Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2855
Article abstract: A crucial figure in the demise of American slavery and the coming of the Civil War, Garrison combined Protestant Evangelicalism, Jeffersonian liberalism, and Quaker humanism into a radical antislavery doctrine that called for the immediate end of the institution of slavery.
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In his 1913 biography of William Lloyd Garrison, John Jay Chapman described his subject’s emergence as a radical abolitionist in 1830 as a streaking, white-hot meteorite crashing into the middle of Boston Commons. Little in Garrison’s background, however, foretold of his career as a professional reformer and as the father of the radical antislavery movement. His parents, Abijah and Frances (Fanny) Maria Lloyd Garrison, had once lived simply and obscurely in wealthy Newburyport, Massachusetts. By the summer of 1808, however, President Thomas Jefferson’s embargo had nearly destroyed New England’s merchant marine, inflicting immense suffering upon lower middle-class sailing masters such as Abijah. That same summer, the Garrisons’ five-year-old daughter died from an accidental poisoning. Abijah Garrison could not withstand the pressure and grief of this period. He took to heavy drinking and then deserted his struggling family of three. The childhood of young William Lloyd was then an even greater ordeal, and he often had to beg for food from the homes of Newburyport’s wealthy residents.
In 1815, Lloyd, as he was called, was apprenticed to a Maryland shoemaker, but the young boy simply lacked the physical strength to do the work. In 1817, Lloyd found himself back in Newburyport, alone and apprenticed to a cabinetmaker. That work also proved unsuitable. When he was thirteen, his luck began to change when he secured an apprenticeship with the editor of the Newburyport Herald. Lloyd feared another failure, but within weeks he displayed remarkable skill and speed. The editor quickly made him shop foreman. Garrison had found his life’s work.
After mastering the mechanics of the trade, Lloyd was eager to print his own writing. Like Benjamin Franklin a century before, he submitted editorials under a pseudonym (Garrison used “An Old Bachelor”) which his boss liked and published. “An Old Bachelor” gained much attention, even from conservative political leaders. In 1826, with a loan from his former employer, Garrison purchased his own newspaper, which he immediately named the Free Press. Seeking respectability and entrance into the ruling elite of Massachusetts, Garrison advocated the conservative politics and social ideas of the Federalist Party. The Free Press became bellicose in its political stands, denouncing everything that smacked of Jeffersonian democracy. During his brief tenure at the paper, Garrison discovered the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, published his first poetry, and also made some oblique criticisms of the institution of slavery, but he revealed nothing that gave the slightest indication of what lay only four years in the future.
Following this relatively conservative initiation into his journalistic career, Garrison became more and more strident in his style and radical in the opinions he voiced in editorials, to the extent that he lost subscribers, defaulted on his loan, and lost his paper. In 1828, he drifted to the National Philanthropist, a temperance paper, and attacked dancing, theatergoing, dueling, and gambling. The fiery editor denounced war and began to display a more thoroughgoing disdain for the institution of slavery by decrying a South Carolina law outlawing black education. Garrison soon repeated his familiar pattern and within six months found himself without a job. He managed to secure a position at the Journal of the Times in Bennington, Vermont, and there railed at intemperance and advanced his ideas concerning peace and gradual emancipation.
In 1829, Garrison had become radicalized on the issue of slavery, about one year after reading Benjamin Lundy’s newspaper, the Genius of Universal Emancipation. Garrison had met Lundy, a Quaker abolitionist, in 1828 and had adopted his views on the gradual emancipation of American slaves. On July 4, 1829, again unemployed, Garrison delivered his first antislavery speech, indicting the North for its racism and declaring that gradual emancipation was the only possible way to end slavery. Then, after reading the works of black Americans such as David Walker and English abolitionists such as James Cropper, Garrison decided to dedicate his life to ending what he viewed as the greatest abomination in American history. He went to work for Lundy and moved back to Baltimore, Maryland, where he coedited the Genius of Universal Emancipation.
Before the end of 1829, Garrison had abandoned gradual emancipation—Lundy had not—and called for the immediate end of slavery. He lashed out against slaveholders and even against New Englanders who countenanced the institution. On April 17, 1830, he was confined to a Baltimore jail for criminal libel against a New England merchant. Word of Garrison’s imprisonment circulated throughout the North and eventually reached the ears of the wealthy New York merchants and reformers, Arthur and Lewis Tappan. They bailed Garrison out of jail and paid his fines. He wandered back to Boston and decided to set up a new paper there.
