalf of the sanctity of institutions, yet timid and apprehensive on the question of human rights. “Let men consecrate to the service of Jehovah not merely one day in seven, but all their time, thoughts, actions and powers.” Not outward observance but inner light. “If men will put on Christ,” Garrison concluded, “they may be as free as their Master, and he is Lord even of the Sabbath day.”

These strictures not unnaturally stirred the New England clergy to wonder and protest. “Free as their Master”—did Garrison mean freedom from sin, the attainment of perfection? Letters poured into the Liberator office complaining of the editor's veiled language and deploring his apparently heretical notions. “As I anticipated, my remarks upon the sanctity of the Sabbath, in the Liberator, are subjecting me to much censure, particularly among the pious opposers of the anti-slavery cause,” Garrison remarked acidly. The New Hampshire Patriot, Vermont Chronicle, Christian Mirror, and Boston Recorder denounced him as a “monster” and an “infidel,” simply because he held that all time should be devoted to the service of God and the good of mankind, because he believed that “the real children of God ‘do enter into rest’ here on earth, without being necessitated to wait for a respite until eternity dawns.”16 Under fire from a hostile press and the conservatives in the Massachusetts Society, he agreed to leave the Sabbath question alone and return to anti-slavery. It was a promise he could not keep: his investigation of “that pernicious and superstitious notion” had precipitated a conflict with the churches that lasted his lifetime.

His estrangement from the church, like the retreat from politics, was the result of a profound disillusionment. He was convinced that the country needed more practical righteousness, more benevolent societies and good works. Instead of attacking slavery, capital punishment, the land problem, and the other social evils of the day, the churches and the clergy were indulging in doctrinal disputes, endless polemics and theological hairsplitting. As the Great Revival smoldered out there arose a new spirit of sectarian exclusiveness and denominationalism. The years after 1835 saw a clerical reaction to revivalism which produced rifts in all of the major Protestant denominations as the conservatives seized control of their churches once more. In 1837 after a series of heresy trials, the Old School Presbyterians finally succeeded in driving out over half of their membership for doctrinal deviation. The General Conference of the Methodist Church voted in 1836 to prohibit the discussion of slavery on the grounds that the only “safe, Scriptural and prudent way” for their members was “wholly to refrain from the agitating subject which is now convulsing the country.” The decision, which led Garrison to denounce the conference as “a cage of unclean birds, and a synagogue of Satan,” eventually provoked a number of desertions that culminated in the great secession of 1845. The Baptist Church suffered from similar desertions as the majority of their clergy showed little inclination to lead their congregations against slavery. Conservative forces and sectional pressures were beginning to crack the façade of Protestantism.

Garrison saw only the Christian logic of the situation. He had grown up with the evangelical beliefs that everything lay within the province of Christianity and that churches were God's agents for purifying society. Since evil was one, and all sins were related, the Christian solution meant applying Christian principles to daily life. It was as simple as that. As voluntary associations of true Christians the churches ought to lead the way in reforming society. Instead they were ignoring their responsibilities and neglecting all the “great subjects” of the age. “Oh the rottenness of Christendom,” he wrote to May. “Judaism and Romanism are the leading features of Protestantism. I am forced to believe that, as it respects the greater portion of professing Christians in this country, Christ has died in vain. In their traditions, their forms, their vain janglings, their self-righteousness, their will-worship, their sectarian zeal and devotion, their infallibility and exclusiveness, they are Pharisees and Sadducees, they are Papists and Jews.”17 Far from encouraging good works and personal holiness, the churches were erecting defenses against it by isolating their congregations from the world of sin and substituting worship for good works. The message of Christ was being buried beneath the rubble of ritualism. “We shall not be able to exclaim, ‘O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’ until we have died first unto sin—crucified the old man with his lusts—put on the new man who is after Christ—and risen in spirit with Him who is able to save all who believe in Him. He in whom the Saviour dwells can never be surprised by calamity or death—he has entered into rest, even while in the flesh.”18

“Putting on Christ,” “dying unto sin,” “entering into rest”—these were the concepts of perfectionism, the vocabulary of the preachers of human perfectibility. They were also the words of the Vermont visionary John Humphrey Noyes, who visited Garrison in the spring of 1837 and by converting him to perfectionism helped change the course of his anti-slavery crusade.

Christian perfectionism, the doctrine of personal holiness, taught that by accepting Christ men could become literally perfect. When men leave off sinning and accept Christ, so the perfectionists believed, henceforth it is Christ who acts in them and thus sin becomes an impossibility. In the routine of their daily lives they can achieve this sinlessness if they only want to, save their souls and at the same time regenerate society. Perfectionism erected a whole social ethic on the simple command, “Be ye perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and with it proposed to make heaven on earth.

Perfectionist doctrine appeared in many guises in the United States after 1830: in the preaching of Finney and his Oberlin followers; in the spiritual communings of zealots in New York's Burned-Over District; and, in its most complete form, in the teachings of John Humphrey Noyes. Although it seemed to reflect Jacksonian beliefs in progress and the mission of America, in reality perfectionism received its inspiration from the gospel of love and the Second Great Awakening. Its origins lay in the New Theology of Finney and the New Haven School and in the conviction that “obligation and ability are commensurate.” Its initial premise was the total freedom of man to follow Christ. Unlike Jacksonian Democracy with its laissez-faire principles, perfectionism was essentially exclusive, severe, and, in its final appeal, authoritarian. The perfectionists caught the vision of a holy life in the sermons of the Great Revival and, by focusing sharply on the experience of conversion, distorted the dream into a millenarian fantasy. As originally propounded by Finney, perfectionism meant simply a striving for holiness. Finney defined the true Christian as one who preferred the glory of God to his own selfish interests, and sanctification as “the strength, firmness and perpetuity of this preference.” By this he did not mean a state of absolute freedom from sin but only what he called an “assurance of faith” when men “habitually live without sin and fall into sin at intervals so few and far between that, in strong language, it may be said in truth they do not sin.” Thus perfection became for Finney an approximable goal rather than a final achievement—an ideal to be pursued but never completely attained. In this same spirit his followers at Oberlin preached perfectionism as a prolonged act of dedication and denounced as “misguided fanatics” those who “having begun in the spirit … try to become perfect in the flesh.” Such parading of one's purity seemed to them to savor more of carnal will than divine grace and a second blessing.

John Humphrey Noyes was perplexed by the halfway doctrines of Finney and the hesitant affirmations of the New Haven School. As a student at Yale he imbibed a draught of free will that sent his literalist mind spinning. If Christ is perfect and men are wholly free to follow his example, he reasoned, then they may become perfect not in a metaphorical sense of the word but in becoming actual partakers of the divine nature and sharing in Christ's victory over sin and death. “Faith identifies the soul with Christ,” he explained, “so that by His death and resurrection the believer dies and rises again, not literally, nor yet figuratively, but spiritually; and thus, so far as sin is concerned, is placed beyond the grave, in heavenly places with Christ.” Noyes had received his second blessing in a Leonard Street boardinghouse in New York where, in a fevered state and near insanity, he experienced a “spiritual crucifixion” not as spectator but as victim. “And at last the Lord met me with the same promise that gave peace to my soul when I first came out of Egypt: ‘if thou wilt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.’ By faith I took the proffered boon of eternal life. God's spirit sealed the act, and the blood of Christ cleansed me from sin.” Soon word spread through New Haven that “Noyes says he's perfect.”19 This indeed was the gist of the message which he came to Boston to tell Garrison.

At the time of his meeting with Garrison in 1837 Noyes was still working out the initial premises of his system. Communal living, common property, complex marriage were only hazy outlines on a shore dimly seen. What was already clear to Noyes, however, was the new relationship of the perfectionist to the society and the government of the United States, and this he proceeded to explain to Garrison, Whittier and Stanton. A week after the visit he sat down and put his views on paper for Garrison's benefit. Presuming on “a fellowship of views and feelings” which he had sensed at the interview, he went on to expound the question of the kingdom of God and its relation to the kingdom of this world. “I am willing that all men should know that I have subscribed my name to an instrument similar to the Declaration of '76, renouncing all allegiance to the government of the United States, and asserting the title of Jesus Christ to the throne of the world.”20 This was no metaphysical abstraction or dramatic gesture, he assured Garrison, but a flat statement of belief and a program for action. The United States government acted the bully swaggering about and trampling underfoot both the Constitution and the Bible, whipping slaves at the libertypole and blaspheming in holy places by proclaiming slavery a law of God. What then could the Christian do? Escape? “But every other country is under the same reprobate authority.” The only solution lay in “coming out” from an evil society, fleeing the country in spirit, and refusing to be either a hypocrite or a tyrant. “Every person who is, in the usual sense of the expression, a citizen of the United States, i.e., a voter, politician, etc., is at once a slave and a slaveholder—in other words a subject and a ruler.” God would justify him in the chracter of subject but not of ruler, Noyes explained, and only by renouncing all cooperation with the authorities of a sinful government could he finally cease to do evil and learn to do well. Reform was merely an illusion, since reprobation and reproof, as the history of the abolition movement showed, only aggravated the sins of the people. The sole choice left to the son of God was to declare war on the government of the United States and to wage it with the weapons of Christ—renunciation and repudiation.

In place of the erroneous axioms of American government Noyes offered Garrison some self-evident principles of his own. First, that the territory of the United States belongs to God, and the American people are guilty of infidelity in trying to perpetuate an existence outside the kingdom of Christ. Second, that all nations will be dashed to pieces before the arrival of the kingdom of God, and all governments therefore are merely “as shadows of good things to come. … The Son of God has manifestly, to me, chosen this country for the theater of such an assault. … My hope of the millennium begins where Dr. Beecher's expires—viz., At the Total Overthrow of this Nation.” The United States will fall before a revolution, “a convulsion like that of France,” out of which will come instead of a sanguinary Napoleon the Prince of Peace. “The convulsion which is coming will be, not the struggle of death, but the travail of childbirth—the birth of a ransomed world.” To prepare for the glorious day Noyes advised Garrison to give up his “fencing-school” skirmish against slavery and join the “general engagement” by occupying the ground of universal emancipation from sin. “I counsel you, and the people that are with you, if you love the post of honor—the forefront of the hottest battle of righteousness—to set your face toward perfect holiness. Your station is one that gives you power over the nations. Your city is on a high hill. … I judge from my own experience that you will be deserted as Jonah was by the whale—the world, in vomiting you up, will heave you upon the dry land.”

Garrison succumbed to this Messianic appeal with its devastatingly simple logic. Noyes made expediency and compromise cardinal sins by erecting an absolute standard of conduct with which to measure the slightest deviation from righteousness. The simplicity of perfectionism masked its authoritarian character, its oracular demand for total commitment to “practical holiness.” It was as though Noyes had explained and simplified all of Garrison's longings and desires. Perfectionism satisfied his need for order at the same time it released his tremendous energy. It offered the security of a seemingly consistent system free from confusing exceptions and apparent contradictions. It replaced reform with revolution complete with apocalyptic vision and millenarian myth. But there was an inherent paradox in perfectionism which Garrison failed to see. It defined goals and at the same time denied the authority of institutions through which these goals might be attained. It pointed out the good society and then refused permission to advance toward it. Agreeing on the nature of evil, the perfectionists were unwilling to employ the political power needed to wipe it out. As to both means and ends perfectionism postulated anarchy by reducing social wrongs to a question of personal sin and appealing not to community interest but to individual anxieties. Instead of rational appeals to self-interest or national welfare, it offered the jeremiad. In perfectionism, the revival doctrine of sanctification reached its outermost limits in the mystical cult of personal piety.

Inspired by Noyes and determined to bring all of his various reform interests under a single head, Garrison set to work adapting perfectionism to his own needs. Unlike Noyes, he could not lay claim to a “second blessing,” a regenerative experience which could raise a theological concept into an article of faith. He turned instead to the Bible which he knew so well and pored over the gospels of Paul and John for confirmation of Noyes's doctrines. “He that is born of God cannot commit sin.” “He that committeth sin is of the devil.” “There is therefore no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made us free from the law of sin and death.” Here was proof in abundance. Excited, he wrote to Henry Wright to share with him his discovery.

The remedy … will not be found in anything short of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ [he assured him]. Human governments will remain in violent existence as long as men are resolved not to bear the cross of Christ, and to be crucified unto the world. But in the kingdom of God's dear Son, holiness and love are the only magistracy. It has no swords, for they are beaten into plough-shares—no spears, for they are changed into pruning-hooks—no military academy, for the saints cannot learn war any more—no gibbet, for life is regarded as inviolate—no chains, for all are free. And that kingdom is to be established upon earth, for the time is predicted when the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of the Lord and of his Christ.21

In preparing for the Day of Judgment unregenerate politicians and corrupt democracy will inevitably fail. “Our doom as a nation is sealed,” he wrote in the Liberator to explain perfectionism to his readers. The day of probation is ended and we are not saved. Republican government is doomed, for the spirit of Christ has fled and left it “in a state of loathsome decomposition.”22

If the United States is destined to collapse, then why do the perfectionists preach repentance?—“of what avail will it be for any of us, in obedience to the command of heaven, to take a bunch of hyssop, and strike the lintel and side-posts of our dwellings with blood?” Garrison's reply was significant. “Because the Lord is to pass through the land, to redeem the captives and punish their oppressors; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintels and side-posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come into our houses to smite us.” At Judgment Day it will be every man for himself, and the righteous will be found with the angels.

Garrison's acceptance of perfectionism marked the ascendancy in his mind of personal salvation over social responsibility. Since its inception the anti-slavery movement had veered between the poles of individual purity and communal regeneration. Perfectionism destroyed the social force of abolition and left the Garrisonians grouped about the pole of sanctification like iron filings magnetized by the pull of holiness. His critics were right in complaining of the anarchical tendencies of perfectionism—the logical outgrowth of its principles was disunion and the denunciation of “the covenant with death.”

Meanwhile he occupied himself with the “great subject,” defining its terms in verse and trying to grasp the essentials of practical holiness. Perfection bestows eternal rest:

                    … It is to be
          Perfect in love and holiness;
From sin eternally made free;
          Not under law, but under grace;
Once cleansed from guilt, forever pure;
          Once pardoned, ever reconciled;
Once healed, to find a perfect cure;
          As Jesus blameless, undefiled;
Once saved, no more to go astray. …

The political implications of perfectionism he explained in a letter to Henry Wright, who was no less enthusiastic about Christian anarchy. “Human governments pre-suppose that the government of God is essentially defective—not sufficiently broad and comprehensive to apply to every action of life between man and man, and every exigency that may arise in national concerns. … But human government rests on a choice between two evils, both of which the gospel is designed to destroy.” Besides, human society cannot live in a state of anarchy without rapidly annihilating itself. “What then?” he asked Wright. “Shall we, as Christians, applaud and do homage to human government? Or shall we not rather lay the axe at the root of the tree, and attempt to destroy both cause and consequence together? Happy will it be for mankind, when He whose sole right it is to reign, shall come and reign.”23 Until that time he foresaw a long period of trial before he gained acceptance for these new truths. Unhappily, his own assignment of winning the assent of the American people seemed to require neither charity nor forbearance.


  1. William Lloyd Garrison to Anna Benson, November 27, 1835, Garrison Papers, Boston Public Library.

  2. William Lloyd Garrison to Samuel May, December 26, 1835, quoted in Life, II, 66.

  3. Liberator, February 27, 1836.

  4. Amos A. Phelps to William Lloyd Garrison, December 10, 1835, quoted in Life, II, 62-63. Garrison was prepared to condemn Channing's book before he read it. “Well, it is announced that the great Dr. Channing has published his thoughts upon the subject of slavery! of course, we must now all fall back, and ‘hide our diminished heads.’ The work I will not condemn until I peruse it; but I do not believe it is superior either in argument or eloquence to many of our own publications. … The hosts of abolitionists in Great Britain and this country have spoken and written in vain—but now Dr. Channing speaks, listen ye heavens! and give ear, oh earth! It was not in the power of Jesus Christ, but it is in the power of Dr. Channing, to rebuke sin and sinners, without exciting their ‘bad passions’! Wonderful!” Letter to Samuel J. May, December 5, 1835, Garrison Papers, Boston Public Library.

  5. Garrison's speech was reported in the Liberator and is quoted in Life, II, 104.

  6. Liberator, April 16, 1836.

  7. Liberator, December 20, 1834.

  8. Liberator, December 27, 1834.

  9. Liberator, December 20, 1834.

  10. William Lloyd Garrison to David Lee Child, August 6, 1836, Garrison Papers, Boston Public Library.

  11. William Lloyd Garrison to George Benson, April 10, 1836, quoted in Life, II, 82, fn.

  12. Liberator, October 29, 1836.

  13. William Lloyd Garrison to Henry Benson, January 16, 1836, quoted in Life, II, 84-85.

  14. William Lloyd Garrison to Geoge Benson, January 11, 1836, Garrison Papers, Boston Public Library.

  15. Liberator, July 23, 1836.

  16. William Lloyd Garrison to Effingham L. Capron, August 24, 1836, Garrison Papers, Boston Public Library.

  17. William Lloyd Garrison to Samuel J. May, September 23, 1836, Garrison Papers, Boston Public Library.

  18. William Lloyd Garrison to Henry Benson, December 17, 1836, Garrison Papers, Boston Public Library.

  19. For Noyes's own account of his religious experiences and an exposition of his theological as well as his social doctrine see Religious Experiences of John Humphrey Noyes, ed. George Wallingford Noyes (New York, 1923), chs. VII-XV.

  20. The quotation and the ones that follow are from Noyes's letter to Garrison, March 22, 1837, quoted in Life, II, 145-148.

  21. William Lloyd Garrison to Henry C. Wright, April 16, 1837, Garrison Papers, Boston Public Library.

  22. Liberator, July 28, 1837.

  23. Garrison's poem, “True Rest,” appeared in the Liberator, August 25, 1837. The quotations that follow are from the Liberator, June 23, 1837.

Howard Zinn (essay date 1965)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2523

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 skillful, a child who is extremely healthy—these represent laudable ideals. In politics, however, the label “extremist” carries unfavorable implications. It may mean that the person desires a change in the status quo which is more sweeping than that requested by most people. For instance, in a period when most people are willing to free the slaves, but not to enfranchise them, one wanting to give them equal rights would be considered an extremist. Or it may mean someone who urges a more drastic action to attain a goal shared by most people; that is, someone who advocates slave revolts (like John Brown) rather than compensated emancipation followed by colonization abroad (like Lincoln).

Yet, in any given political situation, there is a very large number of possible alternatives, both in desired goals and in the means of achieving them. The actual alternatives put forward in any one situation are usually much fewer than the total range of possibilities. And the most extreme suggestion put forward at the time will be labeled “extremist” even though it may be far less sweeping than other possible courses of action.

For instance, William Lloyd Garrison, looked upon both by his antagonists and by modern historians as an “extremist,” did not seek goals as far-reaching as he might have. He explained, around 1830, his stand for “immediate abolition” as follows: “Immediate abolition does not mean that the slaves shall immediately exercise the right of suffrage, or be eligible to any office, or be emancipated from law, or be free from the benevolent restraints of guardianship.” Yet the ideas of suffrage and office-holding were not too much for Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner—nor for Garrison—in 1865, when actual freedom had come for the slaves. …

The point is, that we are not precise in our standards for measuring “extremism.” We do not take into account all possible alternatives, in either goal or method, which may be more extreme than the one we are so labeling. This leads writers to call “extreme” any proposal more drastic than that favored by the majority of articulate people at the time (or by the writer). In a society where the word “extreme” has a bad connotation, in a literate community enamored by the Aristotelian golden mean, we often hurl that word unjustifiably at some proposal which is extreme only in a context of limited alternatives. …

If the notion of “extremism” is too nebulous to sustain a firm judgment on a goal or a tactic, how do we judge? One point of reference might be the nature and severity of the problem. Even that moderate, Lao Tzu, said you use a boat for a stream and a litter for a mountain path; you adapt your means to your problem. While more modest evils might be dislodged by a few sharp words, the elimination of slavery clearly required more drastic action. The abolitionists did not deceive themselves that they were gentle and temperate; they quite consciously measured their words to the enormity of the evil.

Garrison said in 1833: “How, then, ought I to feel and speak and write, in view of a system which is red with innocent blood drawn from the bodies of millions of my countrymen by the scourge of brutal drivers. … My soul should be, as it is, on fire. I should thunder, I should lighten, I should blow the trumpet of alarm long and loud. I should use just such language as is most descriptive of the crime.”

How evil was slavery? It was a complex phenomenon, different in every individual instance, with the treatment of slaves varying widely. But the whole range of variation was in a general framework of unspeakable inhumanity. Even at its “best,” slavery was a ferocious attack on man's dignity. It was described matter-of-factly by a supporter of the system, Judge Edmund Ruffin of North Carolina: “Such services can only be expected from one who has no will of his own; who surrenders his will in implicit obedience to another. Such obedience is the consequence only of uncontrolled authority over the body. There is no remedy. This discipline belongs to the state of slavery. … It constitutes the curse of slavery to both the bond and the free portion of our population. But it is inherent in the relation of master and slave.”

And at its worst, slavery was, as Allan Nevins has said: “… the greatest misery, the greatest wrong, the greatest curse to white and black alike that America has ever known.” Ads for fugitive slaves in the Southern press (5,400 advertisements a year) contained descriptions like the following to aid apprehension:

… Stamped N.E. on the breast and having both small toes cut off. … Has some scars on his back that show above the skin, caused by the whip. … Has an iron band around his neck. … Has a ring of iron on his left foot. … Has on a large neck iron, with a huge pair of horns and a large bar or band of iron on his left leg. … Branded on the left cheek, thus “R”, and a piece is taken off her left ear on the same side; the same letter is branded on the inside of both legs.

One plantation diary read: “… whipped every field hand this evening.” A Natchez slave who attacked a white man was chained to a tree and burned alive.

Against this, how mild Garrison's words seem.


The argument over the wisdom of radical agitation in the tactics of social reform was aptly expressed in Boston in pre-Civil War years by two leading figures. Samuel May, speaking of Garrison, said: “… he will shake our nation to its center, but he will shake slavery out of it.” Reverend Lyman Beecher said: “True wisdom consists in advocating a cause only so far as the community will sustain the reformer.” The agitator, declare the moderate reformers, shakes so hard that he makes compromise impossible, alienates friends, and delays rather than speeds the coming of reform.

Compromise was not disdained by the abolitionists; they were fully conscious of the fact that the outcome of any social struggle is almost always some form of compromise. But they were also aware of that which every intelligent radical knows: that to compromise in advance is to vitiate at the outset that power for progress which only the radical propels into the debate. Lowell put this most vividly, declaring that the abolitionists “are looked upon as peculiarly ungrateful and impracticable if they do not devote their entire energies to soliciting nothing, and express a thankfulness amounting almost to rapture when they get it.”

The abolitionist took an advanced position so that even if pushed back by compromise, substantial progress would result. Garrison wrote: “Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will be gradual abolition in the end.” And Phillips said: “If we would get half a loaf, we must demand the whole of it.” The Emancipation Proclamation itself was a compromise, the tortured product of a long battle between radicals and moderates in and out of the Lincoln administration, and only the compelling force of the abolitionist intransigeants made it come as soon as it did.

Two factors demand recognition by moderates who disdain “extreme” positions on the ground that compromise is necessary. One is the above-mentioned point that the early projection of an advanced position ensures a compromise on more favorable terms than would be the case where the timorous reformer compromises at the start (in which case the result is a compromise upon a compromise, since he will be forced to retreat even from his retreat after all the forces are calculated at the social weighing-in). The other is that there is a huge difference between the passive wisher-for-change who quietly adds up the vectors and makes a decision as to which is the composite of all existing forces, and the active reformer who pushes so hard in the course of adding-up that the composite itself is changed. The latter—the radical—is viewing compromise as a dynamic process, in which his own actions are part of the total force being calculated. He bases his estimate of what is possible on a graph in which his own action and its consequences are calculated from the first.


Does the agitator alienate potential allies by the extremism of his demands, or the harshness of his language? Lewis Tappan, the wealthy New Yorker who financed many abolitionist activities, wrote anxiously to George Thompson, the British abolitionist: “The fact need not be concealed from you that several emancipationists so disapprove of the harsh, and, as they think, the unchristian language of The Liberator, that they do not feel justified in upholding it.” This, in general, was the feeling of the Executive Committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society in the early years of the movement. Undoubtedly, the Society itself was not diverted from its aim of abolishing slavery because of Garrison's immoderation; they were concerned lest others be alienated.

But who? The slaveholder? The slave? The moderate reformer? The open-minded conservative? It needs to be acknowledged that different sections of the population will respond differently to the same appeal, and in judging the effect of bold words upon the population, this population must be broken up into parts, based on the varying degrees of receptivity to the ideas of the reformer. Why should the radical soften his language or his program to please that element of the population which cannot possibly be pleased by anything short of total surrender of principle, whose self-interest in fact dictates rejection of any reform? Lowell wrote: “The slaveholder, when Mr. Greeley would politely request him to state what method would be most consonant to his feelings, would answer, as did the … boy whose mother asked him what he would like for breakfast, ‘Just what you ain't gut!’”

Only the hypothesis of common interest for the entire population can justify an appeal to the opponent on the basis of reason, asking him to perceive his interest more accurately. But if in fact there is a diversity of interest, then the lighting up of the truth can only bring out more sharply that conflict which stands in the way of agreement. The slaveholders themselves pointed to the impossibility of their being won over by moderate overtures. In 1854, the editor of the Richmond Enquirer, wrote: “That man must be a veritable verdigreen who dreams of pleasing slaveholders, either in church or state, by any method but that of letting slavery alone.” William Ellery Channing tried such appeal and failed. One of his brochures against slavery was so mild that some described it as putting people to sleep, but he was abused so harshly it might as well have been one of Garrison's flamebreathing Liberator editorials.

With a population of diversified interests, tactics must be adapted and focused specially for each group, and for the group most inimical to reform, it is doubtful that moderation is effective. With the intransigeants, it may be only the most powerful action that impels change. It was Nat Turner's violent slave revolt in Virginia in 1831 that led the Virginia legislature into its famous series of discussions about the abolition of slavery. “For a while indeed,” Ralph Korngold writes, “it seemed that what years of propaganda by the Quakers had failed to accomplish would come as a result of Turner's bloodletting.”

When friends of the reformers rail against harsh words or strong action (as the American Anti-Slavery Society did against Garrison) it is clear that they themselves will not be put off from reform because of it, but fear the effects on others. And if neither extreme opposition nor hard-and-fast friends can be moved by tactics of moderation, this leaves, as a decisive group, that large part of the population which is at neither end of the ideological spectrum, which moves back and forth across the center line, depending on circumstances.

Garrison was quite aware that most of the American population to which he was appealing was not sympathetic with his views, and he was completely conscious of how distant were his own fiery convictions from those of the average American. But he was persuaded, as were Phillips and other leading abolitionists (John Brown felt it, and acted it, if he did not express it intellectually) that only powerful surges of words and feelings could move white people from their complacency about the slave question. He said once in Philadelphia: “Sir, slavery will not be overthrown without excitement, a most tremendous excitement.” He must lash with words, he felt, those Americans who had never felt the whip of a slaveowner. To his friend Samuel May, who urged him to keep more cool, saying: “Why, you are all on fire,” Garrison replied: “Brother May, I have need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt.”

We have the historical record as a check on whether the vituperative language of Garrison, the intemperate appeals of Wendell Phillips, hurt or advanced the popular sentiment against slavery. In the 1830's a handful of men cried out against slavery and were beaten, stoned, and shot to death by their Northern compatriots. By 1849, antislavery sentiment was clearly increasing, and some of the greatest minds and voices in America were speaking out for abolition. Lowell asked curtly of those who charged the abolitionists with retarding the movement: “… has there really been a change of public opinion for the worse, either at the North or the South, since the Liberator came into existence eighten years ago?” And by 1860, with millions of Americans convinced that slavery was an evil, open insurrection by John Brown brought more public support than had the mere words of Garrison thirty years before.

This is not to say that extremists may not drive possible allies from their movement. But this is generally not because of the ferocity of their attack on an institution which is the object of general dislike, but because of their insertion of other issues which do not touch public sensibilities as much. Theodore Weld, an effective Midwestern abolitionist, who was marvelous at organizing abolitionist societies in Ohio, criticized Garrison for his violent attacks on the clergy, for his anarchist utterances against government in general, and for his insistence on bringing many other issues—women's rights, pacifism, etc.—into the antislavery fight. For marginal supporters, such side issues may bring alienation. Whether such estrangement would be significant enough to offset the general social value of having one important issue ride on the back of another, is another question.

George M. Fredrickson (essay date 1968)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3203

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 often was challenged even there). Furthermore, the influence of his brand of abolitionism upon Northern opinion, which never was very great, did not increase with time. His refusal to endorse political activity left him outside the mainstream antislavery efforts of the 1840's and 1850's that resulted in the Free Soil movement and influenced the founding of the Republican Party. But despite these facts and their use by historians in an attempt to discredit the “myth” of Garrison's influence, he remains, and deservedly so, the central figure in the crusade against slavery.

Part of the mystery about Garrison's significance may be resolved by reviewing the facts surrounding his emergence from obscurity. Born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1805, Garrison grew up fatherless and poor. His father, a sailing master with a penchant for strong drink, abandoned the family in 1808. Raised by his mother and by foster parents, he received little formal schooling and eventually was apprenticed to a printer. Educating himself as he set type, Garrison soon became a part-time journalist and then, in 1825, the editor of a weekly newspaper. Unsuccessful in this role, he next moved into the new field of reform journalism, which was developing in the late 1820's as a result of the rise of a variety of benevolent societies and of crusades for human betterment.

In 1828, while editing the National Philanthropist, a Boston temperance organ, he met Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker opponent of slavery. Garrison then decided that the cause of the slave was a better center for his reform interests than Demon Rum and agreed to go to Baltimore to become acting editor of Lundy's paper, The Genius of Universal Emancipation. Lundy was a supporter of the movement to bring about gradual emancipation through colonizing freed Negroes abroad, but Garrison, although initially accepting this program, soon concluded that the only suitable antislavery platform was immediate emancipation without colonization. In taking this position, he was influenced by the situation in Britain, where the movement for emancipation in the West Indies was triumphing under the slogan “immediate emancipation.” As editor of The Genius, Garrison took a hard line against slavery and its supporters and eventually was jailed for allegedly libeling a ship owner engaged in the coastal slave trade. The libel judgment brought an end to the joint venture with Lundy, and after forty-nine days in confinement, Garrison returned to Boston, where he began publishing his own antislavery journal, the Liberator, in January, 1831.

The Liberator was a new departure in the antislavery movement. There had been opposition to slavery previously—much of it a carry-over from the Revolutionary era, when slavery had come under attack as incompatible with the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. But this earlier opposition had been linked, in most cases, with the belief that the two races could not live together in freedom and that emancipation therefore must be gradual and accompanied by the removal of free Negroes from the country. In the Liberator, in his speeches, and in his book Thoughts on African Colonization (1832), Garrison berated the colonizationists as being, at best, men of little faith and, at worst, covert supporters of slavery. He was not the first antislavery spokesman to attack colonization, but he was the first to make an impression. He wrote in the introductory issue of the Liberator, “I will be heard.” And heard he was, largely as the result of a harsh and uncompromising mode of expression that publicized his cause through its shock effect and its power to arouse violent opposition. In this way—and perhaps this was the only possible way—he raised the slavery issue in a new form and forced philanthropists and reformers to re-examine their premises. Can we live another moment, he asked, with such a crime as slavery? Does not colonization mean in effect the indefinite prolongation of this curse? Can we be true to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and also say that the Negro can never be made the equal of the white man as long as he remains within the United States? By asking questions of this sort with a new urgency, Garrison exposed the moral core of the problem as no one else had done. And he succeeded in altering the course of the antislavery movement by reducing colonization to irrelevance.