On October 16, 1830, Garrison advertised a series of public lectures on the subject of slavery and the American Colonization Society. The ACS, established in 1817, claimed to oppose slavery and favored black uplift and the evangelization of Africa, but Garrison sought to expose it as a tool of the slaveocrats who actually perpetuated slavery. At the October lectures, Garrison denounced the ACS as a racist organization that intended to expel free black Americans if they refused to leave voluntarily. Boston’s liberal and conservative clergy alike reacted to the lectures with disgust. Other thinkers, such as Samuel Joseph May, a renegade Unitarian minister and reformer, Bronson Alcott, a Transcendentalist educator and May’s brother-in-law, and Samuel E. Sewall, May’s cousin, became captivated by Garrison’s moral vigor and earnestness. They instantly converted to radical abolitionism and pledged to aid the young editor. Emergence of the Liberator the following year established Garrison as the leader of the radical antislavery movement.
William Lloyd Garrison stood about five feet, six inches tall. His slender, almost fragile frame supported a massive bald head, and his powerful blue eyes were framed by tiny, steel, oval-shaped spectacles. Although relentless on the lecture platform, in private Garrison comported himself with great dignity and grace. Like many reformers, he married late. While lecturing in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1829, he met Helen Benson, the daughter of the Quaker philanthropist, George Benson. Timid in the presence of women and lacking a stable career, Garrison initiated a long courtship, finally marrying Helen on September 4, 1834.
On January 1, 1831, Garrison published the first issue of the Liberator. It angered Northerners as irrational and incendiary and struck fear in slaveholders as an uncompromising condemnation. Garrison, as a pacifist, eschewed violent rebellion, but his strident language—something entirely new in the long history of American antislavery thought—inaugurated a new era in American history. He denounced slavery as sin, called upon all true Christians immediately to abandon it no matter what the cost to the Union, and blasted those who thought slavery might be gradually abandoned. What, gradually stop sin? Tell a man to rescue his wife from a rapist gradually? Garrison thundered. Why complain of the severity of my language, he cried, when so unutterable an evil abounded. Ignoring his critics, Garrison lashed out: “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. . . . I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.”
Garrison’s antislavery appeal fused the evangelical fervor of the Second Great Awakening, which had begun in the 1790’s, with the long-standing Quaker opposition to slavery. He had tapped an essential root of American thought, and if he could convince Americans that slavery was, in fact, sin, then they would have to accept his second proposition that it be immediately abandoned. Southerners understandably recoiled from his rhetoric, but they were horrified when, eight months after appearance of the Liberator, Nat Turner turned Virginia inside out by fomenting a slave rebellion and killing dozens of whites, including women and children. Southerners connected the two events, blamed Garrison for the killings, put a price on his head, and demanded that Massachusetts suppress the newspaper and its editor.
In January, 1832, Garrison and twelve men—antislavery apostles—founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society. In June, he published his influential Thoughts on African Colonization (1832), and, for the next three years, Garrison and his associates dedicated themselves to destroying the credibility of the American Colonization Society. He helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society on December 4, 1833. Between 1833 and 1840, two hundred Auxiliaries of the American Anti-Slavery Society were organized from Massachusetts to Michigan with about 200,000 members. They sent antislavery agents throughout the North to whip up controversy and support for the cause.
The growth of radical antislavery thought caused great consternation. Between 1830 and 1840, abolitionists suffered from personal and physical abuse. Rocks, bricks, and the contents of outhouses were thrown at them. They were denounced as anarchists who would destroy the Union if it suited their whim. In 1836, Southern states requested Governor Edward Everett of Massachusetts to suppress Garrison and his friends. On November 7, 1837, Illinois abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy was assassinated by a rampaging mob determined to destroy his newspaper, the Alton Observer. The attacks on abolitionists and the murder of Lovejoy sparked unprecedented sympathy for the antislavery advocates, who could now justifiably claim that abolitionism and a defense of a free press and free speech were inseparable.
To Garrison, abolitionism was only the most important of a collection of reforms, from women’s rights to temperance, connected by a liberal Christian faith in a benevolent God and the rejection of all forms of force and violence. In 1836, Garrison learned of two extraordinary women from Charleston, South Carolina. Sarah and Angelina Grimké, born into a slaveholding family, had rejected their home and human bondage, converted to Quakerism, and moved north. In 1837, Garrison arranged a speaking tour for them in New England. Huge crowds turned out for the sisters, who risked their reputations to ignore the social restrictions against women speaking in public. Indeed, during the course of their tour, the Grimkés became ardent exponents of women’s rights, having seen how prominent clergymen denounced their violation of women’s restricted sphere. Garrison supported the sisters and opened up the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society to women, urging his conservative colleagues to do the same.
Garrison’s support for women’s rights brought howls of protest from other abolitionists, who urged him to avoid “extraneous” issues and stick to antislavery work. He refused to compromise and answered his critics by becoming even more radical. At the September, 1838, meeting of the American Peace Society, Garrison, May, and Henry C. Wright, a radical Garrisonian, attempted to gain the society’s acceptance of nonresistance thought. They wanted to outlaw as utterly unchristian all forms of war, force, and violence, even denying one’s right to defend oneself. When faced with an attacker, according to nonresistance thought, one could only respond with Christian meekness and manifestations of love. Garrison, May, and Wright all claimed that they had personally disarmed robbers or criminals with love. Conservatives refused to accept the new doctrine or to permit women to participate in their society, and they left the meeting. In response, Garrison and his friends formed the New England Nonresistance Society to spread what they saw as true Christian principles.