This work accomplished, he continued to emphasize the moral dimension, while other men, stimulated by Garrison's initiative to act against slavery, discussed the tactical problems of the movement. The American Anti-Slavery Society, which Garrison helped found in 1833, split in 1840, largely because Garrison insisted on combining feminism and radical pacifism with the crusade against slavery and because other abolitionists were now turning to the kind of overt political activity that he opposed on principle. This schism severely limited Garrison's influence on organized antislavery, but he kept up his agitation. In the 1840's and 1850's, he attacked the Constitution and called for Northern secession from the Union, a position that put him on the extreme left of the antislavery movement but served the function of dramatizing the moral urgency of the cause. Garrison's persistent refusal to come down to the level of practical problems and political exigencies, as well as his tendency to extend the logic of reform into other areas, caused most other abolitionists to part company with him at one time or another. But his primacy as instigator of the movement was unchallenged, and he continued up to the time of emancipation to play an indispensable role as a moral gadfly, keeping the ideal ever in sight of those engaged in confronting the actual.

Besides being the prime mover in freeing abolitionism from the fetter of the colonization scheme and raising it to the level of a colorblind Declaration of Independence, Garrison is important because of the intense opposition he aroused. The South, which was already firmly committed to the defense of slavery before Garrison appeared on the scene, saw him as a real threat, on the erroneous assumption that he had a substantial and growing body of Northern opinion behind him. Impelled by a combination of fear and guilt, Southern extremists strengthened the supports of slavery, launched a militant defense of the institution as “a positive good,” and began to argue for its territorial extension. This in turn led Northerners who were offended by the extremism of Garrison to view the South as an aggressive enemy of American (that is, Northern) institutions. The opposition he aroused in the North led to another form of indirect influence; mob action against Garrison and his supporters, like that which took place in Boston in 1835, led prominent Northern moderates to see a danger to civil liberties in efforts to suppress the abolitionists, and their concern for minority rights brought them into alliance, for some purposes, with antislavery zealots whom they otherwise would have spurned. Although Garrison did not guide and control Northern opinion, his initial uncompromising stand helped set off the emotional chain reaction that led to the Civil War and the destruction of slavery.

Since Garrison was the embodiment of the original abolitionist impulse, the question of his motivation and source of inspiration becomes an inescapable problem for anyone desiring to understand the coming of the Civil War. Efforts have been made to describe the abolitionists as disturbed personalities and to characterize the whole antislavery movement in terms of psychological abnormalities. Without doubt, Garrison was self-righteous, dogmatic, lacking in a sense of humor, and prone to think of himself as a martyr to truth in an unbelieving world. In many situations such traits would raise serious questions about a person's mental balance. Yet in Garrison's case, one could argue, they were not fundamentally out of tune with reality, for slavery was an evil to which moral outrage and dogmatic judgment were not inappropriate responses. In addition, those aspects of the Garrisonian posture and style that are hardest for the modern mind to accept were natural results of his education and background. In other words, Garrison successfully internalized a role that his heritage and upbringing clearly favored. Intellectual criticisms may be directed at his mode of thought and action by those whose values differ from his, but the world view it reflected may not be described as a product of personal maladjustment.

The key factor in Garrison's background was the piety and millenarianism spawned in New England by the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century. In the 1740's and 1750's, the American colonies had seen a religious upheaval that gave rise to hopes for an American millennium; zealots of the Awakening had envisioned the transformation of the world through mass conversions and through the organization of an army of believers to crush out the forces of sin and false religion. There resulted a mentality that could easily veer from universal benevolence to uncompromising hatred for the sinner and the hypocrite. This spirit did not die quickly, but continued cropping up in various ways, providing fuel for further awakenings well into the nineteenth century. The radical and individualistic side of the Awakening was preserved most fully in the New England Baptists, many of whom originally had separated from Congregational churches they considered impure or under the guidance of unconverted ministers. Garrison's mother Fanny had been a Baptist convert, a decision that took all the courage of the “come-outer” who is willing to break traditional ties, for it resulted in her being turned out of the house forever by her Episcopalian father. She then had raised her son in the demanding faith and thirst for personal purity that her religious experiences had inculcated. As a young apprentice, Garrison was distinguished from his fellows by a piety that at one point led him to think seriously of becoming a missionary. The essence of his inherited faith was a refusal to compromise with sin, as well as a belief that the millennium would come through the spread of a pure and literal Christianity. Such a gospel was at the heart of Garrison's abolitionist doctrines. From this orientation came his doctrine of “nonresistance,” his denial of the authority of all earthly governments, and his rejection of a Constitution that countenanced slavery as “a covenant with Death and an agreement with Hell.” The kind of behavior on the part of Garrison and his followers that more moderate abolitionists found most objectionable was strikingly like the behavior of the extremists of the Great Awakening. When the Garrisonians disrupted religious services and called for parishioners to “come out” of proslavery churches, they were following the precedent of the “come-outers” of the previous century. When they attacked the clergy and moderate antislavery men as having impure hearts, they echoed the evangelical attacks upon the “unconverted ministry.”

All this, of course, was not simply atavism. It was in tune with important contemporary currents of thought. Given his predispositions, Garrison responded in turn to evangelical crusades like the temperance and peace movements, to an antislavery enterprise that even in its colonization phase had a religious character, and finally, in the late 1830's, to the radical Perfectionism of John Humphrey Noyes, the Christian utopian who believed that the Second Coming already had taken place and that the man of faith could be free from sin and the Law. It seems clear that Garrison can best be understood in religious terms, as a militant Christian anarchist and a legitimate offspring of the left wing of American Protestantism.

Yet Garrison's faith, as extended to include literal acceptance of the Sermon on the Mount and the doctrine of nonresistance to evil, was subject to a severe testing when it came to the question of slave rebellion. It may well be that the aspect of Garrison's thought that is most significant and relevant in our present circumstances is his confronting as a pacifist the reality or possibility of Negro violence. During most of his career, Garrison opposed on principle all use of force. At times, he counseled Southern slaves to be patient and to await the triumph of moral influences. Nevertheless, he could speak approvingly of actual slave revolts, and in 1859 he endorsed John Brown's raid in a manner that set the stage for his support of the Civil War as an antislavery enterprise. There is a certain irreducible inconsistency in his discussions of insurrection and the use of force against slavery, but not as much as is generally supposed. A close reading of Garrison's discussion of insurrection reveals an interesting, if not wholly satisfactory, effort to resolve the dilemma of the pacifist who sympathizes with the victims of oppression.

Garrison recognized, first of all, that slavery itself was a form of violence directed against the Negro. He hoped, undoubtedly, to end slavery by moral suasion but, with all his belief in human perfectibility, was not absolutely certain that this would happen. Another part of his religious heritage recognized divine judgments upon sinful nations, and he never ruled out the possibility that slavery would go down in blood as a judgment upon those who had refused to heed a moral appeal. (It was in precisely these terms that he was to support the Northern effort in the Civil War.) Certain that the violence of the oppressor led inevitably to the violence of the oppressed, Garrison felt justified in calling attention, as part of his effort to convince slaveholders of the need for immediate steps toward emancipation, to the danger of slave insurrection. In believing that such an appeal would be effective, he grossly underestimated the tenacity of the Southern commitment to slavery; if anything, his appeals contributed to increased coercion in the South. His belief that oppression leads inevitably to resistance might also be questioned on the ground that oppression can be so severe that there is little or no chance for rebellion, as seems, by and large, to have been the case with Southern slavery. But Garrison lived in a revolutionary world not totally unlike our own, and he could not escape thinking in terms of revolutionary precedents. The French and the American revolutions at the end of the previous century had been followed by the European uprisings of 1830, and Garrison was clearly in sympathy with the results of these movements if not with their methods. He pointed out in a speech to a free Negro audience in 1831:

The signs of the times do indeed show forth great and glorious and sudden in changes in the condition of the oppressed. The whole firmament is tremulous with an excess of light; the earth is moved out of its place; the wave of revolution is dashing to pieces ancient and mighty empires; the hearts of tyrants are beginning to fail them for fear; and for looking forward to those things which are to come upon earth.

Believing, as he did, that the millennium would come only with the abjuration of the use of force in all its forms, he wished to take a personal stand based upon the pure ideals of the Coming Kingdom, but he made clear where his sympathies would be in the case of an actual slave rebellion. As he pointed out in his speech on John Brown, “Wherever there is a contest between the oppressed and the oppressor,—the weapons being equal between the parties,—God knows my heart must be with the oppressed, and always against the oppressor.” He went on, in that speech, to argue that the use of force by those striving for elemental freedom was actually a step in the direction of “the sublime platform of non-resistance,” because it was “God's way of dealing retribution on the head of the tyrant” and would presumably lead to conditions that would make the use of force unnecessary. “Rather than see men wear their chains in a cowardly and servile spirit,” he concluded, “I would, as an advocate of peace, much rather see them breaking the head of the tyrant with their chains. Give me, as a non-resistant, Bunker Hill, and Lexington, and Concord, rather than the cowardice and servility of a slave plantation.” With statements like these Garrison continually challenged the consistency of the American majority, which reverenced the American Revolution and was sympathetic to the recent European uprisings but regarded a slave rebellion as a monstrous crime. He maintained over and over again that only a man like himself who had rejected the authority of a government that condoned slavery, and was thereby disassociated from the machinery of oppression, had a moral right to condemn slave resistance. Indeed only a people that collectively had ceased to practice violence against the Negro in the form of slavery had a right to expect anything but violence from the Negro.

Although Garrison condoned or even welcomed slave uprisings as better than subservience to tyranny, he clearly and unequivocally ruled out the use of force, public or private, to right the inequities of a society like that of the North, which was based on “free institutions.” He recognized that Northern free Negroes suffered from discrimination and segregation, but to them he counseled only “Christian resignation” and “self-help” in an effort to win the approval and respect of their white neighbors. When confronting English Chartists and other labor radicals, he made clear his belief that the grievances of the working men did not constitute “industrial slavery” and were no cause for new forms of collective action. In the first issue of the Liberator, he denied the existence of conflict between wealth and poverty, or between labor and capital, and demonstrated his faith in an industrial order held together by the benevolence of the rich and the cultivation of Protestant virtues by the poor. Hence, Garrison's oblique support of revolution was limited to revolution against flagrant political despotism, whether of a European king or of a Southern plantation owner. He foresaw no possible need for revolutionary action in a formally democratic and egalitarian society in which, despite occasional harassment of those with unpopular opinions, there were freedom of expression and the possibility of influencing men's minds through peaceful agitation.

Garrison's implicit theory of progress was, therefore, a three-stage affair. From despotism, a people moved up to a republican laissez-faire society, generally but regrettably through the use of force; from this formally democratic society, a genuinely free society without government or coercion emerged, brought about by the peaceful agitation and moral suasion that was now possible. What Garrison could not foresee before 1861, and failed to recognize thereafter, was that history was not moving in the millennial direction he had charted for it, and that subtler forms of oppression would develop in the bosom of a slaveless republic that would raise new doubts as to whether entrenched injustice could be eliminated by appeals to conscience and morality.

Aileen S. Kraditor (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8115

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 the periphery of the movement and only later was joined by conservative abolitionist leaders. Both radicals and conservatives recognized the crucial importance of ministers in molding public opinion, and this recognition accounts both for the attempts to discredit the clergy and for the efforts to conciliate it. Both principle and expediency dictated a switch toward a more conciliatory policy on the part of some of those conservatives at the same time as Garrison and some of his supporters were adopting more and more heretical views on religion.

That development represented a divergence from a common starting point; both the conservative and the radical factions had accepted the principles stated in the AASS constitution that slavery was a “heinous crime in the sight of God” and immediate emancipation a duty. Certain corollaries of those principles were not spelled out but were accepted by all the early abolitionists: that the guilt of slaveowning and the obligation to repent were individual, not collective, responsibilities; and that the aim of abolitionist agitation was to induce innumerable individual conversions very similar to those that the religious evangelists were inducing.

Neither faction ever dropped those principles. Those abolitionists, such as John A. Collins, who adopted collectivistic social philosophies, and others, such as Henry B. Stanton, whose activity became primarily political, drifted out of the organized antislavery movement. To those who remained within it, albeit in rival organizations, the duty of immediate emancipation remained a normative principle and never a prediction or program of action. As a normative principle, however, it was susceptible to quite contrary applications. To the conservatives it remained compatible with a social philosophy that accepted conventional religious and political institutions and beliefs. It led certain others to increasingly radical attitudes toward those institutions and beliefs. The controversy over the woman question exposed the incipient differences and caused them to become more explicit and more fully thought out, till the woman question was pushed into the background and the factional fight centered on the religious issue itself.

The development of Garrison's thinking can be traced in the pages of The Liberator. One can see the embryo of his later nonresistance in an editorial at the end of 1835 in which he condemned all penal enactments as essentially retaliatory and contrary to the principle of reliance on God. Followers of Christ, said Garrison, “ought never to trust in an arm of flesh for protection, but should wholly ‘cease from man’—ought never to prosecute, or imprison, or put to death, for any injury done to them by their enemies.”1 Seven months later he contended that the Sabbath was not authorized in the New Testament. He did not oppose Sabbath observance, but he argued that exaggeration of the importance of outward ceremonies fostered neglect of “weightier matters”; and he especially opposed attempts to force its observance. The following month, he inveighed against defensive war, and here he used the term non-resistance. Two issues later he denounced a Vermont paper for justifying the mobbing of Fanny Wright. Society could not, he proclaimed, protect itself by cutting off free speech, and he asked whether truth must use weapons such as fines and prisons to defeat error.2 It will be noted that two themes run through all these editorials: reliance on divine rather than human defenses against evil, and an exaltation of freedom of speech for everyone including those on the side of error.3

Henry C. Wright too was combining these themes into a single religious principle at the same time as Garrison, although their formulations differed somewhat in emphasis and considerably in practical application. Wright's received full exposition in his debate with “Alethea” in the columns of The Liberator in the middle of 1837.4 “Alethea” wrote protesting Wright's lesson to children that God had given man no dominion over man, and he inferred that Wright's doctrine would abolish all human government. Wright replied that the Bible was his only lawbook; whatever human laws a man was obliged to obey derived their authority from God, not from human legislatures. He would, therefore, not abolish any human government based on gospel principles.

Garrison entered the debate in the issue of June 23. He argued that human governments were the result of defiance of God's commands. They were, however, to be preferred over anarchy, in the same way as a hailstorm was preferable to an earthquake. He obviously knew that his advocacy of the abolition of coercive government would not make that government disappear in the foreseeable future; his statement of the principle, like the abolitionists' statement of the principle that immediate emancipation was obligatory, was the promulgation of a truth, a normative doctrine, and not the advocacy of a program of action. This is clear from his statement that to ask whether society must not restrain criminals was to beg the question:

It is assuming that a government of men may sin economically for individuals. It is simply a choice between two evils, both of which the gospel is designed to remedy. It is asking, whether men who are resolved to be intemperate, had not better be persuaded to drink wine, instead of whiskey.

To the objection that the alternative to coercive government was anarchy, he replied:

Wicked men must and will have laws to control one another. They will not forgive each other's trespasses. … So that it is idle to talk of a government ceasing to exist over a sinful people; for their very disobedience renders it necessary, until they are willing to submit to Christ. What then? Shall we, as Christians, applaud and do homage to human government? Or shall we not rather lay the axe at the root of the tree, and attempt to destroy both cause and consequence, together?

Those who, like Birney,5 later announced that Garrison would make their wives and daughters the undefended prey of every rapist had already been refuted: an integral part of Garrison's doctrine was the tenet that coercion of criminals would not disappear until crime itself did, since both forms of coercion, that of the government and that of the criminal, went together as two forms of one sin. He never thought that his preaching would weaken the vigilance of the constabulary. Its object was to destroy the illusion that coercive government was consistent with gospel principles, for that illusion helped to prevent men from seeing the cause of the crime that coercive government was intended to prevent.

Less than two months later the clerical protests over women's public activity began to appear and with them the question of the relation of Garrison's religious radicalism to the abolitionist movement. Clerical Protest No. 2, signed by the Revs. Charles Fitch and Joseph H. Towne, who claimed to speak for nine tenths of New England abolitionists, stated that The Liberator was the organ of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. In the same issue two officials of the society addressed a letter to the public, pointing out that The Liberator, although supported by the society, was not its organ and that Fitch, a member of the board, should have sought redress from the board if he thought it was endorsing Garrison's opinions as expressed in the paper. He had, however, never complained before this.6 Clerical Protest No. 3 followed soon after, as did a plea from John Greenleaf Whittier for mutual love, and another blast at the clergy by Henry C. Wright.7 Wright, like Garrison, denied that he had ever denounced the clerical office itself. That office, he asserted, had been created by Christ, but most men who now occupied it were unfit for it, because they endorsed the use of force.8

Recent scholarly works have contended that once Garrison had adopted nonresistance and other radical causes he insisted on preaching their tenets from antislavery platforms and tried to transform the abolitionist societies into nonresistance and universal reform societies.9 The Elijah Lovejoy episode shows this is not so. By the time of the riot in November 1837, when Lovejoy, an abolitionist editor in Alton, Illinois, was shot down by a proslavery mob, many prominent New England abolitionists had decided that all force was un-Christian, and they were, accordingly, as shocked at Lovejoy's having defended his press and his life as they were by his murder. The Unitarian minister Samuel J. May, for one, criticized The Emancipator, organ of the AASS, for not having condemned Lovejoy's resort to force.10 One reason, which May later offered, why the society should disavow Lovejoy's action deserves special note:

Now that we have become a numerous body, and of great consequence, by reason of our numbers, in the estimation of the political parties—now let us be especially careful in our adherence to our principles. Else shall we find men rushing into our ranks who have not put on Christ—men who have not considered or do not understand the reasons by which he purposes to overthrow the empire of sin; and such fellow-laborers will soon involve our country in servile and civil war.11

Garrison defended The Emancipator. He was as much a nonresistant as was his friend May, but he had a clearer conception of the tactical needs of the abolitionist movement. He pointed out that most members of the society approved of self-defense and that The Emancipator was their organ as well as that of the nonresistant members. He further argued that it was not the province of the leadership of the association to condemn Lovejoy for having fought.12 Here the leader of the alleged scheme to transform the antislavery societies into nonresistance societies was trying to convince his own supporter that the organization must remain neutral on the question of nonresistance.

This episode suggests that Garrison would make a sharp distinction between the antislavery organization and a movement that would work for what he felt were the other reforms required by a true reading of the Christian message. He would have been the last to suggest that abolition of slavery was not intimately related to peace, equality of the sexes, and the abolition of forms and ceremonies that had, he believed, been illegitimately imposed on Christian worship. On the contrary, to him these were all parts of the single divine Truth, and abolition of slavery was only one step toward universal brotherhood. But precisely because the changes he favored were so sweeping and so unpopular, he insisted on an organizational distinction between abolitionism and his other causes, and he continued trying to keep them separate as long as there remained any chance of unity between the radicals and the more conservative abolitionists.13

At the same time The New England Spectator, which on several occasions took positions that conservative abolitionists adopted later, resorted to a tactic that anti-Garrisonians within the societies did not yet adopt. In its editorial “Errors of Influential Men,” which Garrison reprinted in his “Refuge of Oppression” column, the department reserved for “proslavery” material, The Spectator deplored the recent falling off of church attendance by Boston Negroes and thought it had found the reason:

One who has shown himself the ardent and untiring friend of the colored man, sets lightly by the Sabbath, the house of God, and the divine ambassadors of the Prince of Peace. One day with him is as good as another. He neglects the house of God on that sacred day, and does his own pleasure, by attending to avocations which belong to other days, and not exclusively to the worship of God. … He has no reverence for the ministerial office, but holds that one has as good a right to preach as another. … Christian friends, is it not time for something to be done, not to destroy this man's influence in favor of the oppressed, but to counteract the influence of his errors which go to ruin souls?

Garrison reprinted the reply he had sent to The Spectator. He said, among other things, that The Spectator had known his views for a long time and that his attitude toward the Sabbath was the same as that of Calvin and other religious reformers as well as the Quakers. Yet it had said nothing till recently. He inferred that its “new-born zeal for the Sabbath” was personal hostility and the desire to suppress The Liberator. He insisted that he now complained not of this

affected regard for the Sabbath. I complain of your holy impertinence and pharisaical proscription being manifested upon abolition ground. I complain of you for attempting to introduce sectarian tenets and denominational strifes into the cause of bleeding humanity.—Again, see that you apprehend my meaning. I do not say that, because you are professedly engaged in the antislavery enterprise, you are obligated to suppress your sentiments on other subjects. No. Vindicate the Sabbath, if you will; extol the “Christian ordinances,” and eulogize the clergy, as often as you desire. But do so in your character as an orthodox congregationalist, not as an abolitionist. You are false to the agreement which binds us together as friends of immediate emancipation, and which makes us all One in the cause of liberty, notwithstanding our religious and political differences, in pointing the finger of sectarian reproach at a brother.

He then recounted a recent incident in which a clerical abolitionist, speaking at a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Worcester, had announced that Garrison had never publicly professed his religious creed and habitually neglected Christian ordinances. He, for one, would not work with those who did not go for the Sabbath and the ministry. Garrison now wrote that if he had retorted on that occasion that he would not work with a man who thought only one of the seven days ought to be kept holy, humanity would have charged him with having abandoned her sacred cause. After a long exposition of what he did believe in regard to the Sabbath, the ministry, and the church, Garrison demanded to know by what espionage The Spectator had learned how often he neglected public worship; who kept tally? Later in his letter he wrote that he might have ignored this libel but for the fact that it libeled his Negro friends as well. He believed a larger proportion of them went to church than formerly, but he had not inquired. Furthermore, very few of them knew his views on the Sabbath, and he had not discussed such questions with any of them; nor were they influenced by his opinions on that subject. The Spectator insulted them by implying that they could not tell who their friends were. For many years many ministers had told them the American Colonization Society was worthy of their support, but they had known better.14

The beginning of 1838 saw the end of the Massachusetts Society's subsidy of The Liberator, and the paper, now unambiguously Garrison's personal organ, was free to discuss all the implications of his philosophy.15 In the issue of December 15, 1837 (and again in later issues), he published the “Prospectus of The Liberator. Volume VIII.” “In entering upon our eighth volume,” he wrote,

the abolition of slavery will still be the grand object of our labors, though not, perhaps, so exclusively as heretofore. There are other topics, which, in our opinion, are intimately connected with the great doctrine of inalienable human rights; and which, while they conflict with no religious sect, or political party, as such, are pregnant with momentous consequences to the freedom, equality and happiness of mankind. These we shall discuss as time and opportunity may permit.

In addition to the paper's old motto, “Our country is the world—our countrymen are all mankind,” he would offer a new one: “Universal Emancipation.”

Up to this time, we have limited its application to those who are held in this country … as marketable commodities. … Henceforth, we shall use it in its widest latitude: the emancipation of our whole race from the dominion of man, from the thraldom of self, from the government of brute force, from the bondage of sin—and bringing them under the dominion of God, the control of an inward spirit, the government of the law of love, and into the obedience and liberty of Christ. …

Next to the overthrow of slavery, the cause of Peace will command our attention. … If a nation may not redress its wrongs by physical force—if it may not repel or punish a foreign enemy who comes to plunder, enslave or murder its inhabitants—then it may not resort to arms to quell an insurrection, or send to prison or suspend upon a gibbet any transgressors upon its soil. If the slaves of the South have not an undoubted right to resist their masters in the last resort, then no man, or body of men, may appeal to the law of violence in self-defence—for none have ever suffered, or can suffer, more than they. …

As to the governments of this world, … we shall endeavor to prove, that, in their essential elements, and as at present administered, they are all Anti-Christ; that they can never, by human wisdom, be brought into conformity to the will of God; that they cannot be maintained, except by naval and military power; that all their penal enactments being a dead letter without an army to carry them into effect, are virtually written in human blood; and that the followers of Jesus should instinctively shun their stations of honor, power and emolument—at the same time “submitting to every ordinance of man, for the Lord's sake,” and offering no physical resistance to any of their mandates, however unjust or tyrannical. …

If the Lord's Prayer is not a mockery, he asked, and his will is to be done on earth and there is to be no statute book but the Bible, then must not Christians come out and be separate from the kingdoms of this world, which are all based on violence? How can the wickedness of men be overcome? By loving one's enemies and resisting not evil, by ceasing to look to man for redress of grievance. If, as all abolitionists agreed, the slaves were not justified in appealing to force, how could anyone be, unless the distinction were founded on difference of color?16 Universal emancipation, he added, implied the emancipation of woman, and therefore The Liberator would support “the Rights of Woman to their utmost extent.” Garrison added that readers who disagreed with these principles were welcome to use The Liberator's columns for their replies, and he stressed that the abolitionist movement was not to be held answerable for his opinions.

The technical independence of The Liberator was, however, a subtlety that many people could not, and quite a few would not, grasp. When later in the year one of his supporters wrote to Garrison that as an adherent of both the abolitionist and nonresistance movements she would like to see the latter have its own journal, he concurred.17The Liberator of February 1, 1839, announced publication of the first number of The Non-Resistant.

A few months earlier the New England Non-Resistance Society was founded at a three-day convention that according to Garrison would be

destined to become more memorable in history, than the famous “three days in Paris.” They will constitute an important chapter in the annals of Christianity. Mankind shall hail the twentieth of September with more exultation and gratitude, than Americans now do the fourth of July. This may now be regarded as solemn bombast, but it is prophetical, and shall not fail to be fulfilled.18

Garrison was sometimes a perceptive prophet, but in this instance he was only half right.

Garrison kept his promise; The Liberator freely discussed the peace question, as well as other controversial issues, in the ensuing years. As always he welcomed letters arguing positions contrary to his own, and as a result the paper in those years is a fascinating archive of sources on the religious and social speculations of the antebellum generation. One topic of continuing debate was the so-called no-human-government theory. Garrison provoked this argument with an editorial recounting his recent visit to the local circuit court. The proceedings opened with a prayer by a minister, and Garrison commented that that act represented a union of church and state. Every Christian present, he added, was bound by his religious profession to forgive trespasses; yet here were all varieties of government officials, convened for the purpose of inflicting death or imprisonment on their fellow men.

A people wholly redeemed from iniquity would need no police, no penal code, no dungeon, no gibbet. Hence, nothing but rebellion against God, on their part, can make such a system of government necessary; for, that it is necessary while they remain slaves to their own lusts, we are ready to concede. What then? Will they plead their own disobedience, their pertinacious and malignant rebellion against the government of the Most High, as justifying the erection of their own bloody tribunals? What! rebels against God undertaking to establish justice, and to extend the kingdom of the Redeemer, by pains and penalties, by parks of artillery and regiments of soldiers?19

In the following week's issue of The Liberator, the Rev. Orange Scott resorted to the reductio ad absurdum method to refute Garrison's argument. Garrison's theory, he suggested, would imply that a parent must not spank his child and that a woman must not resist an attacker or cause him to be arrested. “Are lions to be converted into lambs, by letting them out of their cages?” he asked. “You reply that you trust in God.”

As well might you trust God to edit and print your paper, without any human agency. … If your persecutors were to put you in a den of lions as they did Daniel, you might trust in God as he did; but if you were voluntarily to let a den of lions loose upon yourself, you would not find it so easy to trust in God. The presumptuous have no reason to expect the protection of God.

As for human governments, Jehovah himself had instituted them, and nowhere in the Bible had he abrogated them.20

Scott's assertion of the divine ordination of human governments was seconded in a letter to Henry C. Wright from Henry Grew, printed in The Liberator seven months later. Grew explained that God had in his wisdom and benevolence appointed such governments as a means to restrain selfishness, and abuse of authority did not justify nonallegiance. Wright had contended that to acknowledge allegiance to human government was to obey the will of man as the supreme law of life, and “We cannot obey God and man.” Grew replied, “Then the Word of God requires an impossibility, for it certainly requires obedience to both. … [C]hristians are commanded to ‘Obey Magistrates.’ Titus 3.1.” By inference the magistrate had the right to compel obedience; this constituted an exception to the commandment, Thou shalt not kill. Grew approved advocacy of the principles of meekness, patience, and love. But in the present state of the world, the physical barriers to evil must not be removed.21

The “practical” objections by Scott and Grew to the repudiation of forceful government were easily enough met by Garrison's repeated explanation that the physical barriers to evil would not be removed before the need for them had been eliminated by means of the propagation of nonresistance principles. Not so easy to deal with were practical questions concerning the proper behavior of nonresistants in specific circumstances. When Charles Stearns, a young pacifist and Garrisonian abolitionist, was jailed in Hartford in 1841 for refusing to report for militia duty, a friend of his wrote to Garrison asking if a nonresistant ought to pay the fine to avoid prison. Nonresistants did not refuse to pay ordinary taxes, but should they regard as a tax a fine imposed for refusal to violate their consciences? Garrison replied:

Formerly, when we occupied Quaker ground in regard to war and civil government, we argued as they now do against the propriety of paying a militia tax; but since we have been led to perceive that they are contending, in essence, for a “distinction without a difference,” we have come to a different conclusion. Still, we are not wholly satisfied as to the correctness of our present views; and in our letter to C. Stearns, we expressed a hope that the subject would be freely discussed on every side.22

On the essential point, however, Garrison was wholly satisfied: that it was one thing to admit that unregenerate men needed physical restraint in the form of governments and another thing to justify such governments as divinely ordained. To justify violent governments was essentially to justify the wickedness that made them necessary, but preaching the principles of nonresistance was the first step toward creating the conditions for the kingdom of God on earth. The other side of his nonresistance was his perfectionism, and in an unsigned editorial entitled “Perfection,” he reiterated this crucial distinction between the Christian's duty and what was immediately realizable, a distinction identical to that which all abolitionists made between the duty of immediate emancipation and the form that emancipation would actually assume once the duty had been universally accepted. He began the editorial by noting that a dispute was in progress in orthodox churches concerning the doctrine of perfectionism.

Now, what is the point in controversy? Not, who is a Christian, or whether this or that individual has attained to a state of “sinless perfection”; but whether human beings, in this life, may and ought to serve God with all their mind and strength, and to love their neighbor as themselves! Whether “total abstinence” from all sin is not as obligatory as it is from any one sin! … The argument is clear. If men cannot be wholly free from sin at any time in this life, then they are not responsible for their sinful acts.