Garrison’s extreme ideas fractured his own Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1839 and the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840. Although the antislavery movement seemed to be crumbling, Garrison responded in typical fashion. While many of the best young male abolitionists avoided Garrison’s organizations and went into politics, Garrison damned the political system. In 1842, he advocated the dissolution of the Union. The nation had become so corrupt, so dominated by slave power that no hope existed for slavery’s end so long as the South remained in the Union. Although his critics argued that no hope for the end of slavery existed if the South left the Union, Garrison ignored them. In 1843, the Liberator adopted its most radical stand yet. 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.” Beginning March 17, 1843, Garrison placed the slogan “NO UNION WITH SLAVE-HOLDERS!” on the masthead of his newspaper, where it remained until the Civil War.
Split over women’s rights and nonresistance ideas, the antislavery movement nearly ended by the mid-1840’s. Little money flowed in and few Americans could accept disunionism, no matter how much they hated slavery. Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 boosted the American Anti-Slavery Society’s prospects, since most Northerners came to hate the law as an infringement of constitutionally protected rights. As the nation moved toward civil war during the 1850’s, Garrison increased his attacks on slavery, the Constituion, and the Union. With the firing on Fort Sumter in April, 1861, however, he supported Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause. Although many of his associates thought the South ought to leave the Union peacefully, Garrison saw the war as perhaps the only opportunity to end slavery, even if it did violate his peace principles. He thus supported the Lincoln Administration’s war policy, all the while urging the president to abolish slavery. When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Garrison was ecstatic, and when the nation adopted the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, in 1865, he felt vindicated. Believing his life’s purpose fulfilled, Garrison retired from activism, though he continued to support the Republican Party and causes such as temperance and women’s rights. He died in New York City on May 24, 1879.
Although Garrison harbored some racial prejudice, he was a pioneer of racial justice. He argued that racism and slavery worked hand-in-hand and that Northern prejudice and Southern intransigence shared equally in the responsibility for perpetuating slavery. Garrison’s message of racial justice and abolitionism threatened the nation’s class system, which exploited free Northern blacks as well as Southern slaves and endangered the tenuous bonds that had kept the Union together since the formation of the Constitution. Public reaction to Garrison did not change until passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Before the war’s end, he became a prophetic figure to Americans. The Boston mobs that tried to lynch him in 1834 raised statues to him in 1865. Modern historians have recognized Garrison’s indispensable role in the ending of American slavery and have hailed him for his simple claim that the Declaration of Independence ought to speak for everyone, black and white, male and female.
Chapman, John Jay. William Lloyd Garrison. New York: Moffat, Yard and Co., 1913. A sympathetic early biography by the son of one of Garrison’s associates.
Friedman, Lawrence J. Gregarious Saints: Self and Community in American Abolitionism, 1830-1870. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Representative of the best modern studies of the abolitionist movement. Gives an inside look at the subtle distinctions the reformers made on a variety of topics related to voting, the Constitution, and how distinct groups of reformers sprang up around charismatic figures such as Garrison, Gerrit Smith, or the Tappan brothers.
Garrison, William Lloyd. The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison. Edited by Walter M. Merrill and Louis Ruchames. 6 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971-1981. The best way for the student to become acquainted with Garrison is to read the activist’s own work. These are copiously annotated personal and public letters that fully display the thinking and the sometimes idiosyncratic personality of the Liberator’s chief editor.
Kraditor, Alieen S. Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850. New York: Pantheon Books, 1969. Far and away the best book on Garrison’s movement and thought. Kraditor fully explores the controversy of the “woman question” and argues convincingly that, in order for Garrison to gain acceptance of a minimum of antislavery thought, he had to remain more radical than the nation and many of his antislavery brethren.
Merrill, Walter M. Against Wind and Tide: A Biography of William Lloyd Garrison. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. A thorough and often critical examination of the abolitionist’s career. The text emphasizes Garrison’s personality, which could be extremely abrasive and unforgiving. The author recognizes, however, that it took an abrasive personality to challenge the foundations of American society.
Perry, Lewis. Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973. The most sophisticated treatment of antislavery thought, concentrating on Garrison and his nonresistance colleagues. Perry examines the origins of Garrison’s thinking and connects it to wider trends in Western Christian thought.
Stewart, James B. Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery. New York: Hill and Wang, 1976. A good, readable survey of the antislavery movement, emphasizing Garrison’s role and the religious nature of the movement that stemmed from the influence of the Second Great Awakening.
Thomas, John L. The Liberator: William Lloyd Garrison, A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1963. The best study of Garrison; it appreciates his central role in the movement but remains critical of his tactics and personality. Thoroughly researched, and more detailed than Merrill’s biography.