He cited a statement published by a presbytery in upstate New York that the doctrine of total abstinence from sin was contrary to the teachings of the Bible and “utterly destructive to the life and growth of true holiness.” And he sarcastically commented:

True holiness will be perilled by inculcating the duty that men ought to be and may be holy and unblameable! True holiness will grow and thrive in exact proportion as sin is made a component part of it! … [T]hese ecclesiastical bodies are determined to make a christian life compatible with a military profession, with killing enemies, with enslaving a portion of mankind, with the robbing of the poor, with worldliness and ambition, with a participation in all popular iniquities. Hence, when abolition declares that no man can love God who enslaves another, they deny it, and assert that man-stealing and Christianity may co-exist in the same character. …

Instead, therefore, of assailing the doctrine, “Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect,” let us all aim to establish it, not merely as theoretically right, but as practically attainable; and if we are conscious that we are not wholly clean, not yet entirely reconciled to God, not yet filled with perfect love, let us, instead of resisting the light and the truth, and denying that freedom from sin is a christian's duty and privilege, confess and forsake our sins—give no quarter to unrighteousness—put on the whole armor of God, that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. …23

Another issue warmly debated in the columns of The Liberator was the proper attitude toward the Bible. It has been seen that Garrison and Wright based their theories regarding government and perfection on scriptural commands, insisting that a human ordinance, to be lawful, must be consistent with the sacred texts. In time, however, their position subtly changed. In the course of so many polemics in defense of principles deduced from the Bible they began to defend those principles independently of the Bible. Those polemics evoked replies by their adversaries, who cited contrary texts from the same authority, and the contradictions could not always be eliminated by reinterpretation. Inevitably Garrison and Wright were led to repudiate certain texts as contrary to God's true intent and to decide that not all of the Bible was inspired. By what criterion must one discriminate between the true and the false? Neither man claimed to have received direct revelations. The only alternative was to discard the arbitrary will of God as the determinant of true principles set forth in the Bible, and in its place to hypostatize those principles themselves. These two, who had begun by judging the world by Truth and Right as revealed in the scriptures, ended by judging the scriptures by Truth and Right as revealed by their own reason.

As late as 1842 Garrison was still relying on scriptural authority for truth; in the issue of August 19 he offered $1,000 to anyone who proved that the Sabbath was authorized in the New Testament.24 By the beginning of 1843, however, he was writing that the Bible must be read discriminatingly. Discussing the Millerite craze, he first deplored the false teaching that the Second Advent was in the future rather than 1,900 years in the past. Furthermore, it was, he contended, a

ridiculous notion, that this magnificent creation of God,—the heavens which declare his glory, and the earth “which endureth forever,”—are to be consumed by material fire. … To the highly figurative language of scripture, a literal interpretation has been given; and what is strictly literal has been tortured into a tropical form of speech.25

Yet even when he rejected one passage of scripture it was on the basis of another; his evidence that the Second Advent was not scheduled for the period between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844, as the Millerites predicted, was the text, “Verily, I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till All be Fulfilled.”26

Then in 1845 he discovered Thomas Paine. In the issue of November 21 he explained that until a few days before, he had never read a paragraph of Paine, having been brought up to regard that notorious infidel as “a monster of iniquity.” Now Garrison realized that Paine was a sincere, intelligent, and powerful writer, with reason his only guide. Garrison then presented his own views. The Bible ought to be examined in the light of reason. One could not expect to understand everything in it, but then, no one knew how the sun gave light or the acorn grew into an oak. However, anything in it that was absurd or monstrous should be rejected. It was ridiculous to assert that everything in the Bible was divinely inspired. The reader must “search the scriptures” and decide what was true and what false, “what is the letter that killeth, and what the spirit that maketh alive.” No one knew who wrote the various books, but that did not matter, since the Bible must stand or fall on its merits, “by its reasonableness and utility, by the probabilities of the case, by historical confirmation, by human experience and observation, by the facts of science, by the intuition of the spirit. Truth is older than any parchment.”27

Garrison retained these views for the rest of the period covered by this study. In the spring of 1847, for example, he wrote: “If religion be not a sensible thing, it must be a very foolish thing. If it is supernatural, it is not natural; and therefore, though it may possibly answer for another world, it clearly can be of no advantage for the present.”28

It remained for Henry C. Wright to state the corollary heresy of Garrison's demotion of the Bible. In “The Bible, if Opposed to Self-Evident Truth, Is Self-Evident Falsehood,” he announced that at every step he had taken in the past ten years to oppose injustice and oppression, he had encountered the Bible as his sternest foe. Hence, he had ceased to look to the Bible as the authority for the wrong of slavery and war. Slavery and war were self-evident wrongs, and no Bible could prove them right.29

An even more shocking heresy was proclaimed by Charles B. Stearns. In the issue of October 10, 1845, he opened what came to be known as “The Rights of God” controversy, when he announced that the Old Testament should be laid aside; that God had no right to take a human life because life was his gift to men and inviolable; and that God never punished sinners. The two latter propositions, he argued, must be true unless one was prepared to assert that it was wrong for men to imitate God. In the ensuing months the last page of The Liberator was filled with angry rejoinders, but Garrison did not enter the dispute till the end of January 1846, and then only indirectly. He first defended the right—rather, the duty—of his paper to open its columns to views of all sorts, in the interest of “the cause of bleeding humanity,” and he expressed his faith in the weakness of Error and the invincibility of Truth in free discussion. Truth, he wrote, always encouraged freedom of thought, was never afraid of scrutiny. But how was Truth to be discovered?

I know of no safer, higher, or better way, than to leave the human mind perfectly untrammelled to contend for unlimited investigation, to vindicate the supremacy of reason, to plead for unfettered speech, to argue from analogy, to decide upon evidence, to be governed by facts, to disclaim infallibility, to believe in eternal growth and progress, to repudiate all arbitrary authority, to make no man or body of men oracular, to learn from the teachings of history, to see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears. … [W]ho shall dogmatically assume to decide what is heresy … ?

He who was ready to take on all comers was not thereby proved right, said Garrison, but he who would silence or scorn opponents was either a coward, a ruffian, or a fanatic.

On the other hand, he who forms his opinions from the dictates of enlightened reason, and sincerely desires to be led into all truth, dreads nothing so much as the suppression of free inquiry. … We have too little, instead of too much dissent among us. … Even if we assent to what is true, merely because it is fashionable to do so, we are not true believers, but only echoes.

Garrison then quoted from a subscriber, hitherto a friend, who had forbidden his family to read Stearns's letter and who felt obliged to terminate his subscription to a paper that gave publicity to such ideas. Garrison denied that The Liberator had endorsed Stearns's views; Stearns and the other letter writers spoke only for themselves. But had he not, Garrison asked, been shocked by the many proslavery articles that The Liberator had since its founding reprinted in the “Refuge of Oppression” column? As a nonresistant, had he not been horrified by the letters the paper had printed from advocates of defensive war? Garrison suggested that the subscriber felt confident in his vews on slavery and war, but not so certain in his opinions on “the rights of God.” And was it wise of him, asked the editor, to assume “an absolute control over the reason and conscience of his family”? Should they not have the right to test all truths? “A forcible suppression of error is no aid to the cause of truth. …” He (Garrison) would want his children to consider no subject too sacred to investigate, since he was not infallible.


  1. “Sentence of the Rev. Geo. B. Cheever,” The Liberator, December 12, 1835.

  2. Ibid., July 23, August 6, and August 20, 1836. In the August 6 editorial, The Vermont Chronicle is quoted as saying that Garrison's opposition to gag laws was “a denial of the right of society to protect itself by law against libelous, licentious and blasphemous publications.” Garrison replied: “Cannot purity grapple successfully in an open field with licentiousness, without the aid of a constable? If men or women blaspheme, shall we not rather pray for them, than extort money from their pockets, or incarcerate their bodies?” Two observations may be made. Fines and prison terms were at that period imposed for more “offenses” than is the case today, including “offenses” that now are considered matters of private opinion. Second, Garrison was not denying the community's right to protect itself; he was denying that physical penalties did protect it. His denunciation of “carnal means” was therefore not a demand that the community give criminals a free hand; it was a propaganda technique to teach the community the true nature of the dangers that threatened it and the only defense that he believed could be effective.

  3. The Liberator, July 4, December 2, 1835; July 23, August 6, August 20, 1836. See also issue of August 27, 1836, and others in the same period. Lydia Maria Child was another who favored nonresistance prior to the women's rights controversy (ibid., April 2, 1836). Violence in any case, she argued, was opposed to the spirit of the gospel. If it were ever justified it would be justified for the slave. In the issue of August 27, Garrison wrote that he had received many letters commenting on his discussion of the Sabbath. He assured his readers that he had not intended to make his paper the arena of controversy over a topic foreign to its main object. But doubtless he would in the future advance sentiments, on various topics, that some readers would disapprove. He assured them that his columns were always open to those who wished to refute him. The Liberator, as a paper patronized by abolitionists of many sects, ought not to attack specifically sectarian tenets, he added; but the Sabbath question was general, not sectarian.

  4. Ibid., May 26, June 9, June 23, July 7, July 21, 1837.

  5. James G. Birney, “View of the Constitution of the Am. A. S. Society as Connected with the ‘No-Government’ Question,” The Emancipator, May 2, 1839.

  6. The Liberator, September 8, 1837. See ibid., January 24, 1840, for letter to Garrison from Fitch, who had been converted to the movement that preached the imminent coming of the Day of Judgment. Fitch wrote that he had been recalling his past life and wondering how he would view past feelings and acts if he beheld Christ coming to judge the world. He found he had much to be ashamed of; that in many instances he had been moved by the “desire to please men, for the sake of their good opinion”; and that that desire had been his only object in the part he had played in the clerical protests, although at that time he had not been as conscious as he now was of his true motive. He sent this letter to Garrison not, he said, to win applause but because his conscience and heart impelled him to and because truth and the spirit of God required him to. Garrison was free to do what he chose with the letter; if good could be done thereby, Garrison could make it as public as the sin had been. Garrison prefaced the letter with a brief comment, rejoicing at the recantation, forgiving Fitch, and hoping the other clerical appellants would follow his example. The recantation is also in Eighth Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Mass. Anti-Slavery Soc. (Boston, 1840), pp. 7-8. Fitch's confession that he had been motivated by selfish considerations receives some support in letter from A[lanson] St. C[lair] to Amos A. Phelps, August 17, 1837, Phelps Papers, BPL (both St. Clair and Phelps later broke with Garrison): “At what you say Fitch & co are about, I am astonished—Though I believe there was some call for advice to moderation in point of epithets & c. (had it been given in the right way & place) yet I am grieved to the heart, that, for personal considerations, any man should attempt to break the ranks and divide against themselves, the persecuted Abolitionists.”

  7. Protest No. 3 was also by Fitch and Towne and was actually a letter to the editor of The New England Spectator, reprinted in The Liberator, September 29, 1837. Whittier's letter (ibid., September 22, 1837) said that all sides had erred. Wright's letter to Garrison (ibid., October 13, 1837) was entitled “Clerical Appeals, Protests, & c. & c.” Another letter from Whittier appears in the issue of October 27, 1837. All issues in this period contain small news items reporting resolutions passed by antislavery societies, mostly in support of Garrison and The Liberator.

  8. Garrison made the same point in “Reply to Dr. Osgood,” ibid., August 2, 1839. By February 10, 1843, however, he had repudiated the “clergy and other ecclesiastical usurpers.” See “The Second Advent. No. I,” in The Liberator of that date; also, “Letter of Dr. Brisbane,” ibid., March 1, 1844.

  9. See, for example, John L. Thomas, “Romantic Reform in America, 1815-1865,” American Quarterly, XVII (Winter 1965), 661; and Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform (New York, 1965; first published in 1957), pp. 181, 183, 187. Walter M. Merrill, in Against Wind and Tide: A Biography of William Lloyd Garrison (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), pp. 136-37, asserts: “Just as abolitionism leveled society, so it ought to be concerned with all good causes, Garrison thought.” And the author asks, “How could the abolitionists retain a unity of opinion sufficient to accomplish their main purpose if they must support every current reform?” Garrison never said they must. But he insisted that the antislavery societies must not oppose any current reform either.

  10. May to Garrison, December 18, 1837, and December 26, 1837, both in Anti-Slavery Letters, BPL. See also Sarah M. Grimké to Anne Warren Weston, December 7, 1837, Weston Papers, BPL; letter to the editor from Henry C. Wright, The Liberator, December 8, 1837; letter to the editor from S[arah] M. G[rimké], ibid., January 5, 1838. For various reactions to Lovejoy's action, see articles in issues of November 24 and December 1, 8, 22, 29, 1837; January 5, 12, 1838; February 16, 1838.

  11. May to Beriah Green, ibid., January 5, 1838, reprinted from The Emancipator.

  12. Garrison to May, December 30, 1837, Garrison Papers, BPL; and editorial note in The Liberator, January 5, 1838. Garrison's position became the official position of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. See Sixth Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (Boston, 1838), pp. 37-38, third and fourth resolutions.

  13. A good statement of this theory of organization, by a moderate Garrisonian (who later broke with Garrison on the ground that he had deviated from it), is “Letter from Mrs. Child, on the Present State of the Anti-Slavery Cause,” The Liberator, September 6, 1839. Lewis Tappan, whose other causes were more respectable, adopted the same tactical line at the time of the discussion of Lovejoy. See his letter to the editor (ibid., January 5, 1838) in which he explains that most signers of the AASS's Declaration of Sentiments, adopted at the founding of the organization, were “non-combatants” on principle, but that the minority who were not were permitted to sign, understanding that the society was pledging nonviolence only in regard to the cause which it was organized to further: abolition of slavery. These members were not pledging to eschew forcible defense of their own lives and property. Tappan went on to assert that some nonresistant members seemed to think, erroneously, that the Declaration was a pledge of thorough nonresistance. He for one believed force always anti-Christian as well as inexpedient, but he wished everyone to be clear that this doctrine was not a principle of the AASS. He suggested that a full discussion be held in The Liberator of “the Peace question,” with abolitionists on both sides contributing their views.

  14. Ibid., October 27, 1837. Apropos of Garrison's attitude toward his Negro supporters, it should be noted that Merrill has distorted an important piece of documentary evidence. On pp. 147-48 of Against Wind and Tide, discussing the clerical plot against Garrison, Merrill writes: “When the plotters tried to convert some of the free colored to their views, Garrison congratulated himself that they were so loyal to him that if he went to hell, they would follow.” Merrill cites a letter from Garrison to George Benson, January 14, 1839, Garrison Letters, BPL, but he does not quote it. The following is what Garrison actually wrote to George W. Benson on that date: John E. Fuller had visited him recently to discuss the controversy and the projected new anti-Garrison paper. Fuller had switched sides and now favored the paper. “He is trying to influence our colored friends to think well of the new project; but he finds they are true as steel, and therefore angrily tells them that he believes that if Garrison should go to hell, they would go with him.”

  15. For general analyses of the nonresistance philosophy, see Merle Curti, “Non-Resistance in New England,” New England Quarterly, II (January 1929), 34-57, and John Demos, “The Antislavery Movement and the Problem of Violent ‘Means,’” ibid., XXXVII (December 1964), 501-26. Both articles cover the post-1850 period as well as the period covered in the present study.

  16. This was a favorite argument of nonresistants. Henry C. Wright, for example, argued that if Lovejoy and “the men of Bunker Hill” had been justified in fighting, so would the slaves. But the Bunker Hill casualties on both sides were murdered. He added that abolitionists who counseled the slaves to peace but lauded Lovejoy for fighting were hypocrites, and so were those who cheered the Founding Fathers every Fourth of July; every patriotic speech about the colonists fighting for liberty was a speech to the slaves telling them they had the right to butcher their masters for freedom (The Liberator, December 22, 1837). See also Garrison, ibid., February 11, 1842. The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's board of managers declared that those who applauded the patriots of '76, yet deplored Lovejoy's emulation of them, were hypocrites (Sixth Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, p. 37). Garrisons, Garrison, II, 190, state that that resolution was evidently written by Garrison.

  17. Anne Warren Weston to Garrison, November 11, 1838, Anti-Slavery Letters, BPL. See also George Bourne to Garrison, October 1, 1838, and March 2, 1839, in the same collection.

  18. The Liberator, September 28, 1838. The officers of the new society are listed ibid., October 12, 1838.

  19. “U. S. Circuit Court,” ibid., October 19, 1838.

  20. “The No Human Government Theory,” letter from Orange Scott, ibid., October 26, 1838. Several important articles in this issue, which were polemics in the factional struggle in the AASS, will be omitted from consideration here, to be cited later in this chapter in the discussion of that struggle.

  21. Ibid., May 24, 1839; see also Grew's article, ibid., January 3, 1840.

  22. Ibid., September 17, 1841. See also “Governmental Taxes and Military Fines,” ibid., September 24, 1841.

  23. Ibid., October 15, 1841. See also “Absolutism, Monarchy, Republicanism, To Be Superseded,” ibid., March 3, 1848.

  24. A Rhode Islander claimed the reward (ibid., September 30, 1842); Garrison refuted the “proof” furnished and therefore declined to pay.

  25. “The Second Advent. No. I,” ibid., February 10, 1843.

  26. “The Second Advent. No. II,” ibid., February 17, 1843. The emphases are Garrison's. He followed the quotation with two exclamation points.

  27. “Thomas Paine,” ibid., November 21, 1845. He added that Paine, in calling the Bible a pious imposture, was as wrong as the fundamentalists at the other extreme.

  28. “Mystical Religion,” ibid., April 9, 1847.

  29. Ibid., August 11, 1848. The article evoked a heated dispute. See Wright's “The Bible a Self-Evident Falsehood if Opposed to Self-Evident Truth,” ibid., September 22, 1848, and “Is God Unjust and Changeable, or Men, the Writers of the Old Testament, in Some Things Mistaken?” ibid., November 10, 1848; other Wright articles with similar titles, ibid., November 17, 24, 1848; William Goodell, “To Henry C. Wright,” and Henry Grew, “Is the Bible a Lie, or Is Henry C. Wright Mistaken?” ibid., December 22, 1848; and several other articles on both sides in the issues of December 1, 8, 1848; January 12, February 3, March 9, 16, 23, 1849, and occasionally thereafter. In “Woman's Rights Convention,” ibid., May 3, 1850, Wright wrote that if the Bible preached male superiority, it was “thus far null and void, simply because it is opposed to nature.” When a neighbor reproached Nathaniel P. Rogers, a Garrisonian, for preaching abolition and said that Jesus never did, Rogers replied that the Golden Rule, if put into practice, would abolish slavery immediately. But suppose Jesus did not preach abolition: “then, I say, he didn't do his duty” (Robert Adams, “Nathaniel Peabody Rogers: 1794-1846,” New England Quarterly, XX [September 1947], 369). For an interesting parallel, see David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, pp. 378-79, discussing a book written between 1749 and 1752 by James Foster, “a famous dissenting preacher” in England: “By that time latitudinarian religion had become so infused with nature and reason that the Bible could be treated as a useful supplement.” Foster wrote, “if the Gospel, instead of confirming, had abrogated the common ties of human nature, it would be both impiety, and inhumanity, to embrace it.”

Walter M. Merrill (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1204

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 serendipitous capacity to guide fortuitous circumstances. And the appearance in print of his early letters at this juncture gives him, in effect, an opportunity to enlist once more in the cause for which he struggled for half a century. Indeed, in these letters he communicates with a wide new audience and states in nineteenth-century terms what in the twentieth century his recently fallen colleague Martin Luther King often insisted, that all men, black as well as white, must be totally free from the bonds of slavery and prejudice, that they must be treated as equals—religiously, socially, politically.

In 1830, at the beginning of his half-century of agitation, Garrison was an unknown printer and sometime editor. By 1833, The Liberator having been published for two years, he was to be received in England as an American abolitionist whose voice had been heard—even across the Atlantic. When Garrison appeared at a reception in London, Thomas Fowell Buxton, leader among British abolitionists, greeted him hesitantly: “Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Garrison, of Boston, in the United States?” “Yes, sir, … I am he; and I am here in accordance with your invitation.” Buxton, his bewilderment resolved, extended his hand: “Why, my dear sir, I thought you were a black man! And I have consequently invited this company of ladies and gentlemen to be present to welcome Mr. Garrison, the black advocate of emancipation from the United States of America!”1 Garrison often retold this story, convinced that Buxton had paid him the highest possible compliment.

By the end of the Civil War Garrison was one of the most famous of American citizens. In 1866-1867 the country had an opportunity to express tribute to him in financial terms, and a national fund drive raised for his support a net capital of more than $33,000. The words of a Negro washwoman, who contributed a hard-earned dollar, spoke for many: “If I were a milionare by the God's I would give him $100,000 & make him President of the United States When he dies his destiny is the Heaven of Heavens.”2 Two years later, Samuel J. May commended him in Some Recollections of Our Antislavery Conflict. Thomas Wentworth Higginson described Garrison during the postwar years as “contending for the rights of the freed men and of women, as before for those of the slaves.”3

At Garrison's funeral on May 28, 1879, Wendell Phillips, for many years his friend and for a few his enemy, offered this testimony: “The world suffers its grandest changes not by genius, but by the more potent control of character. His was an earnestness that would take no denial, that consumed opposition in the intensity of its convictions, that knew nothing but right.” “His was the happiest life I ever saw.” “To the day of his death he was as ready as in his boyhood to confront and defy a mad majority. … He showed nothing either of the intellectual sluggishness or the timidity of age.”4

In the decade of the eighties, he was eulogized by his sons, Wendell Phillips Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, in their four-volume biography (1885-1889). An anonymous essay review of the book in the Atlantic Monthly asserted: “The great personal qualities of Mr. Garrison and his essential leadership in the antislavery enterprise are now generally conceded.”5

The elegiac mode continued in the twentieth century until 1933 when Gilbert H. Barnes published The Antislavery Impulse, which offered a new interpretation of Garrison's role in the antislavery movement. The crusade emanated, Barnes concluded, not from Garrison and New England, but from Theodore D. Weld and New York. Since Barnes's death, his one-time collaborator, Dwight L. Dumond, has reaffirmed the Barnes interpretation in his book, Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America. In this book Dumond approves virtually all of the best-known antislavery leaders as great moral giants, men inspired in word and act, except for Garrison, whom he considers “a man of distinctly narrow limitations among the giants of the antislavery movement.” He was, Dumond says, a man so colossal in conceit as “to claim credit for almost everything that was done in the movement before 1840. He made a contribution. It was neither a large nor an overpowering one, and sometimes it was a negative one.”6

Although, since the publication of Dumond's book, there has been an occasional restatement of the Barnes-Dumond thesis, there is increasing recognition that that thesis must be challenged. For instance, in 1962 C. Vann Woodward pointed out that “Mr. Dumond's treatment of slavery and the abolitionists admits of no complexities or ambiguities beyond the fixed categories of right and wrong.”7

The two most recent biographies of Garrison (John L. Thomas, The Liberator, and Walter M. Merrill, Against Wind and Tide, both published in 1963) disagree regarding the significance of Garrison's contribution to the antislavery movement. The former, using chiefly secondary sources, modifies somewhat the Barnes-Dumond view, whereas the latter seeks to reinterpret Garrison on the basis of the extensive primary materials to be found in public and private collections. With the publication of Garrison's letters many of those materials will be sufficiently available so that the general reader as well as the scholar can observe at close range Garrison the man and Garrison the abolitionist.

In this first volume of his letters Garrison speaks the truth as he sees it: about liberty, about prejudice, about rights, about the eternal verities of human existence. He writes precociously as a teenager to his stern and activist mother (showing her how much he has learned at sixteen and without any formal education). He writes passionately and simply to the woman he loves. He writes gay, bantering letters, full of puns, to his brothers-in-law. He writes enthusiastically and eloquently to innumerable friends and fellow reformers. He writes cynically and indignantly to conservative newspaper editors. He writes pompously and ironically to recalcitrant ministers of God. In his early letters Garrison reveals such contradictory facets of his character that even he is amazed: “Dear Helen, am I not a strange compound? In battling with a whole nation, I am as impetuous, as daring, and as unconquerable, as a lion; but in your presence, I am as timid, and gentle, and submissive, as a dove.”8


  1. Life, I, 351.

  2. This passage is to be found in a letter from Malinda Night [Knight] to Samuel May, Jr., the envelope bearing the postmark November 2 (the year probably being 1867), Merrill Collection of Garrison Papers, Wichita State University Library.

  3. “Wendell Phillips,” The Nation, 38:118 (February 7, 1884).

  4. “Remarks of Wendell Phillips,” Tributes to William Lloyd Garrison at the Funeral Services (Boston, 1879), pp. 43, 47, 48.

  5. 57:121 (January 1886), 121.

  6. (Ann Arbor, 1961), p. 174.

  7. C. Vann Woodward, “The Antislavery Myth,” The American Scholar, 31:320 (Spring 1962).

  8. See letter 144, April 24, 1834.

James Brewer Stewart (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1861

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 as if Garrison had begun to act as a magnet of fanaticism, drawing to the cause all manner and mode of eccentricity. Essays which denied the authority of ministers, questioned the authenticity of Scripture, and repudiated the observance of the Sabbath began to appear regularly in the Liberator. Garrison's editorials also vigorously endorsed full equality for women. For a time, Garrison considered converting his newspaper into a vehicle for universal reform, not just for abolition, especially since nonresistance, a sweeping denial of all governmental authority, and a religious belief in human perfection also began to command his attention.

With these “exotic” ideas came unconventional people. To be sure, several of Garrison's closest associates—people like Edmund Quincy, Sidney Gay, Ellis Gray Loring and, above all, Wendell Phillips and Maria Weston Chapman—exuded aristocratic refinement. Garrison himself led a rather prosaic life. Yet there was Charles Calistius Burleigh, a close associate of Garrison's, who sported cascading golden curls, a flowing beard, and Old Testament prophet robes. Others of Garrison's circle—rough-hewn New Hampshire farm folk like Parker Pillsbury, Nathaniel P. Rogers, Abby Kelly, and her husband Stephen S. Foster—were extremely disruptive practitioners of moral suasion. Then there were Angelina and Sarah Grimké, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others who defied the woman's “appointed spheres,” lectured before audiences of men and women together, and demanded full representation in the antislavery societies. By 1838 it appeared to many in the movement and outside it as if abolitionism, extreme though it was, was about to be overrun by dreamers and cranks.

The reasons for this sudden efflorescence of “isms” beginning around 1837 are several, complex, and not entirely understood. The antiauthoritarian tenor of abolitionism, its general suspicion of venerable institutions, certainly could generate an ever-broadening impulse to question conventional ways. It is certainly instructive to remember that Garrison, in early 1837, found confirmation for his own nonresistance theories in his conversations with John Humphrey Noyes, later the patriarch of the sexually experimental, utopian socialist Oneida Community. The godless authority of masters over slaves and its Christian opposite, black emancipation, thus could become metaphors to express judgments on all human relationships and social institutions. Submission to the worldly discipline of organized governments, political parties, ministers, patriarchical husbands, or one's own private passions seemed no less contrary to God's will than owning a black human being. The goals of self-emancipation and slave emancipation could thus become wholly intertwined, impelling some abolitionists toward espousals of universal reform and, incidentally, toward the vigorous repression of their own sexual drives; abolitionist supporters of women's rights were seldom to confuse their crusade with what some have since come to call a “new morality.”

Yet the emergence of inconoclastic radicalism must also be explained in the narrower context of the abolitionists' immediate experiences. The female abolitionists' demand for equality derived as much from their work in the petition campaigns as it did from any general influence of romanticism. In much the same fashion, Garrison and some of his associates contemplated the meaning of antiabolitionist repression and reached disturbing conclusions about American political ideals and religious practices. To these incipient radical abolitionists, violence, gag rules, mail lootings, and denunciations from every religious denomination only revealed the infamy which had overtaken North and South alike. Unlike many immediatists, especially those who were soon to oppose him, Garrison and his supporters put little emphasis on the value of repression in gaining sympathy for the cause. Instead they concluded, as Garrison wrote, that the country deserved “an avalanche of wrath, hurled from the Throne of God, to crush us into annihilation.” American Christianity, “mean, dwarfed and corrupt,” relied as he put it, on “armed hosts” and engaged in “bloody strife to avenge the slightest threat offered to its dignity” by the abolitionists. In Garrison's opinion, Northern Whigs and Democrats, clear barometers of majority opinion, had also reacted much as the mobs and the churches had, “striving to see who will show the most hatred toward us, … in order to win southern votes.” He now believed that mass opinion, directing the power of church and state, was fostering huge perversions of God's will. Appeals to conscience had to be expanded to induce a total reshaping of the nation's ethical values and institutional practices, a peaceful revolutionizing of every facet of American life. By 1838, Garrison and many other influential immediatists had begun to embrace some of these new positions. Others in the movement shuddered in disgust and began to close ranks against “Garrisonian fanaticism.”

The leaders most likely to bridle at “Garrisonism” were the men who had taken primary responsibility in managing the postal and petition campaigns. Lewis Tappan, Joshua Leavitt, James G. Birney, Elizur Wright, Jr., John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry Brewster Stanton were the most prominent among them. Significantly, but for reasons not entirely clear, Garrison and most of his supporters had not been nearly as deeply involved in these crucial projects even though they had participated actively. Perhaps for this reason Tappan, Birney, and other conservative abolitionists, as they have been called, felt strongly that abolition was progressing in a seriously flawed but basically healthy society. They pointed to the thousands of conventional Northerners, suddenly sensitized to the evils of the “slave power,” who were signing petitions, resisting Texas annexation, and supporting the fight against the gag rule. It would be a tactical disaster, they feared, to confuse abolitionism with causes like women's rights and nonresistance. The new antislavery constituency, just taking form, would certainly recoil at such heresies. To conservative abolitionists, moral suasion was coming to mean arousing a mass of reachable Northerners, religious or not. In the meantime, Garrison and like-minded radicals had begun to espouse moral revolution on the totally opposite premise that the people's majoritarian values were themselves the sources of chronic national disease. By 1838, disagreements about strategy and tactics which were far too fundamental for compromise had surfaced in the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Beyond these important questions of strategy, the plain fact was that Garrisonian radicalism repelled the conservatives and threatened them personally. On the question of women's rights, for example, Lewis Tappan and James G. Birney stood fast for masculine dominance and agreed with Elizur Wright, Jr., when he had remarked that the “tomturkies,” not the hens, “ought to do the gobbling.” Garrison's rejection of organized religion and the Bible appeared the “rankest infidelity” to evangelical abolitionists like Weld and Tappan. His antigovernment principles and personal refusal to vote seemed invitations to anarchy, in Wright's words, “undermining the whole fabric of social relations.” Garrison, for his part, criticized conservative demurrals as evidence of moral atrophy. Inevitably, tensions between reformers and those with radical visions grew more pronounced. By 1838 Stanton, Phelps, Birney, Elizur Wright, Jr., and others wrote freely on how best to purge Garrison and his followers. Garrison, with justice, soon began to complain that “clerical plotters” were conspiring to expel him and his followers.

From early 1838 until the break-up of the American Anti-Slavery Society in May 1840, conspiratorial designs and ideological conflicts overshadowed all else in abolitionism. As Aileen Kraditor has demonstrated, Garrison consistently insisted that abolitionism retain a “broad platform,” as he called it. All who pronounced slavery a sin and were dedicated to black equality should be welcomed into the American Anti-Slavery Society, regardless of their opinions on the Sabbath, women's rights, or any other subject. Intent on purging the antigovernment radicals, conservatives insisted to the contrary on a new, restrictive criterion. All true abolitionists, they argued, had a moral duty to vote for candidates sympathetic to the cause. Direct political action should become the focus of abolitionist effort.

By proposing to transform the American Anti-Slavery Society into a political pressure group, conservatives obviously aimed at disqualifying the nonvoting Garrisonians. Yet both the call to political action and Garrison's radicalism were more than weapons employed in factional infighting. So was Garrison's insistence on a “broad platform.” By the late 1830's, abolitionism clearly needed new ideas and fresh approaches. With moral suasion in shambles, the continuous rounds of meetings, resolutions, appeals, and remonstrances now seemed soul-deadening and ineffectual. Meanwhile, the petition campaign had become mostly local effort. Garrison's zestful call for a revolutionary reexamination of America's character promised to many abolitionists an imaginative and very necessary new direction.

In the minds of his conservative opponents, the prospect of political activism seemed equally promising, especially since sectional consciousness already seemed so widespread among certain segments in the North. If indirect political pressure of the petition campaign had accomplished this much, conservatives wondered, how much more might be gained by an intensive movement? By 1838 some individuals had even begun talking about a third party based exclusively on abolitionist principles. But whatever its form, any political effort meant attracting antislavery supporters who hardly considered themselves activists. Association with “Garrisonism” would obviously alienate these potential voters.

In July 1840, warring factions of delegates convened in New York City, intent on seizing or breaking up the American Anti-Slavery Society. Both sides packed the meeting, hoping to control the proceedings. Antipolitical Garrisonians, ironically enough, proved the superior political infighters. Radical feminist Abby Kelly was elected to the Executive Committee, 557 to 451, and the defeated conservatives left the society forever. Garrison, far from purged, now presided over a truncated but far more radical body. Most conservatives affiliated with Lewis Tappan's newly formed American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, although some, notably Theodore Weld, rejected all factions as self-serving and morally bankrupted.

Meanwhile, Northern concern over Texas annexation, the gag rule, and the menacing “slave power” continued to deepen and spread. The sectional debates in Washington made it clear to both supporters and foes of third-party action that politics and antislavery were rapidly merging. The antislavery constituency was now registering its feelings and would continue to do so on its own or in conjunction with the abolitionists. With some reluctance, conservatives began plans to create a formal political organization, the Liberty Party, to offer authentic abolitionist alternatives in the election of 1840. Garrisonians, in turn, admonished their “apostate” colleagues that slavery and racism could never be overcome at the ballot box without a previous revolution in the moral values of the voters. Antislavery politicians, they warned, would inevitably compromise; winning elections would take precedence over freeing slaves. If, by chance, emancipation was enacted through a political process dominated by the unregenerated, race prejudice would certainly persist, making black freedom a cruel hoax.

As it turned out, sectional conflicts in politics intensified during the 1840's. Liberty Party leaders thus found themselves facing the task of converting antislavery politics into political abolitionism. The extent of their success or failure measured the accuracy of Garrisonian prophecies about politics and black freedom.

David Henry (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7211

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 Method. “One conviction that influenced that old book,” he writes, “has influenced also the present one, a conviction that the intervening twenty-five years have only strengthened. It is that almost all talk about criticism is sterile. Criticism lives only in acts of criticism, not in oracular abstractions about it. Goering once said,” Black continues, “that when he heard the word ‘culture,’ he wanted to reach for his gun. I feel the same way about the prefix ‘meta-.’”1 Because this essay takes as its starting point Martha Solomon Watson's insightful critique of the “Declarations of Sentiments” issued by the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and the Seneca Falls woman's rights convention of 1848, a meta-critical tack might well be in order. For Watson's proposition that the value of analyzing the texts resides largely in their interanimation of one another and of the Declaration of Independence, might well place critical theory at the center of discussion.

At least in the case of the American Anti-Slavery Society, however, proceeding to a conversation about critical method would be to miss an opportunity to right a serious disciplinary omission. For as Professor Watson herself observes,

[a]lthough these documents provide good materials for the process I wish to investigate, they merit consideration in their own right. Each was the first important statement of principles of what became major, national social movements in the nineteenth century; and, each was authored by persons who were the primary spokespersons for their movements. … Despite their importance, the documents have received very little attention from scholars in communication studies.

Karlyn Kohrs Campbell's discussion of Seneca Falls in Man Cannot Speak for Her, Watson writes, is the only extensive analysis she could locate of either text. While Watson's own examination of the documents' interdependence forms one perspective from which to posit a probative rhetorical-critical claim about the abolitionists' text, close reading of William Lloyd Garrison's “Declaration of Sentiments” on its own terms is at least equally illuminating. For in evidence is a rhetor who, as Watson contends, exploited the symbolic power of the Declaration of Independence and the founding fathers in propagating a course of action to correct past abuses. To disengage Garrison from that immediate context in search of a “larger” theoretical point, however, is to fail to appreciate the significance of such textual features for reaching multiple audiences at a particularly sensitive juncture in the early stage of the abolitionist movement.

Such disengagement is, as well, to risk missing masterful rhetorical artistry. Stephen Browne, in a highly praised work on Edmund Burke, articulates the dangers attendant to such a tack.2 Browne writes that scholars who focus either on Burke's aesthetic value or his political philosophy, “too often reduce Burke to a set of propositions. The result is to lose sight of Burke as an artist, a fully embodied, three-dimensional master of rhetoric and oratory.” To “read Burke rhetorically,” he contends, “is to recall at every step that he was an orator—a public man who … was at once engaged and constrained by the expectations of the public mind.”3 Similarly, criticism of Garrison that situates his discourse in relation to context, audience, and subject reveals an exemplary practitioner of public argument.

This essay thus argues that full appreciation of the rhetorical genius embodied in the document Garrison crafted at Philadelphia hinges on examination of the American Anti-Slavery Society's “Declaration of Sentiments” as a study in instrumental rhetoric. Instrumental rhetoric is taken to mean (1) purposeful discourse, (2) shaped intentionally by a skilled rhetor, (3) for suasory effect on a target audience/s, (4) in response to immediate situational constraints. Such studies are neither necessarily superior nor inferior to analyses that seek the larger meaning/s of significant rhetorical experiences.4 Rather, what may be termed “common sense” and “deconstructive” critical exercises can approach discursive events in different but mutually reinforcing fashion.5

The argument is guided by the conviction that what have often operated in the past as conflicting voices in an irresolvable debate, might be more productively approached as separate contributions to a potentially productive conversation.6 In different terms, John Campbell proposes that neither extreme in the discussion need “win.” Rather, the systematic study of rhetoric and criticism might be best served in constructing a “rhetorical house of the middle way.” Instead of viewing disciplinary tensions as a permanent impasse, Campbell maintains that it “should be possible for rhetorical critics to analyze rhetorical objects at different levels of resolution (from micro to macro) and to move between episodes or epochs, as well as within them, in a natural yet methodologically rigorous way. A new kind of study—the longitudinal case study—would then emerge on the rhetorical horizon.” What Campbell proposes, perhaps most appealingly, is “not only a program for peace but also for progress.” The longitudinal case study aims to accommodate the best of both the ideological and textual critical projects, resulting in a

different style of rhetorical analysis. This different style would be more historical than ideological—though sharing with ideological analysis a diachronic concern for the movement of constitutive transformative experiences across time. It would be more social than textual—though sharing with close reading a jealous concern for the integrity of the text and the situated art of the speaker.7

Where Professor Watson's exploration of the three Declarations works longitudinally to delineate textual interanimation, this essay provides an alternative reading, one focused on the “integrity of the text and the situated art of the speaker.” Longitudinal elements are necessarily examined as well, however, albeit not in a manner that replicates Watson's critique. Instead, attention turns to how the abolitionists' Declaration of Sentiments evolved in the first of Garrison's four decades of anti-slavery advocacy during the nineteenth century, a period ripe for rhetorical-critical analysis.8

Ironically, the section of Professor Watson's essay in which she assesses the abolitionist text may stand on its own to exemplify the potential of iconic criticism for revealing the delicate interplay of a document's salient rhetorical features.9 Watson argues that the Declaration of Independence influenced Garrison's drafting of the American Anti-Slavery Society's “Declaration of Sentiments” in three ways. The founders' work is evident in: “(1) the use of structural and space metaphors to link this document to the political work begun with the Declaration of Independence; (2) the clear connection established between the founding fathers and this group; and (3) the argumentative approach” employed in 1833. The irony rests with Watson's endorsement earlier in the paper of Christopher Norris's indictment of poetry's New Critics, who “invented various ways of sealing the poem off within a timeless, self-sufficient realm of interlocked meaning and structure.” Despite Watson's disdain for the “sealing off” process, her attention to Garrison's work points to the data for an exceptionally valuable critique of the text as situated discourse carefully constructed by a facile rhetor to sway a diverse audience. Since Watson's reading of the American Anti-Slavery Society's “Declaration of Sentiments” is the stimulus for this essay, a brief summary of her evaluation's salient features precedes the alternative reading. The balance of this essay then delineates the instrumental features of the American Anti-Slavery Society's “Declaration of Sentiments,” and concludes with a comment on the wisdom of scholarly engagement cast in the conversational mode.


In laying open the structural and space metaphors that link the “Declaration of Sentiments” to the Declaration of Independence, Watson shows how the abolitionists depicted their work as an extension of the task begun by the nation's revered founders. Literally, the abolitionists' selection of Philadelphia as their meeting place allowed them to call forth the suasory force attached to what had become a “sacred ground” for United States citizens. Metaphorically, the “Declaration of Sentiments” draws from key figurative wording of the Declaration of Independence, averring that the “corner-stone upon which [the nation's fathers] founded the Temple of Freedom was broadly this—‘that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”10 This paragraph, Watson maintains, begins a clever use of structural metaphors that extends throughout the statement. Ultimately, by combining edifice images (corner-stone, temple, overthrow of the foundations) with images that deal with the occupation of space (null, void, usurpation, infringement, transgression), the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society “engrafted the principles they read into the Declaration of Independence into their own agenda.”

Watson next attends to a second parallel between the founders' principles and the abolitionists' appeal. Garrison and his adherents portrayed themselves as the “inheritors of the patriotic mantle of their forebears.” Taking as their assignment completion of the work begun in 1776, they immodestly claimed that, “In purity of motive, in earnestness of zeal, in decision of purpose, in intrepidity of action, in steadfastness of faith, in sincerity of spirit, we would not be inferior to them” (343-44). Yet the abolitionists differentiated themselves from their predecessors in two distinct ways. First, as Professor Watson demonstrates, Garrison pledged the Anti-Slavery Society to nonviolence. Because force and bloodshed were essential to the revolution, the abolitionists recognized that the country feared a return to violence. Thus, they vowed to achieve their goals through the “opposition of moral purity to moral corruption—the destruction of error by the potency of truth—the overthrow of prejudice by the power of love—the abolition of slavery by the spirit of repentance” (344). This separation of the revolutionaries' means and ends, Watson illustrates, proved an essential feature of the abolitionists' rhetorical strategy.

A second feature of that strategy surfaced in anti-slavery leaders' casting of their relationship to those on whose behalf they worked. As they spoke not for themselves but for those prevented by law from voicing their own cause, the abolitionists assumed a “we” persona. Acting as “community guardians,” they were thus able to become protectors of the social order, rather than the threat to that order that their detractors depicted in pro-slavery appeals. This movement eventuated in a further advantage. Exploiting the deistic conception of God evinced in the Declaration of Independence, the abolitionists subtly united their patriotic rhetoric with the religious fervor that defined the early nineteenth century.

The abolitionists' argumentative strategy constitutes the final parallel Watson discerns between the Anti-Slavery Society's manifesto and the Declaration of Independence. That strategy entailed enumerating the abuses suffered under slavery and providing a course of action to remedy the abuse. Although Watson's rendering of the parallels between the problems of the slaves and those of the patriots merits attention, her analysis of the abolitionists' rhetorical shrewdness in advocating a course of action is even more striking. On her reading, anti-slavery advocates separated the evils of the practice of slavery from the political philosophy that allowed that practice, concentrating their explicit attacks on the evils of the practice. This tactic permitted the abhorrent political philosophy that underlay the practice of slavery to be addressed indirectly. Abolitionists explicitly recognized State sovereignty, conceding that the “present national compact” precluded federal interference. Their goal, then, was to alter the national compact through “moral suasion and political action.”

Watson's analysis of the abolitionists' rhetorical sleight of hand in separating adherence to current law from a philosophical disagreement with the law is telling. For she builds her case carefully and compellingly, relying almost exclusively on the texts of the “Declaration of Sentiments” and the Declaration of Independence in so doing. Intentionally or not, this concentration reinforces Black's conviction that the rhetorical critic's province lies in the evaluation of appearances, as those appearances are manifested in textual data.11 The analysis also reveals the value of close textual analysis, whether the critic's concentration is on the text as a discrete field of rhetorical action, or, as is Watson's concern, on discourse as a resource of fragments for the [re]construction of meaning over time. Although there is much to commend her use of the data for her explicit analytical purposes, Watson's paper provides evidence as well of the value of critical pluralism. For in addition to its interanimative functions in relation to the Declaration of Independence and the woman's rights statement issued at Seneca Falls, the abolitionists' document operated instrumentally to unify disparate convention delegates at Philadelphia in 1833.


Early in her analysis, Professor Watson terms the American Anti-Slavery Society's “Declaration of Sentiments” the “first important statement of principles of what became [a] major, national social movement in the nineteenth century,” a movement for which Garrison served as a “primary spokesperson.” Both Garrison's text and the woman's rights Declaration at Seneca Falls, she adds, “merit consideration in their own right.” John Campbell's notion of social-textual studies provides one perspective from which productive consideration proceeds. In the case of Garrison at Philadelphia, such a study entails examination of (1) the evolution and nature of Garrison's public advocacy, (2) the events of the summer and fall of 1833 that set the context from which the American Anti-Slavery Society document issued, and (3) the social-textual dynamics of the Declaration of Sentiments as situated rhetoric. Approached in this fashion, the present critique suggests the potential for mutually productive interaction between the practices of “ideological” criticism and the “close reading” of texts.

The dearth of rhetorical-critical analyses of William Lloyd Garrison's reform advocacy is striking, not least because Garrison's career spanned virtually half the century and ranged across myriad issues.12 Abolition reigned supreme, but movements for temperance, women's rights, John Humphrey Noyes' doctrine of Perfectionism, and peace occupied his time and attention as well. Born in 1805, Garrison grew up poor, his father increasingly absent until deserting the family completely in 1808. Unable to care adequately for all of her children, his mother eventually apprenticed Garrison at age 13 to the printer of the Newburyport, Mass., Herald. The apprentice educated himself while spending seven years learning his trade.

In the process, Garrison's rhetorical character took shape, a character defined equally by a keen sense of audience and a penchant for powerful language. At the base of Garrison's rhetoric was the need for an audience, a need he began to fulfill by writing anonymous letters to the editor during his years in servitude. The presence of an audience, whether readers reviled or admired his claims, sustained Garrison throughout his career, even as he experienced incarceration, persecution, and death threats. “Anything,” his biographer Walter Merrill writes, “so long as people would listen.”13 He acquired an audience for his reform views in 1829 when he accepted Benjamin Lundy's invitation to co-edit The Genius of Universal Emancipation, then located in Baltimore. Perhaps because of an upbringing characterized by poverty and a forced apprenticeship, Garrison sought to understand slavery from the slave's perspective. Wendell Phillips, a contemporary who knew Garrison as well as any of his associates, contended that the abolitionist cause owed its success to the “fact that he looked upon the great questions posed by the state and by the church as a Negro looked upon them.”14

Garrison arrived at this perspective shortly into his editorship of The Genius, which carried Lundy's endorsement of the American Colonization Society. The Society favored colonization rather than emancipation as the ideal remedy to slavery. Influenced by events in Britain, however, where slavery in the West Indies was being combatted under the banner of “immediate emancipation,” Garrison became increasingly strident in his rejection of the expatriation option. In the 13 November 1829 issue of The Genius, for example, he erroneously charged Francis Todd and Nicholas Brown, owner and captain of the Francis, with engaging illegally in the coastal slave trade. Garrison was prosecuted for libel the following spring, convicted, and sentenced to six months in jail. He served 49 days, during which time his commitment to immediate emancipation intensified. He left prison determined to establish an alternative voice to the Genius's influential call for colonization.

Garrison intended initially to settle in Washington, D.C., but before he could do so Lundy moved The Genius to the nation's capital. So instead he returned to Boston, and on 1 January 1831 the nation heard the alternative voice for the first time. In the first issue of The Liberator, Garrison specified five groups that would define his audience. He anticipated emotional support from religious readers, financial relief from philanthropists, and shared love of country from patriots. A fourth group consisted in the “ignorant, the cold-hearted, The Tyrannical,” whom Garrison expected to instruct and to recruit to the cause of humanity's collective good. But above all, he addressed the “free colored,” for “we know that you are now struggling against wind and tide.”15

To aid in that struggle, Garrison promised an advocacy couched in severe language, but a language no harsher than the reprehensible institution that emancipationists sought to abolish. The first issue of The Liberator engaged the question of Garrison's suasory strategy in what has been termed the “most famous passage”16 in all of his writings:

I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—And I will be Heard. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.17

Garrison's combining of familial images with metaphors grounded in nature defined his advocacy for the two years between the establishment of The Liberator and the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society. And his unyielding devotion to full emancipation resulted consistently in language designed “to sting and to rebuke.” In concert with Campbell's notion of longitudinal case studies, the examination of discursive fragments is telling here for what it reveals about the evolution of the rhetorical strategy and tactics that undergirded the “Declaration of Sentiments.” Evident early on are Garrison's affinity for edifice metaphors and his characterization of slave owners and transporters as “manstealers,” both of which Watson cites as central to her reading of the “Declaration” as a link in the chain of interanimation with the Declaration of Independence and the Seneca Falls text.

Both figures contribute as well, however, to the evolution of a suasory repertoire that would inform Garrison's instrumental rhetoric at Philadelphia. Consider, for instance, the abolitionist's “Address Before the Free People of Color,” which he delivered at the Belknap-Street Church on 2 April 1833. It is not the edifice metaphor's presence alone that merits note. Rather, it is Garrison's strategic insinuation of the figure into his discourse, which reflects the careful use of language to dislodge an accepted or established image (or reality) in preparation for replacing it with a new image. Paul Ricoeur contends that the power to create a new reality by imposing a metaphor which “redescribes reality,” is contingent first on “creating rifts in the old order.” Such images work best, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson add, when cast in experiential terms.18 On this view, Garrison's instantiation of the edifice metaphor as a recurring theme in his discourse depended on his ability initially to depict slavery in the most heinous and despicable terms, then to substitute for forced servitude a palatable experiential reality. The edifice metaphor comprised the desirable alternative, particularly when contrasted with the “whip” and “chain” that Garrison let stand metonymically for the peculiar institution:

God will blow [slavery] into countless fragments, so that not the remnant of a whip or chain can be found in all the South, and so that upon its ruins may be erected the beautiful temple of freedom. I will not waste my strength in foolishly endeavoring to beat down this great Bastille with a feather. I will not commence at the roof, and throw off its tiles by piecemeal. I am for adopting a more summary method of demolishing it. I am for digging under its foundations, and springing a mine that shall not leave one stone upon another.19

In a tactic that recurred in his discourse, Garrison juxtaposed the anti-slavery advocates' desire to construct a “temple of freedom” with their opponents' “manstealing” practices. Alluding initially to his modest skill in expressing a forceful case, Garrison's words belied his professed limitations:

I wish I could denounce slavery, and all its abettors, in terms equal to their infamy. But, shame to tell! I can apply to him who steals the liberties of hundreds of his fellow-creatures, and lacerates their bodies, and plunders them all of their hard earnings, only the same epithet that is applied by all to a man who steals a shilling in his community. I call the slaveholder a thief because he steals human beings and reduces them to the conditions of brutes; and I am thought to be abusive! … I never will dilute or modify my language against slavery—against the plunderers of my fellow-men—against American kidnappers.20

As his sense of audience matured, as his appreciation for the strategic and tactical powers of language evolved, Garrison's oratory and writing between 1829 and 1833 contributed to an emerging rhetorical character. And as his role as a public man developed, his notoriety grew at home and abroad. Invitations to foreign travel and speaking engagements increased concurrently. His “Address Before the Free People of Color” in April 1833 was, in fact, part of a farewell tour that preceded Garrison's journey to England to raise funds for Boston's Manual Labor School. As summer progressed, he turned his attention from the original purpose to track the progress of Britain's policy of abolishing slavery in the West Indies. The British commitment to emancipation reinforced Garrison's conclusion that colonization constituted a misguided course. These events of the summer of 1833 both solidifed key dimensions of Garrison's public advocacy and portended the conflict that would create a unique rhetorical situation to be engaged at Philadelphia in December.

During his months in England, Garrison encountered Elliott Cresson, an agent for the American Colonization Society. Despite his own support for colonization early in his abolitionist advocacy,21 Garrison had little tolerance for those who could not see the wisdom of emancipation, and he challenged Cresson to public debate. Cresson declined the invitation, but he followed Garrison's public appearances, giving particular attention to incidents that might help at home to portray the emancipationist as an unpatriotic radical. Garrison provided the materials for such a characterization on July 13, when he addressed an anti-colonization meeting in London. Introduced at Exter Hall by British abolitionist George Thompson, Garrison announced himself a “citizen of the world,” and recited a series of charges against the United States. His opening sentence echoed the phrase that had headed each issue of The Liberator from its inception on 1 January 1831: “My country is the world and my countrymen are all mankind.22 It “is true,” he continued, “in a geographical sense, I am now in a foreign territory; but still it is a part of my country. I am in the midst of strangers; but still surrounded by my countrymen. There must be limits to civil governments and national domains.”23

At one level, such an introduction might be interpreted simply as a skilled orator flattering the assembly. But Garrison's message functioned at other levels as well, not least of which was the apparent disparagement of his citizenship in a nation against which he held serious grievances. Although he declared a strong “love for the land of my nativity” and pride in “her civil, political, and religious institutions,” Garrison averred that he had “some solemn accusations to bring against her.” Nine successive paragraphs then began, “I accuse.” Garrison's recitation of the charges reflected his propensity for appropriating the nation's founding documents for argumentative purposes, his finely honed talent for powerful language, and his use of familial images to equate the evils of slavery with the destruction of civilization:

I accuse her, before all nations, of giving an open, deliberate and base denial to her boasted Declaration, that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” …

I accuse her of legalizing, on enormous scale, licentiousness, fraud, cruelty and murder. …

I accuse her of stealing the liberties of two millions of the creatures of God, and withholding the just recompense of their labor; of ruthlessly invading the holiest relations of life, and cruelly separating the dearest ties of nature; of denying these miserable victims necessary food and clothing for their perishable bodies, and light and knowledge for their immortal souls; of tearing the husband from his wife, the mother from her babe, and children from their parents, and perpetrating upon the poor and needy every species of outrage and oppression.24

Such cues reflect the continuing evolution of Garrison's public voice, a voice understood most fully neither through the accumulation of fragmentary data nor from the Philadelphia manifesto in isolation, but from an appreciation for both as complementary dimensions of his advocacy. Elliott Cresson and American Colonization Society adherents ensured that Garrison's alleged lack of patriotism evident in that advocacy preceded his return across the Atlantic in the fall. Potential American Anti-Slavery Society supporters thus balked at the need to rush forward, particularly with the controversial Garrison in a central role. Yet Garrison persevered, eschewing caution as a temporary victory for slavery proponents, and he proceeded to Philadelphia for the American Anti-Slavery Society organizational meetings in early December. Once in residence, Garrison encountered an audience that constituted a demanding rhetorical challenge.

That audience merits consideration. Leaders of regional anti-slavery societies scheduled a meeting for Philadelphia in the fall of 1833 to form a national organization. Under pressure from citizens of Philadelphia, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, philanthropists and founders of the New York Anti-Slavery Society, agreed to exercise their influence to postpone the national meeting to the spring of 1834. Garrison, however, insisted on acting swiftly. With the backing of his New England Anti-Slavery Society, Garrison's case carried the day, and a meeting was called for 5-6 December 1833, at Philadelphia. Although united by their opposition to slavery, participants ranged from the moderate stance assumed by the Tappans and their followers to the more radical posture of Garrison and his supporters. Once assembled, delegates drafted a constitution, which proved to be more a set of organizational guidelines than an inspirational document that might generate fervor for the society's cause. Recognizing the need for such a document, participants appointed a committee to prepare what would become the Declaration of Sentiments, and a subcommittee selected Garrison to draft its report. Garrison worked through the night, presenting his draft to the subcommittee the next morning. After debating—and ultimately deleting—a single paragraph, the subcommittee and committee of the whole commended Garrison's document to the assembled delegates.25

Professor Watson reads the abolitionists' use of structural and space metaphors, the connections made between their cause and that of the founding fathers, and the parallels between the argumentative approaches evinced in the abolitionists' manifesto and the Declaration of Independence as evidence of the texts' interdependence. Her analysis is at least equally valuable, though, for the potential insight provided for a study that would attempt neither to isolate the text, nor to “seal it off” from its context, but that would aspire to understand the instrumentality of Garrison's manifesto.

As instrumental rhetoric, the “Declaration of Sentiments” is a critical marker in the solidification of the nineteenth century anti-slavery movement. The meeting at Philadelphia culminated early efforts to focus public attention on the slavery controversy, and pitted moderates against radicals in the quest to define the next stage of movement activism. This is a crucial phase in a social movement's life cycle, as the goal shifts from establishing public awareness of a perceived ill to adopting a document that identifies the problem's root causes and prescribes fitting remedies.26 The advantage rests with leaders who can function as visionaries as well as agitators, leaders possessed of the rhetorical facility to shape the form and content of the manifesto in which subsequent activism will be grounded.

Garrison proved such a leader in crafting the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a document that can be read as the culmination of four years of public advocacy for immediate emancipation. Watson's attention to the parallels between Garrison's work and the Declaration of Independence informs such a reading, but so does an appreciation for the manifesto's instrumental dimensions, beginning with structure. Although Watson acknowledges the importance of the broad organizational framework of the Anti-Slavery Society's text, with its movement from a recitation of grievances to a plan of action, she is less concerned with the importance of this tack for Garrison's convention audience. But it is the carefully constructed framework of the forty-four paragraph document that enabled Garrison to adapt antecedent tactics to immediate suasory purposes.

The first four paragraphs comprise Garrison's introduction, wherein the convention's Philadelphia setting and emancipatory purpose are linked to the founders' meeting fifty-seven years earlier. Paragraphs five through seven distinguish the abolitionists' means and ends from those of their forebears, with particular attention to the Revolutionary Fathers' willingness to employ violence to resolve grievances. Although averring the severity of those grievances, paragraphs eight and nine document the even more reprehensible circumstance of “Two Millions of our people,” the enslaved who constitute one-sixth of the nation's population. “Hence we maintain,” a single sentence paragraph ten, begins a series of six paragraphs specifying slavery as a violation of civil, religious, and natural right. Paragraph sixteen—“Therefore we believe and affirm”—initiates a second successive series of linked claims, declaring first that “there is no difference, in principle, between the African slave trade and American slavery,” and announcing in conclusion that all laws “admitting the right of slavery” are “utterly null and void.” Paragraphs twenty-two through thirty articulate the terms of a satisfactory resolution of the abolitionists' grievances: equality for all citizens, no compensation for slave owners, and nothing less than the “immediate and total abolition of slavery.” The next four paragraphs engage the difficult issue of states' rights. Garrison acknowledges the sovereignty of each state to legislate on slavery, but he adds quickly that Congress has the right to abolish slavery where the Constitution prevails; more importantly, the “highest obligations” mandate that citizens of the free states “remove slavery by moral and political action.”27

Their “views and principles” thus established, in signing the “Declaration of Sentiments” convention delegates pledged themselves to a sustained course of action:

We shall organize Anti-Slavery Societies, if possible, in every city, town, and village of our land.

We shall send forth Agents to lift up the voice of remonstrance, of warning, of entreaty and rebuke.

We shall circulate, unsparingly and extensively, anti-slavery tracts and periodicals.

We shall enlist the Pulpit and the Press in the cause of the suffering and the dumb.

We shall aim at a purification of the churches from all participation in the guilt of slavery.

We shall encourage the labor of freemen over that of the slaves, by giving a preference to their productions;—and

We shall spare no exertions nor means to bring the whole nation to speedy repentance.

Our trust for victory is solely in God. We may be personally defeated, but our principles never.28

A final paragraph pledged delegates “to overthrow the most execrable system of slavery that has ever been witnessed upon earth—to deliver our land from its deadliest curse—to wipe out the foulest stain which rests upon our national escutcheon.”

Garrison arrived in Philadelphia directly from a controversial tour of England and a tumultuous return to the United States. Recognizing the diversity of his audience, yet committed to the radical cause of abolition, he adapted brilliantly to the situational constraints the convention presented. A master of strident language, he agreed to erase from his original draft the most controversial paragraph submitted to the subcommittee.29 Remaining vociferous language was retained for its functional value, for its capacity to articulate the Anti-Slavery Society's grievances or to delineate remedies. The shock value of language that would “rebuke” was essential to focusing the nation's attention on slavery; a more refined prose would help convert that attention to action. Hence, when Garrison called forth the familial images that defined earlier discourse, the images served as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves. Consider the following:

… those for whose emancipation we are striving … are ruthlessly torn asunder—the tender babe from the arms of its frantic mother—the heart-broken wife from her weeping husband—at the caprice or pleasure of irresponsible tyrants;—and for the crime of having a dark complexion, [they] suffer the pangs of hunger, the infliction of stripes, and the ignominy of brutal servitude.30

Garrison's style here contrasts sharply with the avowedly “harsh” and “uncompromising” tone characteristic of The Liberator's first issue, as well as of much of Garrison's discourse in the intervening two years. Where severity was in order to dislodge the culture's dominant “reality,” Garrison intuitively understood that moderation was more likely to accommodate a diverse audience convened to establish a national anti-slavery society. That he responded appropriately not only marked a critical juncture in the life of the abolitionist movement, but also in the evolution of Garrison's rhetorical character.31


Still four days shy of his twenty-eighth birthday on 6 December 1833, William Lloyd Garrison proposed for adoption a Declaration of Sentiments to serve as the founding document of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Textual and contextual evidence reveals that Garrison brought to the task a fervent commitment to immediate emancipation and a powerful rhetorical repertoire with which to advance the cause. Yet he was immensely sensitive to the competing sentiments of his audience, a gathering not fully convinced of the superiority of emancipation over colonization, and a public averse to his alleged lack of patriotism before British audiences. The Declaration of Independence and reverence for the founding fathers thus formed integral features of an instrumental rhetoric aimed at swaying doubters and sustaining the emancipationist cause. On this reading, Garrison's structural and stylistic tactics thus evinced immediate suasory purposes outside the explanatory scope of an interanimationist analytical project.

Clearly such a reading centers on traditional analytical topoi of context, audience, rhetor, and text. But it does not do so with an eye toward “privileging” one tack over another. Attention to text is offered instead as a contribution to discussion and debate about the place of public address studies in the larger scholarly conversation. Projects that feature text not only inform but in some ways define the uniqueness of the discipline's contribution. In Martin Medhurst's view, for example, rhetorical-critical studies will influence intellectual engagements when projects eventuate in scholarship that “makes a difference.” Interest “in the functioning of texts is the sine qua non of making a difference,” he contends, “for it is in the explication of the rhetorical dynamics of the text that public address scholars are (or ought to be) most expert.”32 This is not to demean the place of context in scholarship but rather, as Stephen Lucas advises, to urge an appreciation for the “rhetorical artistry” of important texts.33 And Dilip Gaonkar emphasizes the interdependence of text and context when he notes that the “pressing task, for which ‘textual studies’ are ideally suited, is to offer an understanding of ‘contexts’ (non-discursive formations) through a reading of texts (discursive formations) while allowing the text to retain its integrity as a field of action.”34

In her critical project, Martha Watson finds a focus on a text's “integrity as a field of action” too confining. Her interest in the abolitionists' and suffragists' Declarations of Sentiments stems from the extent to which the texts “appropriated and exploited the rhetorical force embedded in the Declaration of Independence in different, but equally powerful ways.” More importantly, she argues, “the interpretations of the Declaration of Independence provided in the two documents altered and shifted its meaning significantly.” Professor Watson's readings of the documents commend the vitality of public address scholarship. Her attention to textual detail, probing argument, analytical insight, and persuasive prose urge careful reading and contemplation of her thesis. Watson's explanation and application of intertextuality promises a valuable addition to the rhetorical critic's inventory of analytical approaches.

Textual and contextual evidence in this examination of the “Declaration of Sentiments” crafted by Garrison confirms Watson's contention that the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the achievements of the founding fathers informed Garrison's suasory strategy and tactics. Moreover, to the extent that her analysis reveals the interanimation of these texts in combination with the woman's rights Declaration of Sentiments, she achieves, in John Campbell's terms, a productive and instructive “act of criticism.” Yet the critique need not be viewed as incompatible with a reading of the abolitionists' text as an immediate call for action, designed to unify a disparate audience.35 Rather, Watson's analysis may combine with a textual-social assessment to provide an even larger understanding of the texts themselves. As divergent, yet complementary, voices in a scholarly conversation, the interanimationist and textual-social perspectives operate together to yield a more comprehensive understanding of the promise and prospect of rhetorical-critical studies than does either voice speaking in isolation.


  1. Edwin Black, Rhetorical Questions: Studies of Public Discourse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 17-18.

  2. James R. Andrews, review of Stephen H. Browne, Edmund Burke and the Discourse of Virtue (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press 1993) in Quarterly Journal of Speech 81 (1995): 253-54.

  3. Stephen H. Browne, Edmund Burke and the Discourse of Virtue (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993), 2, 4.

  4. The idea that “rhetorical experiences” constitute the critic's focus of study is borrowed from Wayne Brockriede, “Rhetorical Criticism as Argument,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 60 (1974): 165-74.

  5. Malcolm O. Sillars, Messages, Meanings, and Culture (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 10-11.

  6. See, for example, the “dialogue” in the “Forum” of the Quarterly Journal of Speech 78 (1992): Michael Leff, “Things Made By Words: Reflections on Textual Criticism,” 223-31, and Barbara Warnick, “Leff in Context: What is the Critic's Role?”, 232-37.

  7. John Angus Campbell, “Between the Fragment and the Icon: Prospect for a Rhetorical House of the Middle Way,” Western Journal of Speech Communication 54 (1990): 347, 368.

  8. Recent works indicating the prospective value of such inquiry are Gregory Clark and S. Michael Halloran, Oratorical Culture in Nineteenth Century America: Transformations in the Theory and Practice of Rhetoric (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993), and Kenneth Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence: The Fight over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

  9. The notion of “iconic criticism” as approached by Watson and in this essay is exemplified in Michael Leff and Andrew Sachs, “Words the Most Like Things: Iconicity and the Rhetorical Text,” Western Journal of Speech Communication 54 (1990): 252-73.

  10. American Anti-Slavery Society, “Declaration of Sentiments,” 6 December 1833, Three Centuries of American Rhetorical Discourse, ed. Ronald F. Reid (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland, 1988), 343. I follow Martha Watson's lead in using this version of the document, further references to which are cited in the text of this paper. An alternative text includes an additional paragraph, which would be inserted between paragraphs 31 and 32 of this version. That text is in Wendell Phillips Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, ed., William Lloyd Garrison: The Story of His Life (1885; reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969), 408-12.

  11. Black, Rhetorical Questions, 9.

  12. Rudimentary background, but limited analytical detail, is provided in Robert T. Oliver, History of Public Speaking in America (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1965), 229-32; Lloyd Rohler, “William Lloyd Garrison: Abolitionist,” American Orators Before 1900, ed. Bernard K. Duffy and Halford R. Ryan (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), 183-89; and D. Ray Heisey, “Slavery: America's Irrepressible Conflict,” America in Controversy: History of American Public Address, ed. Dewitte Holland (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1973), 103-21. Remarkably, but a single journal article touches on Garrison, and in that Loren Reid examines Garrison as the rhetor's subject rather than as rhetor: “Bright's Tributes to Garrison and Field,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 61 (1975): 169-77.

  13. Walter M. Merrill, Against Wind and Tide: A Biography of William Lloyd Garrison (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 46.

  14. Truman Nelson, ed., Documents of Upheaval: Selections from William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, 1831-1865 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1966), xv. Celeste Michelle Condit and John Louis Lucaites, in a masterful scholarly enterprise, similarly credit Garrison's capacity for empathy. On their reading, however, white abolitionists owed an equal or greater debt to the public rhetorical efforts of African Americans. See: Crafting Equality: America's Anglo-African Word (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 69-72 passim.

  15. Merrill, Against Wind and Tide, 47-48.

  16. Ibid., 45.

  17. William Lloyd Garrison, “To the Public,” The Liberator, 1 January 1831, reprinted in Garrison and Garrison, ed., William Lloyd Garrison, 225. See also: Three Centuries of American Rhetorical Discourse, ed. Reid, 321-23.

  18. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, trans. Robert Czerny (1975; reprint, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), 22; George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 153-57.

  19. Garrison and Garrison, eds., William Lloyd Garrison, 335.

  20. Ibid., 336.

  21. Perhaps the most complete statement of Garrison's brief endorsement of colonization is his 4 July 1829 address at Boston's Park Street Church, ibid., 127-37.

  22. The Liberator carried the motto, “Our Country is the World—Our Countrymen are Mankind” on the masthead of each issue, ibid., 219, 233.

  23. William Lloyd Garrison, “Address at London's Exeter Hall,” 13 July 1833, ibid., 369.

  24. Ibid., 372-73.

  25. Delegates representing ten of the union's twelve free states participated; sixty-three delegates signed the final document. For accounts of Garrison's role in pushing for the society's formation, drafting the document, and securing the Declaration's adoption, see: Russel B. Nye, William Lloyd Garrison and the Humanitarian Reformers (Boston: Little, Brown, 1955), 68-72; John L. Thomas, The Liberator (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963), 171-76; Garrison and Garrison, eds., William Lloyd Garrison, 397-419; and Merrill, Against Wind and Tide, 76-80.

  26. Charles J. Stewart, Craig Allen Smith, and Robert E. Denton, Jr., Persuasion and Social Movements, 3d ed. (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1994), chap. 4.

  27. American Anti-Slavery Society, “Declaration of Sentiments,” 343-46.

  28. Ibid., 346.

  29. Garrison and Garrison, eds., William Lloyd Garrison, 400.

  30. American Anti-Slavery Society, “Declaration of Sentiments,” 344.

  31. Subsequent abolitionist activism would be measured against the terms of advocacy defined by the American Anti-Slavery Society at Philadelphia: Aileen S. Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1969).

  32. Martin J. Medhurst, “Public Address and Significant Scholarship: Four Challenges to the Rhetorical Renaissance,” Texts in Context: Critical Dialogues on Significant Episodes in American Political Rhetoric, ed. Michael C. Leff and Fred J. Kauffeld (Davis, Calif.: Hermagoras Press, 1989), 30 and 35-36.

  33. Stephen E. Lucas, “The Renaissance of American Public Address: Text and Context in Rhetorical Criticism,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 74 (1988): 246-52.

  34. Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, “The Oratorical Text: The Enigma of Arrival,” Texts in Context, ed. Leff and Kauffeld, 275.

  35. For an explanation of the concept of critical or rhetorical compatibility, see Black, Rhetorical Questions, 14-16.

Robert A. Fanuzzi (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9381

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 that the prospects for the slaves' emancipation waxed and waned with the proliferation of writing. In the mid-1830s, the MASS mailed antislavery publications in mass quantities to civic leaders, newspaper editors, and post offices in both the North and South. In 1837 alone, it issued 711,277 publications, which Garrison noted were falling “thicker than raindrops … nourishing the soil of freedom.”1 Although their publicity campaign elicited a hostile reaction from political officials, newspaper editors, and most infamously, violent mobs, the abolitionists persisted. A typical budget for the MASS allotted far more money to printing and distribution than any other expenditure, including the remuneration of their often imperiled traveling agents.2

Accompanying the abolitionists' practical investment was an orthodox faith in the progress of the people, whom they regarded not only as the collective author of their publications but as the protagonists of the anti-slavery struggle. No one expressed this faith better than Garrison, who editorialized against the mounting outbreaks of anti-abolitionist violence in 1835. In casting the abolitionists as the representatives of an activist, liberty-loving, and informed public, he effectively reduced the issue of abolition to the right of free speech:

The great question to be settled is not merely whether 2,000,000 slaves in our land shall be immediately or gradually emancipated—or whether they shall be colonized abroad or retained in our midst; but whether freedom is with us—The People of the United States—a reality or a mockery;—whether the liberty of speech and of the press, purchased with the toils and suffering and precious blood of our fathers, is still to be enjoyed, unquestioned and complete—or whether padlocks are to be put upon our lips, gags into our mouths, and shackles upon that great palladium of human rights, the press.3

The metaphoric padlocks, shackles, and gags were all too real to the enslaved, but Garrison intended the free circulation of abolitionist publications to provide freedom for all in the form of inclusive public discussion, unfettered public liberty, and renewed public life. His efforts centered on the Liberator, which he offered as the one truly public medium in the disputation of the slavery question, where all positions could be “freely and impartially heard.” In the full use of their reason as well as in their disinterested consideration of the public good, abolitionists thus would constitute more than a movement. Through the medium of the Liberator, they would reconstitute “The People” in the historic role that Garrison cast them and complete a stalled democratic revolution.4

At the 1837 annual convention of the MASS, abolitionists actively identified themselves with the Liberator, acclaiming it as the “great pioneer” and thus to be “identified with the success of our cause.”5 As the society moved toward more radical positions against voting, partisanship, and the American constitutional system, the newspaper became more acclaimed or, alternately, feared as a democratic force with revolutionary aims and prerogatives: “the most factious and disorganizing journal,” wrote one hostile editor, “that aims at the severance of the Federal Union.”6 Yet if the Liberator represented the New England abolitionists as an insurgent public, bent on fulfilling an historic destiny, it also represented the voice and will of its editor, William Lloyd Garrison. The first issue was inaugurated with an almost satanic act of self-assertion—“I will be heard,” screamed the editorial in 1831—and thereafter answered only to its editor's prerogatives. Even when the members of the MASS were recognizing the newspaper as their own, Garrison declared his freedom from any organizational directive. “I do not wish the Liberator to be the organ either of this or any other Society,” he told the MASS in 1837, “… and I am quite sure that I shall not permit any persons to control my pen, or establish a censorship over my writings.”7 So if the Liberator was to be the medium of a resurgent public, it was also, in Garrison's own estimation, “the organ of an individual,” a status that he favorably compared with an “organ of a society.”8

Who spoke through and for the Liberator? Given Garrison's declaration of editorial independence, this may seem a simple question, but when we consider that the autonomy which he exercised through the newspaper seemed to hasten the abolitionists' awareness of themselves as an insurgent movement, we are left wondering in what position, or in what identity, the Liberator left Garrison. This essay investigates the role of the Liberator in recreating its single editor in the image and voice of the public. It argues that Garrison's outsized persona as the leader, if not the embodiment, of the New England abolition movement, which came to be known as Garrisonism, did not originate in an overbearing personal temperament or in the excesses of reform-era idealism. Rather, it derived from the social, political, and economic structures of the print marketplace that Garrison put in place through the management of the Liberator. Scholars of 18th-century America have looked back upon the print marketplace as the social stage and discursive medium for realizing an informed, disinterested, and autonomous people.9 In the study of the Liberator, we have the opportunity to see how a historically conscious reform movement adapted these republican ideals not only to the uncongenial circumstances of the Jacksonian era but to the identity of a single person.

In regarding Garrison's identity as an effect of the Liberator, this essay presents the newspaper as a hybrid medium, rooted in the political values and social practices of 18th-century republicanism while advancing the individualist ethos of 19th-century liberalism. Thus, the first half of this essay recounts Garrison's management of the newspaper, which was designed to recreate the political economy, market infrastructure, and social ideal of a rational, informed citizenry. The second half describes how these efforts ended up ceding the faculties, capabilities, and responsibilities of the public to a private person whose very name became synonymous with the radicalism of the abolition movement.10 Whether the Liberator ultimately represented the fulfillment or the derailment of Garrison's plans for the abolition movement is a question that might be better answered by the conclusion of the essay. But, at the outset, it is worth noting that our attention to the institutional history and politics of this newspaper makes it difficult to determine the identity of its editorial, or authorial, voice with the categories of American intellectual history.11 Like the Liberator, Garrison's persona as leader of the New England abolition movement and as the origin of Garrisonism might represent the public values of republicanism in the liberal form of individualism.


Although Garrison referred to the Liberator as “the organ of an individual,” he would consistently use his propriety interest in the newspaper to present it as the voice of the people. One such occasion was presented by the “Clerical Appeals” controversy of 1837. As editor of the Liberator, he had always sought the vilification of the clergy and particularly that of the Protestant establishment's American Colonizationist Society. More particularly, he sought the legacy of the urban printer class, who had brought an egalitarian anticlerical republicanism from its origins in 18th-century Deism into 19th-century artisan culture.12 At the height of his fame, he called himself a “poor, self-educated mechanic” and reveled in the clergy's depredation of him as a “low lived, ignorant, insignificant mechanic … connected to no church.”13 These class and political antagonisms drove Garrison straight into the arms of the patron saint/infidel traducer of radical printers and editors, Thomas Paine, in whose name he claimed, “The cry is heard everywhere for free speech, that ‘Right may prevail and Imposture put to flight.’”14

Garrison did hold the New England clergy accountable for its genial antislavery position and its tepid stance on abolition. However, his characterization of them as “blind leaders of the blind, dumb dogs that cannot bark”15 suggests that he was also deliberately establishing himself and his newspaper in the often vitriolic anticlerical print culture of Paine and his antebellum descendants. For their part, the Protestant ministers acutely recognized Garrison's class and political orientation and had other plans for the newspaper. In a series of letters to the Orthodox Congregational Churches of New England and published in the New England Spectator, they condemned Garrison's criticisms as “wicked and base insinuations, the meanest and vilest form of lying” that “heap[ed] abuse upon ministers of the gospel and other excellent Christians, who do not feel prepared to enter fully into the efforts of anti-slavery societies.”16 The last of the letters proposed to silence the Liberator either by taking it over or by making the Spectator the “new public organ” of the MASS.

The Clerical Appeal caught the attention of many abolitionists within the MASS. A group of sympathizers offered the always penurious newspaper a generous subsidy, from which Garrison deduced a “mighty sectarian conspiracy” designed to regain control of the antislavery movement. A loyal faction of the MASS stood by him, but when the leaders of the New York-based American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS, the nominal parent of the MASS) issued a terse statement calling their organization a “Christian society,” they indicated their preference for the Liberator to become an organ of the Protestant establishment and for the abolition movement itself to revert to an interdenominational charitable mission, charged with promoting colonization, “relief” and “improvement” for African-American freedmen, or evangelical renewal.17 The complicated question of whether the abolition movement was religious in character would apparently be settled by determining the voice of the Liberator.

Garrison was able to establish the political orientation of the Liberator and speak with the voice of anticlerical republicanism by ignoring differences in antislavery principles and treating the “Clerical Appeals” controversy as a newspaper war. His first impulse in his “Layman's Reply” was to question whether the authors' decision to publish the letters in the unfriendly Spectator and not in the Liberator was “manly or ingenuous”; then he dismissed the letters' arguments as “the same dolorous cant which has so long characterized the Boston Recorder, Christian Mirror, Vermont Chronicle, & c. & c.” Garrison considered the clergy's current antagonism toward him as but an extension of the hostile editorials in the newspapers that their denominations subsidized:

All these [accusations in the “Appeal”] are merely the stale repetitions of what has been falsely iterated a thousand times over by pro-slavery advocates and mawkish apologists of slave-holders ever since my voice was first lifted up in the cause of my enslaved countrymen. They have not even the poor merit of originality—being most palpable plagiarisms from the columns of all the colonization press in the land.

The current accusations were for Garrison only the latest volley in a printed war of words that had begun in 1829 with his vituperative anticlergy pamphlet, Thoughts on African Colonization. The press, the clergy, and the colonization movement all spoke with the same voice against him because, he charged, they were bound together in a form of political organization that utilized the prevailing technologies of printing, distribution, and newspaper financing. In the “Layman's Reply,” he referred to this system of organization as a “press-gang system,” which incorporated ostensibly impartial readers and citizens into unthinking loyal partisans. With this label, Garrison believed he had identified the most powerful apparatus in New England political society.

The insight was accurate but also obvious. The press-gang system described business as usual for the subscriber newspaper marketplace, the predominant method of buying and selling newspapers in the antebellum era. Before the advent of the penny press, almost all newspapers were the subsidized organs of political parties, private societies, or religious denominations. So dependent were newspapers on their partisan organizations for their financial support that an 1850 census revealed that only 5 percent referred to themselves as “neutral”.18 Influential newspapers such as the Boston (Congregational) Recorder and the Boston (Whig) Atlas received much of their financial support and thus their editorial agenda from their respective organizations. Although these newspapers solicited readers as ardently as they advanced their cause, they were distributed to subscribers who were already members of the subsidizing organization, whether it be an abolition society, a pacifist organization, or the local Democratic party. What we would recognize today as “news” was neither reported nor solicited; newspapers reprinted the editorials of a partisan group as well as the commercial news that pertained to those in the corresponding social grouping. Subscription newspapers thus implicated nearly every reader in political disputation and were a decisive medium of consensus building. An impartial, literate public was neither addressed nor imagined; instead, information was exchanged within existing structures of interest, faction, and partisanship.

Garrison defined the politics of the abolition movement against those of the Protestant establishment and the partisan newspaper marketplace when he severed the financial connection between the Liberator and the MASS. Although the paper had never been the official organ of the society, members annually voted a subsidy for the Liberator in the belief that, as one member contended, it was “utterly out of the question for a moral reform paper to be sustained by its subscription list.”19 By refusing this token gesture of support, Garrison hoped to place the Liberator on new ground, beyond the reach of the “sectarian conspiracy.” The “Prospectus” of the newspaper for the new year (1838) directly referred to the influence of the clergy upon the MASS and its designs upon the newspaper:

In thus dissolving [the connection with the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society], we are actuated by a desire to remove those scruples or doubts which may exist as to the propriety of such a connection, even though they are confined to the breasts of very few individuals … [The paper has survived,] notwithstanding the ungenerous attempt, on the part of certain professed abolitionists, to injure if they could not suppress the Liberator, by seeking an unprovoked and sectarian quarrel with it. …20

The intentions of the clerical disputants were for Garrison an example of the power of the press-gang system. As the recent controversy demonstrated, that power could be subtle yet oppressive, enlisting the abolitionists' desire for respectability, unanimity, and accountability against a source of unfettered, often dyspeptic, discussion. To the extent to which these values obtained within the abolition movement or within any social grouping, the press-gang system worked silently, unobtrusively, and harmoniously within the established structures of antebellum society. Although Garrison limited his criticism to particular agents within the MASS, he might have impugned the entire organization for its susceptibility to outside judgment and its capitulation to internal pressures. Within this system, means of applying influence, advancing opinions, and inducing consent were organized into an artificial, though still oppressive, consensus. Garrison would conclude that neither organizational unanimity nor social cohesion existed in nature. Both were said to be the contrivance of publications and the patronage systems they administered.21

The alternative to the press-gang system was also presented in the “Prospectus.” In the same issue that he divorced the Liberator from its sponsoring organization, Garrison announced an editorial commitment to the doctrine of nonresistance, which enjoined abolitionists not to participate in any partisan organization or to pursue any political action that demanded coordinated effort or expression. For many scholars, this position virtually defines the spiritual anarchism of the New England abolition movement,22 but the centrality of the Liberator in abolitionists' internecine disputes and coincident rise of nonresistance suggests that the state of political and social nonalignment envisioned by that strategy awaited the emergence of a print culture in which the microscale exchanges of self-interest and the mechanisms of social bonding that flourished within the subscription newspaper marketplace were inhibited. Indeed, the ideal of individual autonomy that nonresistance championed seemed to have its most germane, if mundane, equivalent in the editorial, financial, and organizational independence that Garrison had acquired for the Liberator. In the “Prospectus,” Garrison celebrated the newly impoverished newspaper as an “an independent press, which no party can press, no sect can intimidate.” What the Liberator had become under duress was defined as the intellectual and spiritual disposition of the nonresistant: “above all worldly considerations … [and] not afraid to think and act independently, among all sects and all parties.” Conversely, the threats to the Liberator—alliances with “sects and parties” through the press-gang system—became symptomatic of the ills of all social engagement. With a simple utterance, of which the “Prospectus” was the example par excellence, the relations that bound the individual to instrumental, strategic social intercourse could be severed. More than editorial independence, the status of the Liberator in the coming year would enable Garrison and, presumably, his readers, to nullify the coercive effects of society.

Although Garrison had gained unimpeded control over the Liberator, the outcome of the “Clerical Appeals” controversy was opposite to what we might think. Far from establishing the newspaper as an exclusively private medium, the new institutional status of the Liberator created the press organ of a nonpartisan, unaligned, autonomous public. This feat was accomplished through the negative relation to patronage, faction, and organized political power that Garrison claimed for the Liberator and, conversely, by calling upon the material and rhetorical resources of republican print culture. We see these resources employed in Garrison's characterization of the newspaper as a “Free Press,” in a comprehensive and manly sense, conducted in the spirit of absolute independence and entire impartiality.”23 In his appeal toward manliness and impartiality, Garrison was invoking the republican ideal of disinterestedness, the quality of exemplary social intercourse that projected the idea of a public good and designated those who would pursue it. Historians of the public sphere have argued that it was precisely the function of a critical press and other printed articles to represent to the human agents who read and used them the possibility of transcending their own interests.24 The wide distribution of publications created a literate meaning not confined to one person's subjective intent but indicative of the virtue of “impersonality.” The print culture of the 18th century, according to Michael Warner, thus formed an idealized public of virtuous citizens “constituted by the negating abstractions of themselves.”25

What relevance did a self-denying, virtuous citizenry have in acquisitive, partisan Jacksonian society? Garrison's experience in the subscription newspaper trade made him acutely aware of the historical disparity, but he placed his hopes for a renewed republican political culture on the Liberator. In contrast to the coercive, factional society convened through the press-gang system, an abolition movement that championed the independence of the Liberator would be a society of rational-critical exchange that unleashed the impersonal force of reason for the work of democracy. Garrison's vision of this society informed his reportage of an 1839 abolition meeting, in which he deliberately paired the affective, convivial sentiment that we associate with reform-era voluntary societies with the negative virtues of republicanism:

It was truly a great and joyful meeting, united together by a common bond, and partaking of the one spirit of humanity. Such greetings and shaking of hands! such interchanges of thoughts and opinions! such zeal and disinterestedness.” (Emphasis added)26

Within this fantasized abolition society, the passions felt by individuals were effortlessly reconciled with the reason exercised by the public. This was a quality Garrison claimed for himself—he meant his attempts to secure the Liberator from patronage to demonstrate his “holy scorn for all considerations of self-interest.”27 Yet the importance of the Liberator to this public ideal also ensured that his fantasy would not remain a private one. The independent status of the newspaper allowed for the development of a public marketplace that was alternative in value and practice to both the press-gang system of the subscription newspaper marketplace and to the democratic capitalism of the Jacksonian era. Buying and selling the Liberator formed a set of practices that were intended to conduct individuals toward their own self-effacement and hence toward the full exercise of their reason. To the extent that the patronage system and the commercial marketplace were means for acquiring power and wealth, the participants in this alternative marketplace would be foregoing all the rewards that antebellum liberal society was poised to give the private subject. The hoped-for success of the Liberator would in fact abolish the status of the private subject in a liberal marketplace society so that self-interests could never be manipulated into an oppressive social consensus.

The dreary work of fund raising is perhaps the best example of the alternative political economy of the Liberator at work. Because Garrison had refused the subsidy of the MASS, he was obliged to solicit ceaselessly contributions, gifts, and subscriptions to maintain the newspaper. He did so through private letters, resisting the growing custom in the subscriber newspaper marketplace to publicize financial transactions in newspapers. In conducting the business of the Liberator in an epistolary fashion, he was also resisting a complementary trend in antebellum print culture, which was to place letters within the purely private sphere of personal discourse.28 The marketplace of the Liberator thus had values, practices, and boundaries that could not be found within the contemporary significations of either the public or private spheres. For instance, a typical private letter to a potential patron of the Liberator (and Garrison's close friend, Edmund Quincy) argued that it was not part of a “personal affair”; the correspondents and their interests were transcended in the financial exchange:

I feel all the more unembarrassed in making the present appeal, as it is literally on behalf of the cause—and as it is not my wish or intention to have any exclusive personal interest in the contemplated purchase … True, it will in all probability be an outright gift to the cause; but it ceases to be a personal affair, and in case of personal dereliction, can at any time be claimed by the proprietors.29

Nevertheless Garrison certainly placed the transactions of the Liberator in a republican economy of character. To be successful in this economy, he had to empty himself of illicit concerns and motives. The prospective contributor would then be extending not just money to the abolition cause but credit to Garrison. A creditable character in turn required that Garrison show nothing of himself that either the Liberator or the larger abolition movement did not stipulate for him. Others could then extend their credit, and Garrison would be proportionately esteemed.30

Because the survival of the Liberator depended upon his own value in this fund-raising economy, Garrison was naturally eager to maintain and cultivate his stature. A sign of hard times for both him and his newspaper came when he had to appeal directly to the MASS for a loan. “My public position is such,” he wrote, “that I am specially anxious to maintain my credit for pecuniary punctuality in meeting my quarterly obligations, not having any credit at large for any antislavery labors.”31 The “public position” that Garrison maintained within the abolition movement was indeed considerable, but it was also fragile and contingent. Whatever power he exerted or stature he possessed existed only in the delicate exchanges between subscriber and solicitor. The character he bore within the abolition movement was in this sense not an inherent trait or natural endowment but a token of value within the public marketplace on which the Liberator was sold.

What Garrison realized through his management of the Liberator was the triumph not of possessive individualism but of the political economy of republicanism. As in the fund-raising economy, the 18th-century marketplace rewarded those whose character could be perfectly and publicly demonstrated in the probity of its social exchanges. Credit and character functioned as currency in these transactions, which had as much political significance as they did economic utility. In both cases, these transactions made the private person accountable for his “public position” in a public sphere. Far from dividing the self-interested individual from his regard for the public good, successful commerce propelled the exemplary and creditable individual toward the possibility of his own self-effacement, from which ensued regard for the public good and positive acts of virtue.32 Since this process of self-effacement was as intrinsic to the political economy of republicanism as it was to the management of the Liberator, the newspaper, immune from the interests of party, sect, and even of self, entailed the existence of a public.

An obvious difference remains. The fund-raising efforts on behalf of the Liberator redounded directly to Garrison—they were the sole source of his personal income. On the other hand, Garrison structured his domestic economy as an extension of the public marketplace that he sought to create in the management of the Liberator: that is, he had no domestic economy. He was so successful in resisting the endlessly publicized strictures of domesticity (for himself as well as for women) that he and his family were always broke. Subscribers played their part; a patron would just as easily contribute money to the newspaper, to the cause, or to the editor's household expenses and be aware of no impropriety. The practice had the effect of extracting Garrison's private experience from the purely private sphere of domestic life and making it a public concern.

Accordingly, Garrison recognized the most direct contribution to his family's welfare as a contribution to the larger cause. A private letter of gratitude to his most consistent patron and regular correspondent, Elizabeth Pease, never thanked her for her gift but only extolled her fitness as an advocate of the common cause:

My esteem for you is based upon the solid conviction, that you love truth, and justice and righteousness, for their own sake; that you are a fearless seeker after what is right and good; that you have a heart which deeply sympathizes with suffering humanity. …33

Private, epistolary discourse could manifest such public relevance because gifts and sentiments exchanged within the public marketplace of the Liberator “cease[d] to be a personal affair.” Garrison had made this claim on his own behalf, but he hoped that all who bought and sold the Liberator would be similarly disinterested. By eschewing the opportunities for interested exchange that existed within the partisan political structures, domestic culture, and as we shall see, the democratic marketplace, Garrison meant to place both the autonomous individual and the abolition movement beyond the ever-expanding boundaries of the private sphere.

Garrison's abortive entry into the penny-press newspaper marketplace suggests that he would also abjure the possibilities for self-realization promised by democratic market capitalism. Shortly after he severed the Liberator from its patronage, he announced the debut of Cradle of Liberty:

Certainly, so cheap a paper leaves those persons without excuse, who have pleaded that they were too poor to take the Liberator … It must not fail to be understood that the Cradle of Liberty will be … a transfer from the column of one paper to those of the other. It is thus only, that we shall be enabled to put this sheet at so cheap a rate. We feel and have no personal interest in its success, aside from the dissemination of light and truth.34

Besides reprinting articles from one publication in another, Garrison was attempting to “transfer” the norms of the penny-press marketplace to the republican ethos of the Liberator's fund-raising economy. This marketplace also circumvented the press-gang system by printing newspapers in high volume, selling them directly to consumers, and reporting news that appealed to a virtually unlimited market of readers. Moreover, the penny press multiplied the possibilities for political and economic prestige (for example, Horace Greeley) at the expense of established political, religious, and class interests.35 However, Garrison's aversion to “personal interest” in [the Cradle of Liberty], combined with his refusal to even own the Liberator, suggests an alternate political agenda. His editorial prerogatives, testimony to his individuality, were purchased through an aversion to the very economic, domestic, and partisan structures that installed individualism as the order of liberal society. His more comprehensive plan for the individually edited and privately funded newspaper was to liberate rational citizens from their dependence on partisan power, popular opinion and, ultimately, self-interest. While this may have doomed the Cradle of Liberty and the Liberator to the economic privation that Garrison imposed upon himself, the newspapers' marketplace failure—that is, their unpopularity—was what maintained the prospect of a popular will, formed in the alienation of particular, partial interests.


By the end of the 1830s, the question before the MASS was whether the abolition movement should become a more active political lobby, a more visible voting block, or even a political party. For Garrison, the answer was simple: the MASS should fashion itself in the image of the public ideal that he was instituting through his management of the Liberator. His rebuke to MASS members who sought electoral influence attempted to counter the appeal of a socially cohesive political body and of partisan pursuits of self-interest with the republican value of disinterest:

Abolitionists! You are now feared and respected by all political parties,—not because of the number of votes you can through [sic], so much in view of the moral integrity and sacred regard to principle which you have exhibited to the country … Hither, you have seemed to be actuated by no hope of preferment or love of power, and therefore have established, even in the minds of your enemies, confidence in your disinterestedness. If you shall now array yourselves as a political party, and hold out mercenary rewards to induce men to rally under your standard, there is reason to fear that you shall be regarded as those who have made the anti-slavery cause a hobby to ride into office. …36

Garrison's distaste for the electoral system would eventually extend to constitutional government itself, driving many loyal abolitionists from both the MASS and the AASS into newly formed abolitionist parties. Yet through the internecine battles that rocked and split the abolition movement, he would achieved his objective: to make abolitionist politics an extension of his management of the Liberator. Throughout the political party debate, the first task of Garrison and his allies once again was to preserve his editorial control as well as the independent status of the newspaper. Moreover, in the course of determining the voice of the Liberator, they formulated alternatives to electoral politics and eventually to the state that could be found nowhere else but in the medium of print. Ultimately, the question for Garrison and his allies in their intramural disputes with their antagonists was not whether their movement would be convened in the image of the Liberator but in whose image the newspaper had been conceived. As I hope to show, Garrison's determination to rescue his republican ideal from the self-interest of partisanship created an “organ of an individual” that served as the abolitionists' public medium, as well as the means for their collective self-recognition, so that when they recognized themselves as a disinterested, autonomous public, they were recognizing themselves in and as Garrison.

The political party controversy began in earnest at the MASS annual meeting of (January) 1839 when a group of abolitionists from within the MASS attempted to wrest control of the Liberator from Garrison. Even though Garrison had already severed the ties between the newspaper and the abolitionist organization, many members objected to the publicizing of controversial issues, such as “no-government,” nonresistance, and women's rights, in the Liberator. In a letter written to his ally, Samuel May, a few weeks before the convention, Garrison spoke of his antagonists' plans to institute “an official organ of the State Society … to be managed upon orthodox principles—in the hope of subverting the Liberator and driving me from the field.”37 He had in mind the results of several county abolitionist meetings that recently had ratified these resolutions:

Resolved, … 3d. That a weekly and ably conducted anti-slavery paper, which shall take right, high, and consistent ground on this subject, and constantly urge abolitionists, as in duty bound, to use their political, as well as their moral and religious power and rights for the immediate overthrow of slavery, is now greatly needed in Massachusetts … 4th. That we therefore earnestly recommend to the Board of Managers of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, or to the Society itself at its next annual meeting to establish a paper of this description … to be exclusively confined to slavery and abolition … and to be under the entire control of the Executive Committee of the State Society.38

The writers of these resolutions, Alanson St. Clair and Rev. Nathaniel Colver, believed that a press organ which obediently represented the MASS was the integral part of an organizational system that facilitated coordinated action, corporate decision making, and consensual values. These “orthodox principles” were essential to the abolitionists' identity as a political organization, which is why a larger group of Garrison's antagonists—including St. Clair, Colver, the Reverend Charles Torrey, Reverend Amos Augustus Phelps, and Henry B. Stanton—attempted to convince the membership of the advantages of an abolitionist party. From the outcome of their effort, there can be little doubt that the contentious issues of ends and means that bedeviled the abolition movement pertained directly to prospective press organs and publishing ventures.39 When St. Clair et al. were unable to move the members of the MASS to institutionalize voting, they left the organization to start a new abolitionist publication, the Massachusetts Abolitionist, which declared itself “devoted exclusively to the discussion of slavery” and took as its motto “Supremacy of the Laws.” The schismatics also formed a new abolition organization, the Massachusetts Abolition Society, to promote voting among abolitionists, but its primary function was to solicit subscriptions for the Massachusetts Abolitionist.40

Garrison emerged preeminent within the MASS after the 1839 meeting because he was able to make his institutional position as editor of the Liberator normative and available for all. In other words, he did not just preserve the newspaper from outside interests but represented them as obligations imposed upon the free action and expression of an autonomous individual. His resolution against voting, which was to carry the day, portrayed a dystopian antislavery society that perpetuated the abuses of the ecclesiastical and political bodies that constantly oppressed the Liberator:

If specifications are essential in our constitution respecting the manner in which abolitionists shall act as members of the State, they are not less essential in relation to the manner in which they shall act as members of the Church. We shall need, therefore, a clause to this effect—that members who are connected with any church, do pledge themselves that they will not hear any pro-slavery minister preacher; nor sit at the communiontable with those who proscribe their colored brother … How apparent it is that, if we once begin in this manner to make specifications, we shall not know when to end! A huge volume would not suffice to contain them.41

On the strength of these unflattering comparisons, Garrison was able to move the society toward a negative definition of itself: it may not “arraign either the political or religious views of its members.”

After the annual meeting, Garrison continued the debate in the pages of the Liberator, where he began an editorial with the declaration “Abolition is not ‘the fulfilling of the law.’” Five syntactically consistent negations followed, reaching their climax in the conclusion that abolition was “not a theological controversy, nor a political crusade.”42 Through this rhetorical strategy, Garrison hoped to present the MASS as a sphere in which individuals could enjoy opportunities for liberty that were not available in society or guaranteed by the state:

As individuals, abolitionists may utter sentiments, which, in their associated capacity, they may not express. He who becomes an abolitionist, is under no obligation to change his views respecting the duty of going to the polls, or of belonging to a sect; they are those of an individual and are not binding at all upon any other member of the anti-slavery society. But if the society itself presumes to endorse those views as sound and obligatory upon all its members, then it violates the spirit of its own constitution … This distinction between the liberty of an individual, and of an association composed of many elements, is important, and essential as much to the harmony of the whole body as to personal free agency.

Within Garrison's abolition society, the member's “personal free agency” held logical and logistical precedence over his or her “associated capacity.” To advocates of a political party, this order was absolutely crippling, but Garrison held fast to the proposition that any obstacle to the consolidation of interests allowed abolitionists to convene themselves as a disinterested public. The revolutionary change needed to end slavery, he believed, required that the abolition movement assume this negative form.

The prospects for liberty in society at large were enhanced not just by the internal organization of the MASS but by Garrison's management of the Liberator. Indeed, the abolitionist agenda that emerged from the 1839 annual meeting institutionalized the relationship between an individual and a corporate body that Garrison conducted between the Liberator and the MASS. The connection between the newspaper and the abolition society was explicitly argued in a pamphlet distributed by the “Friends of the Liberator” soon after the decisive meeting. One of its resolutions peremptorily noted the “irreconcilable differences [within the MASS] … on questions of party politics” before celebrating the Liberator in terms reminiscent of the recently instituted organization of the MASS; the newspaper occupied “the only [ground] upon which any anti-slavery periodical can stand” because it encouraged the individual subject to pursue “action consistent with his principles and his conscience.43 The pamphlet's primary resolution confirmed that the analogue for such individual initiative was none other than Garrison's editorial policy:

Resolved, so far from looking upon the expression of the peculiar views of its editor on other topics as a fault, or esteeming it a hindrance to the progress of the abolition cause, we value the Liberator for its fearless toleration and free discussion of all truth; and though we do not hold ourselves responsible for any sentiments uttered in its columns, we abhor that sectarian bigotry which would proscribe their free utterance, and clog its editor with the shackles of party or sect.

The Liberator was more than the organ of the movement. Rather, the movement was convened as the sphere of “individual freedom and activity” that was found within the pages of the newspaper. In these pages, “personal free agency” flourished, protected from the influence of a political, an ecclesiastical, or even an abolitionist organization.

However, subscribing to the Liberator only provided readers with a sphere of freedom and activity commensurate with the individuality of William Lloyd Garrison. His association with the Liberator made him the exemplary individual as well as an ideal for all abolitionists. Thus, it should come as no surprise that with the ascension of the Liberator, Garrison was recognized not just as the representative of the New England abolition movement but as its incarnation. Garrison had cause to note this phenomenon in his reply to a charge, leveled by James Birney, that the 1839 MASS meeting exposed Garrison's disproportionate control over the organization:

It is quite remarkable, that some of those who have been foremost in protesting against being reckoned my followers—who have been unwilling that I should be regarded as the mouthpiece of the Anti-Slavery Society, in any sense—who have repelled the slightest intimation from the enemies of abolition, that the Society is responsible for the sayings and doings of the Liberator—I say, it is quite remarkable, that, all at once, in the eyes of those persons, I have become an official organ, an unerring oracle, the Magnus Apollo of the whole land, whose speech and example are to be followed implicitly …44

But it was true. Garrison had become an “official organ” of the abolition movement during the period in which he and his allies spared no effort in protecting the Liberator from the directives of the MASS. His protestations of independence and disinterest had not dismantled the press-gang system but only produced its most compact example: he was the gang. Of course, he protested that in his capacity as editor of the Liberator he was responsible only to himself. But what Garrison could not acknowledge was that the abolition movement had taken on “religious or political sentiments” for which he was responsible. His refusal to cede control over the Liberator to partisan organizations had been swiftly translated into the internal policy of the MASS, which saw in that full exercise of individual autonomy against social consensus an image of freedom for all.

James T. Woodbury, one of Garrison's antagonists from the 1839 annual meeting, correctly intuited that the ascension of the Liberator had effectively personified the abolition movement:

I am an abolitionist, and I am so in the strictest sense of the term; but I never swallowed William Lloyd Garrison … I once tried to like his paper—took it one year and paid for it, and stopped it because that, though it did well on abolition on one page, it would say something on the other to injure it, which something too, did not concern the point of abolishing slavery … No doubt, if you break with Garrison, some will say, “You are no abolitionist”—for, with some, Garrison is the god of their idolatry. He embodies abolition. He is abolition personified and incarnate.45

Attacks like these were more than matched by spirited defenses. Nathaniel Rogers acclaimed the Liberator as “the organ of the cause” before anointing Garrison as the “representative of abolition principles; and this without any effort or wish on his part to be a leader; or any disposition in abolitionists to be led by him.”46 Common to both the criticism and the acclaim was the assumption that Garrison had surpassed the limits of a private person and become the equivalent of a political movement. Moreover, he was assumed to have become the personification of abolition in the same manner through which other political bodies of the antebellum era were constituted—through the subscription newspaper. Indeed, Garrison had abjured the political networks of the press-gang system as well as the market possibilities of the penny press only to find their combined prospects for self-realization surpassed by his efforts on behalf of the Liberator. They had not abolished his own self-interest, as he had intended, but created the most expansive person imaginable: “abolition incarnate.”


What future did the New England abolition movement have in this personification? For most of the 1830s, the issues that Garrison had publicized in the Liberator—including immediate abolition, nonresistance, and women's rights—had not only antagonized many members of the MASS but made the abolition movement itself seem but an extension of his own autonomy. The same held true for the doctrine of “disunion,” which was publicized in the Liberator during the early 1840s: it permanently sealed off Garrison and his allies from the emergent abolitionist political parties and convened the New England abolition movement in his persona as editor of the Liberator. With the previous analysis in mind, we might recognize the Liberator itself as the model for the atomized political and social body that Garrison envisioned under the doctrine of disunion. Indeed, his argument against the “American Union” articulated a familiar vision of contingent social associations and provisional political compacts, made and unmade at will.

Man is superior to all political compacts, all governmental arrangements, all religious institutions. As means to an end, these may sometimes be useful, though they are never indispensable; but that end must always be the freedom and happiness of man, Individual Man. It can never be true, that the public good requires the violent sacrifices of any, even the humblest citizen; for it is absolutely dependent on his preservation, not his destruction.47

Here was Garrison's management of the Liberator, writ large: the sphere of action and expression that accrued to the independent editorial voice was extended to all individuals as a natural right. Disunion, the most revolutionary abolitionist initiative, thus represented the abolition movement in its most personal form. It provided the occasion for the abolition movement to assume finally and conclusively the prerogatives that Garrison claimed for himself as the editor of the Liberator and to become personified as Garrison.

Nonetheless, the foregoing analysis should also prevent us from concluding that the New England abolition movement under the influence of Garrison simply fell victim to his ego, or more broadly, to the excesses of individualism. Rather, the focus of this essay on the Liberator should leave us wondering who or what Garrison was. If he gained his personal authority through his editorial management of the newspaper, then both he and his corporate body may not represent a private person at all but a political subject conceived and refined through the political economy of newspaper publishing, the public marketplace of print. As these social and economic structures bore the historical associations of an anticlerical, disinterested, and nonpartisan public into the antebellum era, we might surmise further that “Garrisonism,” used to denominate the abolition movement under the influence of Garrison, did not correspond to a person at all. Instead, it represented an individual, idiosyncratic editor in the public role that the Liberator preserved.

Garrison's own recognition of Garrisonism was so full of disinterested regard for his own effect on other abolitionists that it might be considered a republican gesture of self-effacement, an extension of his management of the Liberator. Indeed, he seemed determined to distinguish Garrisonism from himself even as his abolitionist colleagues were determined to identify themselves with him. “I am constrained to say, with all sincerity,” he told his MASS colleagues in 1837, as the society generously offered their financial support for a newspaper over which it had no control, “there has been too much said, and too frequent reference made, in applauding terms, respecting ‘Garrison’ and ‘Garrisonism.’”48 He credited the Liberator with publicizing the issues that made him famous, but if he was going to run the newspaper as the printed medium of an insurgent public, he was constrained from crediting himself.

Unfortunately for Garrison and his fellow abolitionists, the authority that the Liberator brought its editor could not help but redound to Garrison personally and make him the single, authoritative voice of the New England abolition movement. In this sense, his own personification as Garrisonism, as well as the individualist heroics that he represented, can be attributed to the Liberator—specifically, to the failure of the newspaper to succeed according to the terms that its editor originally set out for it. It never became a public sphere for abolitionists to become vocal, informed citizens or an alternative marketplace for abolitionists to transcend their interests; it only made Garrison “abolition incarnate.” Of course, some of the blame for the Liberator's failure should fall on Garrison, who never missed an opportunity to publicize his own disinterested citizenship in the editorial pages. His fitting last words to us therefore come in the form of a letter to his antagonist Woodbury, whom he tried to convince of his self-effacement:

How has it happened that I have brought around me in a delightful association, men of all political parties and of all religious sects … ? It is a problem which has puzzled all the popularity hunters both in Church and State … Now, sir, if I possess any influence, it has been obtained by being utterly regardless of the opinions of mankind; if I have acquired any popularity, it has been owing to my sturdy unwillingness to seek that honor which comes from men; … I have flattered no man, feared no man, bribed no man. Yet having made myself of no reputation, I have found a reputation.49

Like nearly all personal letters to friends and enemies, Garrison printed this nominally private letter to Woodbury as an editorial in the Liberator, thereby lending to epistolary discourse and the personal sentiments they contained the sought-after transparency of public reason. But that same practice had the opposite effect, amplifying his personal concerns and opinions into those of the abolition movement. Thus, like the rhetoric of the letter, Garrison's editorial control of the Liberator engaged him in a futile cycle of self-effacement, where his public show of disinterest only led to his self-aggrandizement. He would always be receiving and denying praise, for what his management of the newspaper reproduced in the final analysis was not a public forum for the literate exchanges of disinterested citizens but the closed economy of Romantic egotism.


  1. William Lloyd Garrison to Wendell Phillips, June 4, 1839, in A House Divided Against Itself, vol. 2 of The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, ed. Walter Merrill and Louis Ruchames (Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard University Press, 1971), 488.

  2. For the extent of the abolitionists' publicity campaign and its reaction, see W. Sherman Savage, The Controversy Over the Distribution of Abolitionist Literature, 1830-80 (Association of Negro Life and History, 1938), 92; Leonard Richards, Gentleman of Property and Standing: Anti-Abolitionist Mobs in Jacksonian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970); and Lorman Ratner, Powder Keg: Northern Opposition to the Antislavery Movement, 1831-1840 (New York: Basic, 1968). In 1837, $1448 of the MASS budget was spent on printing, by far the largest expenditure. See Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society at its Annual Meeting, in Annual Report of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, 1837 (1831-53; rept. Westport, Conn.: Negro University Press, 1970), 1: xiv (hereafter cited as Proceedings with year).

  3. William Lloyd Garrison, “The Triumph of Mobocracy,” in Selections from the Writings and Speeches of William Lloyd Garrison (1852; rept. New York: Negro University Press, 1968), 380; also published in the Liberator, November 7, 1835, 3.

  4. Cf. David Paul Nord, “Tocqueville, Garrison, and the Perfection of Journalism,” Journalism History 13 (1986): 56-63. Nord argues that the Liberator approximated the antebellum ideal of the “voluntary association” in print, whereas this account stresses the newspaper's 18th-century public ideal.

  5. Proceedings of 1837, xxxiv.

  6. “The Liberator, alias the Disorganizer,” Liberator, November 11, 1842, 4. This reprint follows Garrison's practice of publicizing any mention of the newspaper, however hostile. For the significance of this practice in spreading the repute of the Liberator, see John L. Thomas, The Liberator: William Lloyd Garrison (New York: Hill and Wang, 1966), 131-35.

  7. Proceedings of 1837, xxxvi.

  8. William Lloyd Garrison to David Lee Child, June 12, 1842, in No Union With Slaveholders, vol. 3 of Merrill and Louis Ruchames, Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, 161.

  9. See Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990); and Richard D. Brown, Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1770-1865 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). Both accounts can claim lineage to Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989).

  10. See a seminal critique of William Lloyd Garrison's influence and of the term in Gilbert Barnes, The Anti-Slavery Impulse, 1830-44 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1961), 51.

  11. My interest here is in the debate between Americanist scholars seeking a liberal-republican synthesis to describe historical and conceptual change. See Robert Shalhope, “Republicanism, Liberalism, and Democracy: Political Culture in the New Nation,” in The Republican Synthesis Revisited: Essays in Honor of George Billias, ed. Milton Klein et al. (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1992), 37-90; Drew McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980); and Joyce Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).

  12. See Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press), 77-87, 153-211; Alexander Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth Century American (London: Verso, 1990), 95-108; and Daniel Schiller, Objectivity and the News: The Public and the Rise of Commercial Journalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), 25-31. For a rejoinder to the thesis that liberal Whigs monopolized the libertarian discourse of free speech during the 18th century, see Stephen Botein, “‘Meer Mechanics’ and an Open Press: The Business and Political Strategies of Colonial American Printers,” in Perspectives in American History, ed. Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn (1975), 9: 127-228.

  13. Henry Wright, quoted in Truman Nelson, introduction to Documents of Upheaval: Selections from William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, 1831-1865 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1966), xiii.

  14. William Lloyd Garrison, “Free Speech and Free Inquiry,” in Selections, 239.

  15. William Lloyd Garrison, “A Layman's Reply to a ‘Clerical Appeal,’” Liberator, August 18, 1837, 1.

  16. Letter from New England Spectator, quoted in Garrison, “Layman's Reply.”

  17. Lewis Tappan, quoted in James McKivigan, The War Against Pro-Slavery Religion: Abolition and the Northern Churches, 1830-1865 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 60. For accounts of the Protestant establishment's antislavery initiatives and Garrison's resistance to them, see McKivigan, 24-59; Lawrence Friedman, Gregarious Saints: Self and Community in American Abolitionism, 1830-1870 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 3-33; and Robert Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

  18. Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 215 n. 2. The following account of the antebellum newspaper marketplace is taken from Mott, 114-254; Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York: Basic, 1978), 11-28; and Ronald Formisano, The Transformation of Political Culture: Massachusetts Parties, 1790s-1840s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 16-20.

  19. Henry Stanton, in Proceedings of 1837, xxxiv.

  20. William Lloyd Garrison, “Prospectus of the Liberator,” Liberator, December 15, 1837, 3.

  21. William Lloyd Garrison seemed to share de Tocqueville's suspicion of popular opinion as a socially embedded form of power that had superseded categories of government. For an analysis of this point in de Tocqueville, see Claude Lefort, “From Equality to Freedom: Fragments of an Interpretation of Democracy in America,” in Democracy and Political Theory, ed. and trans. David Macey (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 189-203.

  22. See Lewis Perry, Radical Abolition: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973); and Peter Brock, Radical Pacifists in Antebellum America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968).

  23. William Lloyd Garrison, “Vindication of the Liberator,” in Selections, 186.

  24. See Habermas, Structural Transformation, 23-25.

  25. Warner, Letters of the Republic, 62.

  26. William Lloyd Garrison to Oliver Johnson, May 12, 1840, in Merrill and Ruchames, A House Divided, 607, emphasis added.

  27. William Lloyd Garrison, quoted in Wendell Phillips Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison: The Story of His Life, Told by His Children (1885-89; rept. New York: Negro University Press, 1969), 2: 267-68.

  28. See Brown, Knowledge Is Power, 230.

  29. William Lloyd Garrison to Edmund Quincy, December 14, 1844, in Merrill and Ruchames, No Union, 271.

  30. For this aspect of republican political economy, see Warner, Letters of the Republic, 121-34.

  31. William Lloyd Garrison to the Financial Committee of the Liberator, September 28, 1840, in Merrill and Ruchames, No Union, 667.

  32. The accounts of republican political economy are legion, but my characterization relies on J. E. Crowley, This Sheba, Self: The Conceptualization of Economic Life in Eighteenth Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974); and Ralph Lerner, The Thinking Revolutionary: Principle and Practice in the New Republic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), 195-221.

  33. William Lloyd Garrison to Elizabeth Pease, October 25, 1846, in Merrill and Ruchames, No Union, 444.

  34. William Lloyd Garrison, “Cradle of Liberty,” Liberator, April 5, 1839, 3.

  35. This characterization of the penny press and Greeley as its early beneficiary is taken from Schudson, Discovering the News, 17-59; and Eric Foner: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press), 14-39.

  36. William Lloyd Garrison, “Address to the Anti-Slavery Electors of Massachusetts,” Liberator, October, 25, 1839, 2.

  37. William Lloyd Garrison to Samuel May, December 12, 1838, in Merrill and Ruchames, A House Divided, 414.

  38. Resolution quoted in Garrison and Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, 2: 267-68.

  39. This focus on print and political strategies to be compared to the exemplary account of abolitionist conflict in Aileen Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactic, 1834-1850 (New York: Pantheon, 1969), 80-167.

  40. See Garrison and Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, 2: 276-80.

  41. William Lloyd Garrison, quoted in Garrison and Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, 2: 275.

  42. William Lloyd Garrison, “The Anti-Slavery Organization,” Liberator, April 5, 1839, 3.

  43. “Friends of the Liberator,” quoted in Garrison and Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, 2: 278.

  44. William Lloyd Garrison, “Reply to James G. Birney,” Liberator, June 28, 1839, 2.

  45. Woodbury, quoted in Garrison and Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, 2: 142.

  46. Rogers, quoted in Garrison and Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, 2: 330.

  47. William Lloyd Garrison, “The American Union,” in Selections, 117.

  48. Proceedings of 1837, xxxvi.

  49. William Lloyd Garrison to James T. Woodbury, August 28, 1837, in Merrill and Ruchames, A House Divided, 295-96.

Paul Goodman (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4741

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 those who provided the Liberator with the bulk of its support. Garrison hoped to win additional black subscribers for the Liberator, now his mainstay. During the tour, he certainly won the personal devotion of many African Americans. Never before had they heard a white man vindicate the race so boldly, with a promise of full equality in the near term. Garrison had to rely on black leaders to organize these meetings, and for their part, they employed the tour as one element of a continuing nationwide effort to arouse black consciousness, militancy, and opposition to colonization. At the request of his “colored brethren, in the various cities,” Garrison published his extraordinary Address Delivered before the Free People of Color, which went through three editions in two years.

Garrison's tour occurred at a critical time. Blacks increasingly were speaking out against colonization, and the testimony of black voices contributed a crucial element to the effort to combat white racial prejudice and to convert white citizens from gradualism to immediatism and from colonization to emancipation. A year after his address and tour, thanks to the new activism among blacks that it helped fuel, Garrison was able to publish his most important literary contribution to the cause of abolitionism and racial equality, Thoughts on African Colonization. Through it, for the first time, blacks gained access to a significant sector of white opinion; in turn, whites learned firsthand the views of African Americans on colonization. Just as Garrison's address helped energize the black movement, the black movement contributed the energy that began to make it possible for abolitionists to expose and attack white racial prejudice.

Blacks probably provided most of the readers who snapped up copies of Garrison's address, as they did two years earlier, when David Walker's apocalyptic voice thrilled them. Now a white man, converted by blacks to the struggle for immediate emancipation and racial equality, stirred them as they never had been stirred before. His color was the great surprise. Before Garrison met the British antislavery leader Thomas F. Buxton during his first trip to Britain in 1833, Buxton had assumed that he was black.1 To American blacks, it was just as astonishing that a white man expressed the views hundreds heard during this tour.

Garrison began his address with a confession of guilt, of shame for those “of my own color … who have done you so much injustice.” To atone for his own past sins—his indifference and his support for colonization—he pledged his “health and strength, and life … to work for your social, intellectual, political and spiritual advancement.” Addressing his audience as “Countrymen and Friends,” Garrison predicted “glorious and sudden changes” would unshackle the slave and secure to free blacks “the same rights in this country as other citizens.” For that to happen, blacks themselves had an important role to play. Praising the self-help virtues, Garrison argued that industriousness, orderliness, piety, and temperance would confound the libelers of the race, while the new college at New Haven would allow black youth for the first time to “enter into competition with whites, on equal grounds” and thereby disprove at last that “they are of inferior capacity.” The graduates of the college, he confidently predicted, would silence “your incredulous traducers, and finish the controversy which has so long divided public opinion.” Someday, he was certain, the college would send forth black Websters and Clays, Dwights and Edwardses, “Judges, and Representatives, and Rulers of the people.” The college, he believed, would evaporate “the mists of prejudice.”2

Finally, Garrison turned his guns on the American Colonization Society. “Abandon all thought of colonizing yourselves, as a people, in Africa, Hayti, Upper Canada, or elsewhere,” he insisted. America was the African Americans' “only home.” The way to “destroy the Colonization Society” was to “refuse to go.” Whites would then “feel necessitated to admit you to the rank of citizen” to enjoy “liberty—equality—every republican privilege.” Two months before the collapse of the New Haven college plan, Garrison predicted that “the victory is half won—the tide of public sentiment is turning in your favor, and your deliverance is sure.”3

To destroy the Colonization Society, Garrison argued, “you must hold an active correspondence on the subject with your brethren, all over the country, and conjure them all to stand firm.”4 That already was happening. In January 1831, beginning in New York, five months before Garrison's tour, black citizens had met to reject colonization as an “unholy crusade against the colored population of this country … totally at variance with true Christian principles.”5 Similar meetings occurred at Boston and Baltimore in March, at Washington, D.C., in May, at Brooklyn in June, at Hartford in July, at New Haven, Nantucket, and Columbia, Pennsylvania, in August, at Pittsburgh in September, at Harrisburg and Rochester in October, at Providence and Trenton in November, and at Lyme, Connecticut, Lewistown, Pennsylvania, and New Bedford, Massachusetts, in January 1832. Coming on top of the assault on colonization in Freedom's Journal between 1827 and 1829, and on top of David Walker's attack and the rejection of colonization by the first national Negro convention, these meetings demonstrate that blacks were mobilizing as never before in the struggle for equality. But whereas in the past their views had gone largely unnoticed in the white community, this time, the depth and intensity of black hatred for colonization and belief in the idea of racial equality reached a much wider white public.

Garrison decided to reprint all the black protests cited above as part 2 of Thoughts on African Colonization, published in June 1832. Thoughts on African Colonization was “the greatest blow of his life—or any man's life,” said Elizur Wright Jr., one of Garrison's first important converts.6 Selling three thousand copies in nine months and purchased in bulk by Arthur Tappan for personal distribution, Thoughts was the major fruit of Garrison's own education by blacks, who had supplied him with the arguments and with back issues of The African Repository, the ACS's monthly, from which Garrison documented his thesis that colonization strengthened slavery while defaming and degrading free blacks. Garrison filled most of the pamphlet with block quotations from colonizationist sources, overwhelming readers with proof to buttress each of his main contentions: that the ACS “is pledged not to oppose the system of slavery,” that it “apologizes for slavery and slaveholders,” that it was “nourished by fear and selfishness,” and that it aimed “at the utter expulsion of the blacks” by disparaging free blacks and denying “the possibility of elevating the blacks in this country.” Throughout, he sounded the note of the prophetic scourge of sin. It was Garrison as Jeremiah.

Thoughts on African Colonization achieved two strategic objectives. It converted a crucial core of early white abolitionist leaders and rank and file, more than any other work, and it triggered an extensive debate between partisans of the ACS and abolitionists that shortly sidetracked colonization as a popular movement. By 1834, following a series of debates in cities and towns of the Northeast and in the press, colonization had lost credibility among the broader public, even those not ready to embrace abolitionism, while immediatism gained momentum. White immediatism was thus forged in the battle against African colonization. Rejection of colonization led some also to a commitment to racial equality, which was Garrison's own personal trajectory.

Part 2, the most striking feature of Thoughts on African Colonization, nearly one-third of the total number of pages, reprinted the “Sentiments of the People of Color” as expressed in anticolonization meetings held from Boston to Baltimore. Garrison's radical assumption in devoting so much space to black voices was that their opinions counted, or should count. “Their desire ought to be tenderly regarded,” he pleaded.7 The eloquence, sincerity, and depth of conviction, together with the command of logic and historical evidence with which African Americans made their case, were eye-opening to whites. Few whites had ever encountered such a display of black intellect and such moral intensity. Black testimony undermined colonizationist defamation of black intelligence and provided the crowning proof that Garrison was correct in contending that the American Colonization Society “deceives and misleads the nation.”8 “For the first time,” wrote Oliver Johnson, Garrison's sometime collaborator at the Liberator, these “down-trodden people” received “a hearing before the American people” allowing “them to speak in their own language.”9

In the half-dozen years following the publication of Thoughts on African Colonization, white abolitionists, in the course of producing the founding texts of the movement, developed the most extensive defense of racial equality in American history. From Lydia Maria Child's book-length Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833), to a fifteen-page pamphlet, Prejudice against Color (no date), published by the American Antislavery Society, to Richard Hildreth's powerful first antislavery novel, The Slave, The Memoir of Archy Moore (1836), abolitionists addressed the issue of prejudice and argued for immediate emancipation. Believing that racial prejudice underpinned slavery, abolitionists committed themselves not just to emancipation, but, in the words of Article 2 of the New England Antislavery Society's constitution in January 1832, “to improve the character and condition of the free people of color, to inform and correct public opinion in relation to their situation and rights and obtain for them equal civil and political rights and privileges with the whites.”10

Correcting public opinion was no mean task. “Our prejudice against the blacks is founded in sheer pride; and it originates in the circumstance that people of their color only, are universally allowed to be slaves,” Child argued. “We made slavery, and slavery makes the prejudice.”11 Color phobia, abolitionists contended, is irrational, wicked, preposterous, and unmanly. It is contrary to natural rights and Christian teaching, which recognizes no distinctions based on color.12 Race prejudice, Elizur Wright Jr. exploded, is “a narrow, bitter, selfish, swinish absurdity.”13

Believing racial prejudice to be irrational, but believing people capable of reasoning their way to self-improvement, white abolitionists marshaled an impressive array of arguments against those still in its thrall. Rarely did the scientific argument that informed so much of the debate over race in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries figure in abolitionist thinking, however. Abolitionists accepted the prevailing view of Enlightenment science that blacks and whites belong to the same species and that physiological differences do not correlate with mental and moral qualities, which, they believed, are the result of environmental circumstance. Abolitionist environmentalism never wavered, but the underpinning of their views was Christian faith in the unity of mankind: “God hath created of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth.” To elevate one race over another because of color, hair texture, lip thickness, or nose shape introduced arbitrary and invidious man-made distinctions into God's creation. Such prejudice was tantamount to blasphemy, they argued, for it degraded part of God's creation for selfish, prideful, exploitative purposes. “I would as soon deny the existence of my Creator,” Garrison thundered, “as quarrel with the workmanship of his hands.” That workmanship is all the more wonderful for its “gorgeous multifarious productions of Nature.”14 Abolitionists challenged white racists to confront God: “Will you look your Maker in the face and tell him you find a natural ‘instinct’ in your bosom, which He has implanted there—and which forbids you to love any of his equal children, except the white man?”15

To make their case, abolitionists appealed to history, and here they received unwitting support from the colonizationists. They had argued that the achievements of Africans in antiquity, as founders of civilizations and teachers of the Greeks and Romans, demonstrated that black intellect could not be inherently inferior. Past black achievements proved that once restored to their natal continent, freed from the debilitating influence of slavery and white prejudice, blacks would thrive. Colonizationists thus boosted the achievements of the Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Carthaginian civilizations in antiquity to counter the apprehension that left to themselves, without the benign, patriarchal oversight of whites, repatriated African Americans never could flourish and might even perish.16

Abolitionists seized on this historical argument and turned it to their own purpose: if white prejudice relented in the United States, blacks would progress even more rapidly than free blacks already had. History proved that it was enslavement and prejudice that stunted black achievement, not inherent limitations of black intelligence or morals. The glory that was Ethiopia and the grandeur that was Egypt were proof of that, they thought. In more recent times, however, “Ethiopians of the whole civilized world, are become an inferior race,” and people have forgotten the skin color of Cyprian, Cyril, Athanasius, and St. Augustine.17 When blacks led the world in civilization, “there was no prejudice amongst the whites against their color.”18 The decline of the ancient black civilizations was no more proof of black inferiority than the sad condition of modern Greece, a land once inhabited by Homer and now by ignorant pirates, was proof of white inferiority.19

More contemporary evidence, especially the biographies of notable modern African achievers, bolstered the historical argument. European travel accounts revealed that Africa was no Dark Continent, but a land of impressive rulers, industrious peoples, and productive economies. A black professor at Wittenberg University in Germany, several talented mulatto and black military men who commanded the respect of Europeans, a black druggist and mathematician in England, and the poet Phillis Wheatley in America were cited as a few examples among many of the triumph of gifted blacks over prejudice. Thomas Jefferson had denied that Phillis Wheatley's “poems have any merit,” but Lydia Maria Child thought he would have “judged differently, had he been perfectly unprejudiced.”20 “If we are willing to see and believe, we have full opportunity to convince ourselves that the colored population are highly susceptible of cultivation,” Child argued. That many remained ignorant, even after emancipation, she insisted, was the result of “the cruel prejudice, under which colored people labor,”21 as the recent events at New Haven made evident. “Tyranny always dwarfs the intellect.”22

Racial prejudice, abolitionists pointed out, was stronger in the United States than in any other country. “No other people on earth indulge so strong a prejudice with regard to color as we do,” Child argued. In Europe and Latin America, blacks faced much less prejudice and hostility. Although “the Hollanders are somewhat whiter than the Americans,” abolitionists pointed out, they treated blacks with respect, as did the British. In Brazil, Child reported, enslaved blacks were “far lower than either animals of burden,” but those who were citizens were “remarkable for the respectability of … appearance.”23 Nor was color phobia implanted by God in man. Look at children, William Jay urged, whose prejudices derived entirely from adult example and instruction.24

At bottom, abolitionists argued, racial prejudice rested above all on an ignorance of the deforming consequences of white prejudice. Few whites were “really aware of how oppressive the influence of society is made to bear upon blacks,” Child pointed out. In the churches, whites confined them to “nigger pews” and excluded them from the schools that white children attended. Whites would not sell them a decent seat in the theater, or ride with them on stagecoaches or on steamboats, or allow them to hold any jobs except as barbers, shoe blacks, sailors, domestics, and waiters. None of this was news to Child's white readers, as she knew, but she believed discrimination to be unthinking, taken for granted without reasoned examination. White Americans did not suffer from a lack of “kind feelings and liberal sentiments,” but rather from ignorance; “they have not thought upon this subject.”25 The abolitionists were determined to make them think.

Whites were simply ignorant of the character of the free black community. Northern blacks “are more temperate and more industrious” than whites in similarly “indigent circumstances,” especially the “foreign emigrants who are crowding to our shores.” Black “advancement in intelligence, in wealth, and in morality, considering the numberless and almost insurmountable difficulties under which they have labored, has been remarkable,” Garrison argued. Whereas thirty years ago Philadelphia blacks owned hardly any property, today they possessed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth, saving small sums accumulated from “shaving the beards, cleaning the boots and clothes, and being the servants of their white contemners.” In Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, several blacks had accumulated between ten thousand and one hundred thousand dollars in property. Nearly fifty black associations formed for benevolent, political, educational, and moral purposes in Philadelphia alone testified to the “good sense, sterling piety, moral honesty, virtuous pride of character, and domestic enjoyments which exists among this class.”26

Once whites understood that blacks had contributed much to civilization, that enslavement and prejudice had kept African Americans from realizing their potential, that even despite fearsome obstacles some had surmounted the barriers to achievement, and that color phobia was irrational, antirepublican, and blasphemous, radical change in white behavior and black fortunes became possible. The practical way to begin, Child advised, was “to speak kindly and respectfully of colored people on all occasions,” “repeat to our children such traits as are honorable in their character and history,” and “avoid making odious caricatures of negroes.”27 Quoting David Walker, Garrison called on white Americans to “throw away your fears and prejudices then, and enlighten us and treat us like men, and we will like you more than we now hate you.” The true policy, Garrison argued, “is to meliorate their condition, invigorate their hopes, instruct their ignorant minds, admit them to an equality in privileges with our selves, nourish and patronize their genius.”28

American republicans, above all people, should be wary of the argument that regarding a class of people as inherently inferior justified their permanent subordination, for that was the argument aristocrats everywhere employed to deny the poor their natural rights. Throughout history, elites imposed oppressive laws to degrade the many, fastening on them poverty and ignorance and then using the consequences of an artificially contrived inequality to depict its victims as inherently inferior. The American Colonization Society, led by the likes of Clay and Monroe and the princes of the church, was no different. Like poor whites, all poor blacks needed “to manifest a perfect equality, is an equality of rights and knowledge.” The notion that blacks were created naturally inferior was mere “moonshine.”29

Because the United States was founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence and on the principles of the Gospel, Garrison refused “to despair for the social and political elevation of my sable countrymen.”30 The country now had to face the contradiction between republican principles of equality “and that aristocracy of color which has become hereditary among us,” Samuel May explained. That conflict was “the greatest question our nation is now called upon to decide, whether our immense colored population shall henceforth be permitted to rise among us, as they may be able, in intellectual and moral worth.”31

Yet none of the white abolitionists' arguments could match the impact of the black testimony Garrison reprinted in Thoughts on African Colonization. “It is too late now to brand with inferiority any one of the races of mankind,” New York African Americans thundered. “We ask for proof.” The colonizationists, so adept at defaming blacks, spoke out of ignorance. “We ask them to visit the dwellings of the respectable part of our people.” Over and over, as always, African Americans affirmed their Americanness, their determination to struggle, and their optimistic hopes for the future. “This is our home, and this our country,” the New Yorkers pledged.32 And from Brooklyn blacks: “We pray the Lord to hasten the day, when prejudice, inferiority, degradation and oppression shall be done away, and the kingdom of this world become the kingdom of our God and his Christ.”33

White abolitionists did not overlook or underplay the shortcomings of the black masses, but they never wavered in their belief in equality. “Amidst all their faults there are redeeming qualities, which must put to shame every white man,” Elizur Wright argued. “No field in the world is richer in instances of stern moral courage, unbending decision of character, exact integrity, unassailable fidelity, self-sacrificing patriotism, ardent thirst for knowledge, disinterested benevolence and unfeigned piety, than the history of our free colored brethren.”34 “The primary difference between the Abolitionists and their opponents lay in the fact that the former asserted, while the latter denied, the perfect humanity of the Negro,” Oliver Johnson declared in his biography of Garrison. “It was this that made them so dangerous in the eyes of the slaveholders.”35

The colonizationists soon began to mount counterarguments, often with considerable uneasiness over the issues that the abolitionists had raised. Rev. Leonard Bacon, editor of the Christian Spectator, the organ of Taylorite, evangelical Congregationalism in New Haven, for example, watched the emergence of immediatism with alarm. Critically reviewing Thoughts in the journal, he recognized that Garrison represented a threat to colonization, white supremacy, and elite authority, including that of the clergy. As a leading clerical colonizationist, Bacon had good reason to take alarm. Bacon warned the annual meeting of the ACS of the danger that free blacks might fall into the hands of demagogues who knew exactly “how to move on these people in the line of their prejudices. ‘This country,’ they tell them, ‘is your country; here you were born, and here you have a right to stay.’”36 Although it was black abolitionists who had converted white abolitionists, from Bacon's blinkered perspective and that of other colonizationists, only white agitators could threaten colonization's bright future.

Bacon singled out Garrison's advocacy of racial equality as especially dangerous. He denied that Christians “generally treat the people of color with ‘utter dislike,’” notwithstanding the recent events in New Haven. Garrison's attack on white prejudice, he argued, dangerously aroused blacks against whites by tending to “irritate [blacks] and strengthen every prejudice, every unkind, angry feeling in their bosoms,” threatening even to arouse “the wild beasts of the forests.” When Garrison preached self-help, Bacon approved, but he thought Garrison went too far. In advocating a manual labor college at New Haven, in predicting that some day the school would turn out black Hamiltons and Clays, in urging blacks to vote only for black candidates or white friends, in demanding equal treatment in white churches, in urging that blacks buy from one another, not where it was cheapest, and in advocating that they sue in federal courts to overthrow discriminatory state laws as violations of the federal constitution, Garrison brazenly encouraged vanity and militancy, instead of soothing and counseling blacks to subdue their feelings. Discriminatory laws were not the cause of inferiority among blacks, Bacon argued. Rather, the blacks' own lack of self-esteem was to blame. The way for them to gain respect was not by insisting on rights and demanding acceptance, but by quietly and humbly demonstrating usefulness. “They must vanquish prejudice, not by contention, but by their merits … by the law of love.”37 By contrast, Garrison was a “willful incendiary” who aroused in African Americans “the lust of possessions and the desire of recompense for wrong.”38

Bacon never wavered in his commitment to black uplift and repatriation. Yet while criticizing discriminatory laws, he rejected a racially egalitarian society. Few Northern evangelicals wrestled so painfully with the question of slavery and race as Bacon. The rise of abolitionism placed him on the defensive, yet he retained faith in colonization while admitting that blacks could advance without removal, though he remained reluctant to attack white prejudice or promote racial equality.

Bacon spoke for a major spectrum of northern Christian opinion. Although abolitionists from the start appealed to Christian conscience, most denominations remained stolidly resistant. Before the struggle between abolition and the churches came fully into the open, Garrison voiced scattered criticisms of the role the churches had played in the slavery question. In his earliest major addresses, he denied any claim to clerical authority, yet in assuming the mantle of an Old Testament Jeremiah, he unavoidably adopted a clerical persona, and he trod on the clergy's jurisdiction as moral overseers when he criticized the white churches for failing to honor the black portion of God's creation. His rhetoric, no less than his arguments, amounted to a challenge to religious authority and sincerity, for he infused into his speeches and writings endless allusions to the Bible, direct quotes and extended pastiches inspired by Scripture, as well as by moralistic sentiment drawn from English literature. “Glory to God in the highest, for the prospect which he holds out to our visions,” he told his black audiences. “Make the Lord Jesus Christ your refuge and exemplar … that through Christ … you may do all things.”39

At bottom, as we have seen, abolitionist belief in immediatism and racial equality rested on Christian faith. African Americans had awakened a few whites, like Garrison and Jocelyn, to the contradictions between that faith and racial beliefs and practice in the North. The burden now fell on these initial white converts to convert others. Because so many Americans professed to share with the white abolitionist founders a belief in a republic rooted in Christian virtue, that burden seemed reasonable. “Let four hundred worthy ministers and four thousand schoolmasters, in this land, rise up and assert the rights of colored men, and devote themselves, in a gospel way to their interests, and whatever prevents their elevation here, would be like the mists of the morning,” Elizur Wright Jr. affirmed in 1833.40 Rev. Leonard Bacon's attack on Garrisonian immediatism at its inception, however, was a harbinger of trouble ahead.


  1. Oliver Johnson, William Lloyd Garrison and His Life (Boston, 1880), 133.

  2. William Lloyd Garrison, An Address Delivered before the Free People of Color, Philadelphia, New York, and other Cities, during the Month of June, 1831, 2d ed. (Boston, 1831), 3-4, 12-13. And see Elizur Wright Jr., The Sin of Slavery, and Its Remedy, Containing Some Reflections on the Moral Influence of African Colonization (New York, 1833): “In view of this subject [African colonization] I must be permitted solemnly to say, that I do confess my own guilt, in the cold and cruel prejudice with which I have suffered myself, in time past, to advocate the unchristian principles, and the mischievous plans, of the American Colonization Society” (23).

  3. Garrison, Address Delivered before the Free People of Color, 17-18.

  4. Ibid., 18.

  5. Garrison, Thoughts on African Colonization [Boston 1832], part 2, 14.

  6. John Jay Chapman, William Lloyd Garrison (New York, 1913), 65.

  7. Garrison, Thoughts on African Colonization, 5.

  8. Ibid., 151 ff.

  9. Johnson, William Lloyd Garrison, 118.

  10. Lydia Maria Child, An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (New York, 1836), 138.

  11. Child [Lydia Maria], Appeal [An Appeal in favour of that class of Americans called Africans 1833], 134; Charles Olcott, Two Lectures on the Subject of Slavery and Abolition (Masillon, Ohio, 1837), 52-53.

  12. Garrison, Thoughts on African Colonization, 12-13.

  13. Wright, The Sin of Slavery, 26.

  14. Garrison, Thoughts on African Colonization, 120, 144.

  15. American Anti-Slavery Society, Prejudice against Color (New York, n.d.), 7.

  16. African Repository, March 1825, 7; January 1827, 331. For an example of an abolitionist citing the colonizationist historical argument, see Samuel J. May, Letters to Andrew T. Judson, Esq., and Others in Canterbury, Remonstrating with Them on Their Unjust and Unjustifiable Procedure Relative to Miss Crandall and Her School for Colored Females (Brooklyn, Conn., 1833), 21-22.

  17. American Antislavery Society, Prejudice against Color, 19.

  18. Child, Appeal, 176.

  19. Ibid., 169.

  20. Ibid., 162.

  21. Ibid., 169.

  22. Ibid., 171.

  23. Ibid., 208.

  24. William Jay, “On the Condition of the Free People of Color in the United States,” Miscellaneous Writings on Slavery (Boston, 1853), 373.

  25. Child, Appeal, 208.

  26. Garrison, Thoughts, part 1, 131.

  27. Child, Appeal, 215.

  28. Ibid., 133.

  29. Olcott [, Charles], Two Lectures on the Subject of Slavery [1838], 156.

  30. Garrison, Thoughts, part 1, 146.

  31. May, Letters to Andrew T. Judson, 9, 13.

  32. Garrison, Thoughts, part 2, 17.

  33. Ibid., part 2, 28. For the decisive impact the discovery of black opinion had, see the repudiation of colonization by Dr. S. H. Cox, African Repository, vol. 10 (June 1834).

  34. Wright, The Sin of Slavery, 34.

  35. Johnson, William Lloyd Garrison, 37, 94-95.

  36. American Colonization Society, Fifteenth Annual Report, 1832, xxi.

  37. Christian Spectator 14 (June 1832): 318, 320, 323, 324.

  38. Ibid., 334. G. B. Stebbins, Facts and Opinions Touching the Real Origin, Character, and Influence of the American Colonization Society … (Boston, 1853; reprint, New York, 1969), 61.

  39. Garrison, Address Delivered before the Free People of Color, 6-8.

  40. Wright, The Sin of Slavery, 28.

Christopher Castiglia (essay date spring 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9664

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 nineteenth-century US and how it continues to shape American social life to this day. Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977), famously places the “inward turn” of state control at the advent of modernity, a shift he characterizes as a move from coercion, punishment, and the infliction of death to pastoral benevolence, discipline, and the extension of life. These shifts, for Foucault, enhanced the possibilities for human freedom while simultaneously restricting those options by regulating subjectivity through the statistical knowledges (“norms”) of human character that made accusations of delinquency or perversion greater dangers than the loss of freedom. In the US the antebellum movements for social reform played an instrumental role in the shifts Foucault describes, providing a range of discourses through which human “depth” was scrutinized for signs of social unrest. Through reform rhetoric, Americans came to see such unrest as caused less by economic or political inequality than by defects of the human will, personality, or “character.” In locating the vectors of social inequality and dissent in proximity to normative “character,” and by seeking to remedy social ills through the redisposition of delinquent interiority, nineteenth-century reformers, while making significant social gains for America's underclasses, simultaneously facilitated the individualizing and affect-saturation of political life.

Reform has remained oddly resistant to this analysis, however, in part because of trends in American historiography that have tended toward either/or choices: freedom or oppression, containment or liberation, revolutionaries or reactionaries. These trends have meant that Foucault's central insight—that the generation of citizens' interiority is particularly restrictive precisely because rooted in discourses of freedom, increasing the possibilities of human agency while prescribing the terms through which that agency can be understood—has been made incompatible with the liberatory impulses of nineteenth-century reform.1 Yet the frustrations often expressed by those reformers (and not just by their twenty-first-century critics), who achieved greater personal liberty for citizens abjected by class, gender, and race without accomplishing the revolutionary (that is, structural) changes they sought to precipitate, invites a reading of antebellum interiority that conceives of individual liberty and collective restriction as simultaneous phenomena. In part this reading requires that we recognize the institutions of the civil sphere, not simply as sites of popular criticism of the state, as Jürgen Habermas has suggested, but as locations where subjectivity and state interest blend into affective hybrids that create both the possibilities for independent critique and forms of self-management that limit those possibilities.

The nineteenth-century reform movement that most acutely experienced this bind of expansive liberty and restrictive subjectivity, and hence has found itself caught in the struggle between containment and hagiographic historiography (with a strong emphasis on the latter), is arguably the American Anti-Slavery Society. Historians have long critiqued nineteenth-century theories of innate racial inferiority that supported slavery, recognizing their seemingly objective rhetorics of phrenology and social Darwinism as instruments of social power. At the same time, more progressive theories of innate virtues, arising from racialized conceptions of interior “natures,” have remained relatively unexplored, despite the fact that these theories, in many ways complementary to their more racist counterparts, have had a longer shelf life in American racial thought. To hasten that analysis, I want to examine the rhetorics of interiorization in the abolition writings of William Lloyd Garrison. I choose Garrison not because he invented the interiorizing tendency of nineteenth-century reform or even because he was its most determined progenitor. Rather, I choose Garrison because the discrepancy between structural and interiorized reform is so pronounced in his work: since his ambitions were genuinely revolutionary, the tensions generated within those ambitions by interiorization were more acutely felt and responded to with striking rhetorical creativity. Only by understanding Garrison at the tense crossroads of his day—mediating, as most antebellum social reformers did, between structural and interior analyses of power and inequality—can we understand apparent contradictions within the writings of a reformer who was at once anti-institutional and the center of a national network of abolition institutions; antinationalist and the primary advocate for considering African Americans as national subjects; anti-imperialist and yet capable of imagining a denationalized republicanism free to extend beyond the national borders. In the pages that follow, I explore these apparent contradictions not as weaknesses of Garrison's courage or powers of conception, but as symptoms of a shift in nineteenth-century social thought, as the workings of power moved out of the structural life of American society and into the interior lives of its citizens.

The least noted tension within nineteenth-century reform, and within Garrison's radical abolitionism, arises between the identifications of sympathy and the attribution of differentiated interiors to the abject and the privileged. Several critics have demonstrated the importance granted affective states—especially “sympathy”—in antebellum America. What I want to highlight, however, is the distinction between two interior states: affect, which characterizes white Americans as fully feeling subjects, and civic abstraction, which becomes the possession of black Americans. If slavery, as critics have argued, forced black Americans to bear the burden of embodiment spared white Americans who, in contrast, could identify with national abstractions such as virtue and liberty (abstractions that, as Toni Morrison argues, take on meaning only in visible contrast to enslaved black bodies), reformist abolition invested blacks with the burden of abstract civility, now viewed as defining their interior “characters.”2 Racial difference persists, then, not on the physical body as an index of inferior character (as proslavery advocates claimed), but as differentiated interior states requiring different relationships to nationalism and social agency: by imagining African-American interiority as comprised of (the desire for) civic abstraction, white abolitionists saw black Americans as static emblems of a national “character” that sympathetic affect entitled white abolitionists to challenge and change. At the same time, sympathy as an affective state particular to liberal whites allowed an identificational mobility within the national symbolic only for the already-enfranchised white subject. White reformers took on blackness, not on the surface of the skin, but as a suffering interior, a civic “depth.” With an inner experience of black suffering, white reformers claimed a public authority that differentiated them from other whites, even while it maintained an affective difference from persecuted blacks.

In the hands of dedicated reformers, the incorporation of black suffering as the sign of white civic depth enabled progressive social change in nineteenth-century America. Like many strategies of dissenting authorization, however, it was ultimately absorbed into the culture, not as revolutionary ethics but as mass consumption, as entertainment divorced of ethical imperatives. …


In 1834, a prominent agent of the American Colonization Society, James Birney, announced that his opinions of the organization “have undergone a change so great, as to make it imperative on me no longer to give to that enterprise that support and favor which are justly expected from all connected with it” (3). Chief among the society's activities that Birney found “cruel, unmanly, and meriting the just indignation of every American” was its efforts to convince free blacks to emigrate to Africa by manipulating their “civil disabilities, disenfranchisement, exclusion from sympathy” (7). Birney's letter registers a shift in political influence away from the Colonization Society, which governed national debates about race and citizenship in the 1820s, and toward the organization to which Birney defected, the American Anti-Slavery Society, which beginning in the mid-1830s argued for the incorporation into full citizenship of black Americans. The most obvious difference between the Colonization and Anti-Slavery Societies is their differing efforts to racialize the national character by naming its outside and its inside, respectively.3 Although the Colonization Society strove to define citizenship by placing blacks outside the borders of the nation and therefore to define the national interior as white, the Anti-Slavery Society defined citizenship in relation to the individual characters of citizens. With this new strategy came a move to define racial injustice and to argue for national citizenship on the basis of interiorizing logics—the correct affective states for sympathetic whites and the deserving civic characters of black Americans—that correspond to, and in many cases supplant, more explicitly social arguments about economic opportunity, education, and class structure.

This shift is symptomatic of abolition's broader transformation from a relatively anomalous social movement in the 1820s to one in a spectrum of reformist projects in the 1830s and 1840s; antebellum reform often conceived social problems as arising from deformed or disabled interior states (bad morality, wounded character, perverted feelings) and increasingly envisioned the proper object of reform not as the poor, the degraded, or the disenfranchised but as the middle-class subject engaged in the act of reform. As abolition organizations experienced this shift, its leaders, as Birney indicates, became centrally occupied with whites' feelings toward blacks. As Birney's rhetorical order makes clear, “civil disabilities” were measured increasingly, not only in relation to economic and political “disenfranchisement” but also in relation to “exclusion from sympathy,” an affective state. Birney's distinction reflects broad trends in abolition rhetoric, suggesting not only the “inward turn” of reformist abolition but the ways interior differentiation came to substitute for morally intolerable social differences asserted on the basis of bodies.

Sympathy is never simply an outpouring of individual sentiment; it is an affective register of more obviously collective social arrangements.4 Some contemporary critics have celebrated sympathy for creating a fellow feeling that prompts the privileged to imagine themselves in the place of the less fortunate.5 This account of affective sociability builds on the first step in Adam Smith's 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments, which argues that sympathizers create mental tableaux in which they see themselves in the place of the sufferer, thereby creating an imaginative bridge between socially separated peoples. Others have complicated such formulations of democratic sociability, noting how sympathy generates theatrical distance by creating suffering as a spectacle watched from afar.6 This second model makes a more careful use of Smith, who, denying the merger of sympathizer and sufferer, claims, “Mankind, though naturally sympathetic, never conceive, for what has befallen another, that degree of passion which naturally animates the person principally concerned” (26). Sympathetic identification, for Smith, is “but momentary,” kept in check by the sympathizers' self-concern: “the thought that they themselves are not the real sufferers, continually intrudes itself upon them, and though it does not hinder them from conceiving a passion somewhat analogous to what is felt by the sufferer, hinders them from conceiving anything that approaches to the same degree of violence” (26-27).

In both models, self-transformation lies with the person who extends sympathy. For Smith, however, sympathy also transforms the sufferer, who, sensing the spectatorial distance maintained by the cautious sympathizer, “longs for that relief which nothing can afford him but the entire concord of the affections of the spectators with his own” (26-27). The sufferer may achieve this “entire concord,” Smith writes, only “by lowering his passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with him. He must flatten, if I may be allowed to say so, the sharpness of its natural tone, in order to reduce it to harmony and concord with the emotions of those who are about him” (27).7 If one expresses an emotion too extreme or a suffering too unusual, the audience will be unable to identify and will experience no sympathy. The burden therefore falls on the sufferer to conceal extremes or anomalies, or to translate them into scenarios with which the audience will be familiar. Sufferers must transform themselves, in a model of imagined spectatorial normalization that Foucault, following Smith's contemporary Jeremy Bentham, called panopticism: just as the spectators place themselves in the sufferer's situation, Smith writes, so the sufferer must “imagine in what manner he would be affected if he was only one of the spectators of his own situation” (28).8 In sympathetic abolition, for instance, the suffering of slaves might be shaped to correlate with texts white audiences had previously encountered: other slave narratives, white reports of slavery such as Theodore Weld's American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (1839), or especially popular works of fiction such as Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Even while serving as the keynote of benevolence, then, sympathy was a form of surveillant discipline—what we might call sympathetic discipline—in which the black sufferer must imagine himself or herself always in the eyes of whites, becoming a body shaped by an idea of a body.

At the same time that sympathy asks the sufferer to model his or her suffering on the expectations of the sympathizer, it also separates the two parties into distinctive “classes,” characterized by different interior capabilities (what Smith called “virtues”). The extension of sympathy gives rise to “the soft, the gentle, the amiable virtues, the virtues of candid condescension and indulgent humanity,” while the self-modifications that invite sympathy generate “the virtues of self-denial, of self-government, of that command of the passions which subjects all the movements of our nature to what our own dignity and honour, and the propriety of our own conduct requires” (3). In the end, sympathy generates affective knowledge of human “virtues” that become the basis of differential power: the sympathizer extends agency over the sufferer, while the latter controls only himself or herself. Sympathy affectively naturalizes social hierarchy without necessitating government involvement, order being maintained as the result of a newly privatized internal civility.

Unlike other racial logics in antebellum America, what is striking about sympathetic discipline is that it is not predictated on marked bodies; in fact, Smith's formulation of sympathetic difference requires the absence of bodies. Sympathy is aroused, according to Smith, by assaults on the sufferer's imagination—“the loss of his dignity, neglect from his friends, contempt from his enemies” (42), along with romantic disappointment—rather than by sensations of the body (hunger, sexual desire, pain), “because our imaginations can more readily mould themselves upon his imagination, than our bodies can mould themselves upon his body” (42). Translated to the racial context of antebellum America, Smith's observation has conflicting implications. On the one hand, it suggests a way for whites and blacks to merge through the imagination, suggesting an affective “sameness” once the burden of marked bodies is removed; in this sense, sympathy is consistent with other universalizing (“we're all the same under the skin”) forms of liberal humanism. On the other hand, it turns racial difference inward, naturalizing it as the product and sign of individual affect. By making the knowledge of civil behavior implicitly a racialized knowledge, sympathetic whites closed the borders between sympathizer and sufferer, ensuring that whites might flirt with imaginative racial merger while maintaining autonomy through the distance of white observation (what Eric Lott, building on Laura Mulvey's formulation of the patriarchal male gaze, has called “the pale gaze”).9

Despite its powerful role in generating a democratically feasible system of racialized difference and social hierarchy, sympathy has remained relatively invisible as a political force largely due its status as a “private” or “personal” emotion in an age when privacy was distinguished from the “motivated” realms of capital and state regulation. Yet, as my discussion of Smith suggests, affect was imagined in the interest of economic and social order, even as it generated the authority to criticize the nation-state. Although sympathetic white abolitionists made differences between blacks and whites predicated on bodies appear prejudicial and even ridiculous, then, they also helped establish an affective economy that allowed the regulation that might otherwise have been carried out on (the basis of) bodies to appear as individual (i.e., consensual) emotional response.

Sympathetic discipline, in short, was part of a watershed in American sociopolitical discourse. While eighteenth-century social critics issued declarations of independence that called for more equitable economic and political-representational systems, their nineteenth-century counterparts generated “declarations of sentiment,” which increasingly tied social dysfunctions such as racism and poverty not only to economic inequality but to disabled emotions as well (as indicated by Garrison's use of psychosocial terms such as “negrophobia” and “colorphobia” to account for American racism).10 Perhaps progressive politics are never possible without some appeal to the compassionate, imaginative identity-crossings that we call sympathy, and certainly the politics of sympathy practiced by white abolitionists in antebellum America helped produce seismic social transformations, especially the end of slavery. Yet sympathy became, in the course of the nineteenth century, the predominant political discourse, obscuring the social construction and distribution of structural power in a rhetoric of individual interiority. Sympathy, as Smith helps us see, always contained within itself, therefore, the double bind of nineteenth-century reform.


Sympathy became, in reformist rhetoric, a precondition of (white) citizenship, distinguishing those possessed of a proper moral authority from those mired in self-interest. The central role of citizenship in sympathetic discipline generated certain contradictions, however. Citizenship was rooted in the institutions of the state, to which citizens are subject. At the same time, reformist authority rested on a critical distance from the state rather than on identification with its institutions.11 To gain public authority, white abolitionists had to reconceive citizenship in opposition to the state, as a form of free moral will. At the same time, they sought the enfranchisement of freed black Americans, arguing for their right to enter the very state institutions from which white abolitionists distanced themselves. Sympathetic abolition thus generated two kinds of citizenship, based on differences of virtue, desire, and agency: one for the empowered (white) sympathizer and another for the self-regulating (black) sufferer.

Through the American Anti-Slavery Society, which he directed from 1833 to 1865, and the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, which he edited from 1831 to 1865, Garrison was the strongest voice to insist, contra the popular colonization societies, that black Americans must be made full US citizens.12 Garrison was also, however, an avid critic of patriotic nationalism. Believing the US government to be colluding with slavery, Garrison refused to vote, honor American law, or hold public office, and once tore up a copy of the Constitution in public protest against federally sanctioned slavery. Although Garrison rejected citizenship for himself, however, he enshrined it as the highest goal black Americans could attain. These apparently inconsistent positions become compatible, however, if we recognize Garrison's conception of citizenship freed from its institutional (and hence ideological) origin in the nation-state, making it a purely personal (hence “consensual”) phenomenon consistent both with the affective register of sympathy and his conscientious anti-institutionalism.

Garrison's citizenship-without-nations might usefully be called, building on Etienne Balibar, the citizen-form.13 Garrison's construction of the citizen-form provided the illusions Balibar attributes to the nation, universalizing the state by making citizenship the result of divine wisdom, while individualizing the state by asserting the reflection of divine will in personal affect. Garrison's divorce of citizenship from the nation begins with his public stand against institutional and political organizations (a somewhat paradoxical stand given the vast nationalizing network of antislavery societies Garrison operated within). As Garrison declared on 6 December 1833, to the American Anti-Slavery Committee in Philadelphia, slavery “is a base overthrow of the foundations of the social contract” (“Declaration of Sentiments” 69), and therefore abolitionists were not bound by social institutions.14 Placing the individual (and interiorized) “character” in ascendance over both collective social formations and faddish commodification, Garrison declared, “There never yet was a divine human organization. Associations are not of heaven, but of man. They are no positive test of character. Men shape them as they do their coats, their hats, or their dwellings, according to their own taste and convenience” (“Claims and Positions of the Clergy” 236).

Although Garrison publicized his disdain for all conventional organizations, he reserved his particular animosity for the nation. Declaring America “a stupendous republican imposture” (“The American Union” 119), Garrison made his position on succession unmistakable: “If the Republic must be blotted out from the roll of nations, by proclaiming liberty to the captives, then let the Republic sink beneath the waves of oblivion, and a shout of joy, louder than the voice of many waters, fill the universe at its extinction” (“No Compromise With Slavery” 139). “The Republic that depends for its stability on making war against the government of God and the rights of man,” Garrison declared, “though it exalt itself as the eagle, and set its nest among the stars, shall be cast into the bottomless deep, and the loss of it shall be a gain to the world” (140). An abolitionist “cannot love his country,” Garrison insisted, “for he declares it to be ‘laden with inequity,’ and liable to the retributive judgments of Heaven”; nor can an abolitionist “be a good citizen; for he refuses to be law-abiding, and treads public opinion, legislative enactment, and governmental edict alike under his feet” (“The ‘Infidelity’ of Abolition” 4).

In the place of patriotism, Garrison argued for global universalism: “Our country is the world, our countrymen are all mankind,” Garrison told a Boston Peace Convention in September, 1838; “We love the land of our nativity, only as we love all other lands. The interests, rights, and liberties of American citizens are no more dear to us, than are those of the whole human race. Hence, we can allow no appeal to patriotism, to revenge any national insult or injury” (74). Garrison's appeal to universal citizenship relied “upon moral power alone for success. The ground upon which we stand belongs to no sect or party—it is holy ground” (“A Fourth of July Oration” 199). Appeals to divine ground not only assured Garrison's moral authority, but placed his word above the give-and-take of public debate, since God's truths “are absolute and immutable” (“War Essentially Wrong” 89) and may “be denied, only as the existence of a God, or the immortality of the soul, is denied. Unlike human theories, they can never lead astray; unlike human devices, they can never be made subservient to ambition or selfishness” (“The Anti-Slavery Platform” 317).15 Speaking God's truth, Garrison universalized his positions through appeals to “human nature” without needing to sway public opinion: “The nature of man has been the same in all ages,” Garrison asserted, “and it has ever rebelled against oppression” (“The Great Apostate” 210). The abolitionist, in Garrison's metaleptic construction, derives his opinions about “the rights of man [not] from any book, but from his own nature” (“The ‘Infidelity’ of Abolition” 10-11), and may therefore assume a position both within and against national ideology.

In these proclamations, Garrison detached citizenship from the nation-state and attached it instead to God; yet like Ralph Waldo Emerson's divinity, Garrison's manifests itself in the virtuous composition of individual souls, evident in the cluster of civic virtues commonly known as “republicanism.” Republicanism, for Garrison, would outlive the nation, for its virtues, encapsulated as “the rights of man,” “are inherent and inalienable, and therefore not to be forfeited by the failure of any form of government, however democratic. Let the American Union perish, … still, these rights would remain undiminished in strength, unsullied in purity, unaffected in value, and sacred as their Divine Author” (“The American Union” 116). Asserting that abolition's “principles are self-evident, its measures rational, its purposes merciful and just” and that “[i]t cannot be diverted from the path of duty, though all earth and hell oppose; for it is lifted far above all earth-born fear” (“Fourth of July Oration” 200), Garrison constructs his moral exemplar from the stuff of enlightenment republicanism, including the language of the Declaration, the praise of rationality, and of benign duty and responsibility. Locating virtuous rights in the universality of divine edict and the autonomy of the individual soul, Garrison advanced a citizenship affect-dense and universalized, and, by virtue of these attributes, separate from the interests of the state.

Garrison is by no means unique in dividing citizenship from the state: as Habermas has shown, citizens throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries increasingly came to see their position in the civil sphere as distinct, even oppositionally so, from the state, a position fortified, as Garrison's is, by a sense of moral rectitude drawn from both private affect and institutional affiliation. One can speculate that this conception of citizenship within the civil sphere aided the abolitionist efforts to move public opinion against slavery and toward readiness for civil war; not only did it provide critics of the nation with an aura of personal passion and divine sanction that made them seem more patriotic than more obviously invested defenders of slavery, it placed the values most Americans cherished in regard to the nation beyond the reach of federal dissolution, assuring Americans that they could be patriots without remaining loyal to the nation. At the same time, however, the divorce of citizenship from the nation-state placed the stuff of civic virtue everywhere but where one might suspect the operations of power: whether universalized through God or individualized through affect, that is, citizenship came to function outside the reaches of ideology. The ways in which republicanism and the interests of the nation-state might be mutually reinforcing were obscured by the emphatic separation of citizens and nation that became an emblematic gesture of nineteenth-century reform.

Yet the divergent positions Garrison advocated in his writings suggest that the sites of potential overlap between radical reform and state interest were at times significant. A republicanism freed from the state, for instance, potentially works in tandem with (indeed, provides a liberal veneer to) the spread of nationalism beyond the nation's borders espoused by growing enthusiasm for US entrance into the imperial economy. At times, Garrison strenuously opposed that entrance, writing passionately against imperialist ventures in Mexico and Africa, especially in his diatribes against the American Colonization Society. At other moments, however, Garrison indicated his support of consensual colonization: “If our free colored population were brought into our schools, and raised from their present low estate, I am confident that an army of Christian volunteers would go out from their ranks, by a divine impulse and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to redeem their African brethren from the bondage of idolatry and the dominion of spiritual death” (Thoughts 37). Ironically, the very forces that would “enlighten” Africa, according to Garrison, would “darken” America: those institutions that he entrusts with securing African-American consent—education, religion, filiopietism—he named, in regard to white Americans, as sources of proslavery deception. The overlap of coercion and consent, central to his conception of the citizen-form, makes his notion of voluntary emigration seem consistent with his condemnation of the Colonization Society and other imperial ventures, even though Garrison's anti-institutional writings make that overlap seem, at best, questionable.16

Although the displacement of citizenship onto divine will shares a logic of irresistibly expansive republicanism with nineteenth-century imperialism, the “privatizing” of citizenship to individual affect had equally conflicting results. Since privileged Americans, in entering the public, risked evacuating the private, other Americans had to bear the burden of representing interiority in its threefold nature: morality, virtue, and affect. An extensive body of criticism has demonstrated that the association of white womanhood with a supposedly natural relationship to domestic privacy allowed white men to develop a commercial sphere unimpeded by emotional or moral qualms, while limiting the legal, social, and economic potentials of antebellum women. Black Americans bore a similar burden of interior representation, representing traits of piety, nurturance, and conjugal fidelity threatened by the outrages of slavery: mothers could not raise their children; husbands could not provide homes for wives or even ensure their wedding bond; women could not control their sexuality; slaves were not permitted a spiritual life. Constructed as pure, pious, and domestic, black Americans came to represent an already feminized privacy. The division of abolition authority into (black) privacy and (white) publicity meant, on the one hand, that black Americans themselves could not be represented as properly public figures (hence Garrison's objections to Frederick Douglass's decision to edit a newspaper and honor national institutions—that is, to enter the discourses of national publicity—himself, rather than through Garrison's mediation).17 On the other hand, it meant that white abolitionists needed to pass through a black interior (experiencing, through sympathy, black pain so as to speak with a public authority), allowing themselves a racially bivalent persona that blacks themselves were denied. Although whites such as Garrison could move in and out of the national symbolic, criticizing the nation so as paradoxically to gain ground in its public discourse, blacks, who had no privileged place in that public, were positioned as the unwavering bearers of (privatized, interiorized) virtue.

To point out Garrison's relation to more obviously invested social discourses is not to fault Garrison or any particular reformer for making bad choices, but is, rather, to demonstrate the ways in which reform operates always within the rhetorics, subjectivities, and interests of those social forms that it simultaneously seeks to challenge. It is, in short, to place reform more fully in its history.


The pure virtues that black Americans developed through their degrading exposure to the outrages of slavery did not remain simply private, however; their very purity made them potentially synonymous with the idealized republican traits of the citizen-form. This translation of private to civic virtues was necessary to enable the cross-identifications central to white abolitionists' disciplinary sympathy. For Garrison, pain and disgrace became outward signs of a civic righteousness, in his own life and for persecuted blacks. Indeed, with Southern gentlemen offering rewards on his head, legislatures throughout the country banning his writings, and a lynch mob in Boston dragging him through the streets with a noose around his neck, Garrison understandably considered himself an American non grata. At times, however, Garrison seemed to take satisfaction in his exclusion, emphasizing in his writings and public speeches that “[t]he whole nation is against me” (Thoughts 7). Garrison's status as outsider not only granted him public authority, but rationalized his identification with black Americans as well. Wounded and despised, he appeared to share their condition.

Garrison's identification with black Americans—and the limitations of that identification—gave rise to a complex pedagogical discourse. Garrison imagined black citizens as abstract markers of civic virtues (making blacks more worthy of American citizenship than prejudicial, and hence unvirtuous, whites). Through sympathy with blacks, then, white abolitionists absorbed the virtues born of private purity and public pain. The yoking of sympathy and the citizen-form, in short, permitted radical reformers like Garrison to imagine “blackness” as white interiority, as a shared, yet unmarked, bond that rendered certain whites more virtuous and ultimately more “deep” than their opponents. Although white sympathy, as I have suggested, potentially locked black Americans in positions (“characters”) distinct from whites, it also allowed whites an identificational mobility that is a hallmark of white privilege.

Although abolitionists could maintain black Americans as abstract markers of civic virtue in rhetorical writings aimed to shame or convince (and hence distance themselves from) other whites, it became an awkward position to hold in relation to blacks as actual social agents. Not only might black Americans have a different notion of what constitutes virtuous citizenship, they might define themselves in ways that challenged white abolitionists' sympathetic identifications. When Garrison addressed black audiences, therefore, he paradoxically represented his black auditors both as markers of abstract virtues and as pupils needing instruction in those very civic virtues. In their construction as pupils, black Americans rhetorically mark a civility that they, by definition, do not possess. The rhetorical position of black Americans as both indexical of and lacking (needing instruction in) civic virtue allowed Garrison to incorporate black interior virtue as a grounds of his public authority, while maintaining a pedagogical distance from and a sympathetic discipline over his black “pupils.”

Garrison's 1833 Address to audiences of free blacks, delivered in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia just prior to his departure for England, provides a striking example of reformist abolition's disciplinary pedagogy. In his absence, Garrison warns, the free people of color must deport themselves civilly if they are to earn the sympathy of white Northerners, civility defined initially as New Testament forbearance: “Conquer their aversion by moral excellence; their proud spirit by love; their evil acts by acts of goodness; their animosity by forgiveness. Keep in your hearts the fear of God, and rejoice even in tribulation; for the promise is sure, that all things shall work together for good to those who love His name” (“Words of Encouragement” 172). Love of the name of the Father—the law of civil order and self-regulating obedience that rests on the affective relay of family, church, and state—here becomes the precondition first of white sympathy and then of its definitional corollary, civil entitlement. To love the unappealable name of the Father is to accept the sins of whiteness.

In the Address, Garrison sutures the universalizing and irresistible imperatives of divine law to the social work of nineteenth-century citizenship and labor: “I beseech you fail not, on your part, to lead quiet and orderly lives. Let all quarreling, all dramdrinking, all profanity, and violence, all division, be confined to the white people. Imitate them in nothing but what is clearly good, and carefully shun even the appearance of evil” (Address 21). Urging black auditors to be resigned, sober, hardworking, and polite, Garrison echoes his characterization of the freed West Indian slaves as “industrious, economical, orderly, docile almost to a fault, filled with grateful emotions, aspiring after intellectual and moral cultivation, and rejoicing continually over the boon of liberty” (“West India Emancipation” 345). Throughout his writings, and most particularly in his addresses to black audiences, Garrison inscribes the citizen-form onto the characters of those who, as emulators of republican virtue (good workers and loyal citizens, at once docile and free), will be even more representative (but not innately “possessed”) of republican civility than already-enfranchised white citizens.

Garrison encourages black emulation by promising not only white acceptance (probably not a very creditable incentive), but those rights and privileges provided by the very institutions from which Garrison has freed white abolitionists through his critique of nationalism. The question of whether blacks will enjoy the same rights and opportunities as whites under the national contract is moot, however, since Garrison's imagining of black civility rhetorically separates black Americans from the body politic. Asking his audience, “Do you not congratulate yourselves that you are so united?” (Address 13) and relegating “division” to licentious whites, Garrison defines civility as group cohesion. Even while Garrison asks blacks to become model citizens in ways that seem to promise incorporation within the national public, then, he also asks them to remain coherent as a group presumably distinct and distinguishable from the national body as a whole.

The dynamic of always already failed emulation is prefigured in the pedagogical structure of the address itself: praising his audience for the “spirit of virtuous emulation so great among you, as to pervade all classes, from the grey head to the youth” (Address 13), Garrison asserts a common trait—the desire to imitate—that unites internal fractions, while also putting a permanent difference between this new united “class” and the exemplary teacher whom they are to emulate. Above all, in contrast to the courageous figure of the enraged abolitionist who actively fights the prejudices of his country, Garrison praises his auditors for “bearing all your trials and difficulties in the spirit of Christian resignation” (Address 13). In other writings, Garrison reveals the disciplinary intent of the “resignation” he here attributes to free blacks. In “West India Emancipation,” for instance, Garrison, imagining the charge that freed slaves will seek revenge, replies, “On the contrary, is it not to be taken for granted, as a matter of course, that they will manifest the liveliest gratitude, be docile as lambs, perform their enumerated labor with alacrity, and make each field and hill vocal with melody? ‘Instinct is a great master’” (336). As Garrison suggests in the Address, “instincts” are not innate, but are the products of his rhetorical interpellation: “It is said that I am exciting your race against the whites, and filling your minds with revengeful feelings. Is this true? Have not all my addresses and appeals to you had a contrary effect upon your minds?” (Address 13).

Although Garrison's portrait of the freed black, instructed by white abolitionists in the lessons of republican self-regulation, is on one level strategic, pacifying white anxiety about black retribution following emancipation, it is also a condition and a justification for the authoritative pedagogy of the Address itself. The costs to his audience of such a pedagogy are indicated when Garrison grounds the authority by which he instructs those more intimately acquainted with the horrors of slavery and racism: “not that I am qualified in all things to instruct you,” Garrison acknowledges; “yet you have shown, in a thousand ways, that the course I have pursued has secured your cordial approbation—that the language I have spoken has been the language of your own hearts—that the advice I have given has been treasured up in your memories, like good seeds sown in good ground, and is now producing fruit, ten, thirty, sixty, and even a hundred fold” (Address 4). Having gained his public authority from their experience (their approbation secures his right to speak and instruct), Garrison's words first reflect but then “improve” (“producing fruit”) that experience. His agricultural metaphor naturalizes his pedagogical power over the memory of black Americans, while echoing, albeit in a liberalized and sympathetic form, the plantation structure he works to abolish. Black citizens become the conduit between profit (what is produced through them without credit to their labor) and the identity of the “master” (who accumulates his authority as the surplus value of their uncredited labor) in ways that repeat, rather than subvert, the labor hierarchies of the Southern plantations. Because of this echo, perhaps, Garrison is able to characterize his address as both a reflection of and a substitution for the interiors of black citizens: his words become interchangeable with their hearts and memories. Their experiences have circulated through his public address and return to them in the twinned form of “improved” affect and white public authority, a sympathetic circuit that leaves the emulative pupils devoid of a language to critique that authority or to express a dissenting countermemory.

If the lack of civil virtue signified by their emulative desire threatens to deny black Americans access to public authority, their very exclusion opens a space of authenticating identification for the sympathetic abolitionist. In the course of the Address, Garrison increasingly names himself among the persecuted. Discussing the widespread change in public opinion regarding slavery, Garrison tells his audience, “Scarcely any credit belongs to myself. … To you, much of the applause belongs. Had it not been for your cooperation, your generous confidence, your liberal support, as a people, I might have been borne down by my enemies” (Address 23). Expressing his humble gratitude to his black supporters, Garrison, asserting that prejudiced whites are his enemies, not theirs, can imagine that his audience supports the beleaguered white abolitionist, and not the other way around. Outcast from the state, Garrison, in his own mind at least, is no longer fully white. “I never rise to address a colored audience,” Garrison begins the Address, “without feeling ashamed of my own color; ashamed of being identified with a race of men, who have done you so much injustice, and who yet retain so large a portion of your brethren in servile chains. To make atonement, in part, for their conduct, I have solemnly dedicated my health, and strength, and life, to your service. I love to plan and to work for your social, intellectual, and spiritual advancement. My happiness is augmented with yours; in your sufferings I participate” (Address 12). If blacks represent outcast purity in Garrison's Address, other white people represent the corruption caused by overidentification with the state, signified by a fear and hatred of suffering blacks.

Yet corrupt whites also represent, by virtue of their control over national rhetoric, extraordinary public authority. If Garrison takes on a persecuted but pure interiority associated with blacks, through his pedagogical acumen—he is the object of admiring applause—he assumes a public authority that distinguishes him from his emulative auditors. Sharing a “complexion” with whites but a suffering interiority with blacks, Garrison can assume a place in national politics without surrendering his incorruptible purity. From this position, Garrison can appear as either an idealized white or an abject black (but never a prejudiced white or a dutiful black) citizen.

Although he gained an ideal authority through his cross-identifications, Garrison risked a good deal as well, as the Boston mob made clear when it threatened to blacken Garrison's face and hands before lynching him. The mob apparently understood better than Garrison himself that freed blacks were potentially a threat to the racist underpinnings of the industrial North, not just the docile emulators of its civil principles. Less physical but perhaps no less threatening, Garrison's cross-identifications suggest a lack at the heart, not of black citizenship, but of public authority itself. Garrison's Address suggests that public authority exists only in the circulation between blacks and whites, nation and citizens, teacher and student, but belongs finally to no one. If white civil virtue circulates in a purely discursive space, so Garrison, who wishes to possess those virtues as the grounds of his public authority, must also circulate between the “whiteness” and “blackness” he has created. In gaining his authority, then, he risks his claim to authenticity (the indwelling “truth” of one's “character”) upon which that authority depends.

Neither the appropriation of another's suffering nor the consequent inauthenticity is particular to the remarkably earnest Garrison. Rather, both were central to the allure and the anxiety caused by antebellum reform in the US. Appeals to the sufferings of a “group” to which one did not belong—the poor, alcoholics, criminals, sex workers—increasingly supplied the intimate pain that entitled more privileged citizens to engage in public debate with an authorized moral authority. Taking one's authenticating intimacy from a group by definition alienated from one's social identity both generated and forestalled claims to authentic interiority. To be sure, these reformers brought about significant changes in American civil life, relieving suffering and remedying social policies through their moral activism. Despite their label as “reformers,” however, some, such as Garrison himself, wanted a social revolution and blamed the absence of that radical change on outside forces: Southern racism, governmental cynicism, weakness of white Northern resolve. But part of the failure, surely, resulted from reform's own program, for liberal sympathy worked, not only on behalf of the suffering subaltern, but in the interest of national pride, aggressive global expansion, and white civility as well. Such politics, I have argued, follow an affective circuit from compassion to empathy to inclusion, the trajectory of which is to pull the suffering other into a state of normative plentitude—the state of civil health—from which “proper” feelings (gratitude, docility, ambition, but never rage or resentment) emanate. Once social relations became the domain of interior forces—sympathy and character, phobia and human nature—reform came to be limited to initiatives (medical, moral, and domestic) aimed at standardizing human nature toward a set of fixed social virtues, foreclosing social analyses of structural ills and diminishing the value of cultural difference. In suggesting the normative work of civil inclusion, then, I am not attempting a cynical argument in which power is all-pervasive and irresistible. Rather, I want to suggest that part of what makes power unassailable is precisely its equation with “natural” or “universal” (the two become the same) civic sentiment, and that, if power were denuded of its discursive associations with “inner life,” we might ultimately create more liberating modes of civil organization better suited for public justice.


  1. Steven Mintz notes that antebellum reform not only “arose in a millennialist sense of possibilities” (xiv), but also “believed the only way to stabilize the social order was to internalize self-restraints within the depth of individual character” (xiv). Mintz further observes that antebellum reform's “efforts to replace physical coercion resulted in less visible, but no less potent psychological forms of discipline” (xv). Despite his insight that these forms of discipline were essentially psychological, centered on the creation of a “sober, educated, self-disciplining citizenry” (xiv), Mintz quickly shifts to the institutional sites of social discipline, claiming that “reformers effectively created new institutions of social control and confinement, ranging from poorhouses and prisons to reformatories and asylums” (xv). Perhaps because he eliminates the psychological effects of reformist discipline on those not confined to such institutions, Mintz is able to imagine an unambivalently progressive contemporary inheritance from antebellum reform, stripped of its “internalize[d] self-restraints”: antebellum reforms, according to Mintz, “reinvigorated American ideals and reinforced the nation's commitment to equality and social justice. If Americans today recognize the various forms that oppression, inequality, exploitation, and tyranny can take, this is largely on account of past reformers who stuck thorns in the side of indifference and dared to dream of a new world” (xiii). Mintz is right to claim that antebellum reformers reinvigorated America's commitments to justice, especially at a moment when the ideals of the Declaration of Independence were beginning to seem cynically rhetorical. In formulating this inheritance, however, he ignores his own insight that reform resulted in self-mastery and psychological control as much as in justice, much less “equality.” His optimistic claim that Americans today—who continue to elect politicians who dismantle affirmative action and welfare, fight initiatives for universal health care, deregulate the “free market,” define “marriage” legally in relation solely to heterosexual couples—can “recognize the various forms that oppression, inequality, exploitation, and tyranny can take,” though qualified by the conditional “if,” suspends the self-managing disciplines at work not only on the criminal and the abject but on the normative middle-class citizen. Those self-managements, too, are the legacy of antebellum reform.

  2. Cf. Lauren Berlant's “The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Notes on Diva Citizenship” (1997).

  3. On the American Colonization Society, see my “Pedagogical Discipline.”

  4. Walter Jackson Bate was among the first critics to note the social function of sympathy in choreographing civic morality in eighteenth-century England. Bate documents the rise of a specific mode of sympathy that linked classic conceptions of civic order to an early Romantic focus on states of feelings, giving rise to a distinctively modern individualism. At the center of this philosophic development, according to Bate, was Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.

  5. See, e.g., Elizabeth B. Clark, “‘The Sacred Rights of the Weak’: Pain, Sympathy, and the Culture of Individual Rights in Antebellum America” (1995).

  6. See, e.g., Barnes, David Marshall, The Surprising Effects of Sympathy (1988), and Julia Stern, The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel (1997).

  7. Barnes has persuasively argued that “[i]n a move that anticipates Foucault's study of modern disciplinary forms, sympathy is revealed to be a self-regulating practice” (18), one of the key “affective forms of disciplinary control” (8) in early America. Barnes argues that postrevolutionary women were encouraged to form sympathetic relations to sentimental novels in which wayward daughters learn to subject themselves to the authoritative if arbitrary rule of fathers, thereby rationalizing the “consensual” subjection of citizens to the founding fathers of the national family. Demonstrating “early national culture's attempts to reconcile conservative republican values of duty to others with a liberal agenda of self-possession” (12), sentimental fiction is the logical outgrowth of Smith's theory of sympathy, in which “imagining oneself under the constant scrutiny of others, one eventually comes to internalize that perspective. What follows is Smith's vision of an individual conscience that takes shape as a separate subject … who, by temporarily adopting the other's perspective, manages to teach us the ‘most complete lesson of self-command’” (21). Through her focus on sympathy's regulation of the gendered subject (in both senses of the word), Barnes poses a compelling critique of antebellum reform—“Why reform social and political structures when you can reform the woman herself?” (10)—similar to the one I am suggesting here. Although Barnes suggests that under such disciplinary reform “difference is to be negated rather than understood” (22), I argue that the goal of racial discipline is neither negation nor understanding, but internalization; and to Barnes's assertion that “to read sympathetically is to read like an American” (2), I would add that it is to read like a white American, since the end result of racial sympathy, I am contending, is not the subsuming of difference into a national sameness, but the reification of white Americanness through the manufacture of racial character. Gender is made to produce a fantasy of sameness in postrevolutionary America, in other words, while race is made to produce difference.

  8. In Bentham's model prison, prisoners were visible to guards, who were not themselves visible to the prisoners. The result is that prisoners, who are always potentially watched (but are never assuredly so), begin to act continually as if they are under guard. Having internalized surveillance, then, prisoners lose the ability to distinguish between coercion (what is imposed from outside) and consent (behaviors produced, under internalized scrutiny, as if from free will). Modes of self-regulation produced under internalized cultural scrutiny Foucault called, following Bentham, panoptical, which became the basis of the shift from punishment (force exerted by external authority) to discipline (force produced through self-regulation based on the self's desire to conform with norms produced by new knowledges of the body, natural and social science taking the place of the guards in Bentham's prison).

  9. Lott describes the “pale gaze” as “a ferocious investment in demystifying and domesticating black power in white fantasy by projecting vulgar black types as spectacular objects of white men's looking” (153).

  10. Garrison wrote, “The retributive justice of God was never more strikingly manifested than in this all-pervading negrophobia, the dreadful consequence of chattel slavery” (“The ‘Infidelity’ of Abolition,” Selections 6).

  11. Garrisonian abolition emerged during a period when, as Habermas has shown, the “public” became, throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a place where critical debate, animated by private, autonomous conviction, was increasingly directed at—rather than animated by—collective institutions. To the degree that one challenged Church and State, one gained status as a moral individual, privately suited for public authority.

  12. See, e.g., Thoughts on African Colonization.

  13. For Balibar, the “nation-form” operates as an ideological structure by generating a twofold illusion. In the first, “the generations which succeed one another over centuries on a reasonably stable territory, under a reasonably univocal designation, have handed on to each other an invariant substance” (86). Joined to this is the illusion that “the process of development from which we select aspects retrospectively, so as to see ourselves as the culmination of that process, was the only one possible, this is, it represented a destiny” (86). The nation-form thereby resolves “the interminable conflict between theological universalism and the universality of nationalism” (95).

  14. Unless otherwise noted, all references to Garrison's speeches are to Selections.

  15. His position at the heart of public controversy yet outside its relativist jurisdiction required that Garrison deny the source of his successes in the opinion-saturated domain of print: “Now, on what are right and wrong dependent?” Garrison asked. “On recorded declarations? On ancient parchments or modern manuscripts? on sacred books? No. Though every parchment, manuscript, and book in the world were given to the consuming fire, the loss would not in the least affect the right or wrong of moral actions. Truth and duty, the principles of justice and equality, the obligations of mercy and brotherly kindness, are older than all books, and more enduring than tablets of stone” (“War Essentially Wrong” 89-90). Garrison's repeated denial of his reliance on print reveals an anxiety about his relation to public opinion and, therefore, to the very organizational vogues, distributional markets, and national public-formations—in short, to ideology—he criticized in others. At the same time, however, Garrison's own newspaper, The Liberator, was effecting exactly the manipulation of public opinion. Throughout Garrison's writings, the agency of print was always subsumed on the one hand by providential wisdom and, on the other, by the affective response of readers, who were constructed as embodied consumers, both of the print-commodity and its ideology. That the readership of The Liberator was mostly black sets the stage in disturbing ways for the economic incorporation of African Americans within the nationally “inclusive” utopia set forth by the newspaper. African Americans would become citizens simultaneously with their interpellation as consumers, both functions merging in the consumption of “identities” such as “black” and “virtuous citizen.” At the same time, the newspaper's editor, insofar as he was also the public (white, male) voice of authority, could eclipse his own situation within the economic market. Given the role of newspapers in generating the imagined national community, it is not surprising that the ambivalence Garrison expressed about print is similar to his ambivalence about the nation as a social institution. My argument attempts to introduce the question of racial triangulation (between Garrison as exemplary, racially mobile citizen, prejudiced white citizens at large, and suffering blacks) into Robert Fanuzzi's fascinating analysis of Garrison's use of print to create a triangulation between Garrison as private citizen, the market public for The Liberator, and a “political subject conceived and refined through the political economy of newspaper publishing” (123). Compelling as that argument is, to leave “race” out of an analysis of the print public generated by The Liberator is to miss the extent to which Garrison's political subject exemplifies white republican citizenship at the threshold between radical individualism and market democracy.

  16. Just as disturbing, however, is the connection Garrison draws between African and North American expansion, which Garrison exalted as precisely the kind of voluntary displacement of citizens that African colonization could ideally become (Thoughts 15-17). In making such a claim, Garrison brackets the role of westward expansion in extending and strengthening slavery in the US (a connection he elsewhere acknowledged and condemned, but only at the level of federal agency, as when the government admitted Texas as a slave state). In bracketing that connection, Garrison sidestepped as well the consistency of his fantasy of citizenship-without-nations with the imperialist rhetorics of Manifest Destiny: both relied on divine injunction; both freed the citizen-form from specific national borders to generate a universal, imperialist “mission”; both justified their universalism through claims to “uplift” benighted people of color; and both, as Alexander Saxton notes, relied on “an intermediate language by which rational and moral ideas—self-evident to the intellect or logically deducible—could be transposed into emotional, metaphorical, even sensual images, comprehensible at the inferior levels of the social order” (46); both, that is, having freed citizenship from its national borders sought to map it onto—and into—the bodies of unwilling people of color.

  17. On Douglass's battles with Garrison, see William Cain's introduction to William Lloyd Garrison.

  18. I am building here on Berlant's critique of the ways in which “the violently rationalized world is put forth in the name of the authenticity of feeling, especially the feelings of love and suffering, the claims of which stand on the high ground of an ethics beyond politics: sentimental politics are being performed whenever putatively suprapolitical affects or affect-saturated institutions (like the nation and the family) are proposed as universal solutions to structural racial, sexual, or intercultural antagonism” (“Poor Eliza” 638). Sentimental politics are especially likely to substitute for structural antagonism, Berlant argues, in “capitalist culture, both at the juncture where abstract relations of value are sublimated into and represented by particular kinds of subaltern bodies and at the place where the magical autonomy of the commodity form (the mirror of the stereotype) is positioned as the disembodied solution to the experience of social negativity or isolation” (642).

Works Cited

Balibar, Etienne, and Immanuel Wallerstein. Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. New York: Verso, 1991.

Barnes, Elizabeth. States of Sympathy: Seduction and Domesticity in the American Novel. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.

Bate, Walter Jackson. From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth Century England. New York: Harper, 1946.

Bentham, Jeremy. The Panopticon Writings. Ed. Miran Boxovic. London: Verso, 1995.

Berlant, Lauren. “Poor Eliza,” American Literature 70 (1998): 635-68.

———. “The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Notes on Diva Citizenship.” The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1997.

Birney, James. Letter on Colonization. Boston: Garrison & Knapp, 1834.

Cain, William. Introduction. William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery: Selections from “The Liberator.” New York: St. Martin's, 1995.

Castiglia, Christopher. “Pedagogical Discipline and the Creation of White Citizenship: John Witherspoon, Robert Finley, and the Colonization Society.” Early American Literature 33 (1988): 191-214.

Clark, Elizabeth B. “‘The Sacred Rights of the Weak’: Pain, Sympathy, and the Culture of Individual Rights in Antebellum America.” Journal of American History (Sept. 1995): 463-93.

Davis, David Brion. “Reflections on Abolitionism and Ideological Hegemony.” American Historical Review 92 (1987): 797-812.

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

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Garrison, William Lloyd. Address Delivered in Boston, New-York, and Philadelphia Before the Free People of Color. New York: Printed for the Free People of Color, 1833.

———. Selections from the Writings and Speeches of William Lloyd Garrison. Boston: R. F. Walcutt, 1852.

———. Thoughts on African Colonization: or, An Impartial Exhibition of the Doctrines, Principles, and Purposes of the American Colonization Society. Boston: Garrison & Knapp, 1832.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge: MIT, 1994.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Mintz, Steven. Moralists and Modernizers: America's Pre-Civil War Reformers. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.

Saxton, Alexander. The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Verso, 1990.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. London: A. Millar, 1761.

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