Sunday, January 4, 2015

William Lloyd Garrison - The Great Abolitionist


I usually stay away from declaring someone a hero, but William Lloyd Garrison has been an inspiration for me for many years. In Adam Hochschild’s wonderful book Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, there is a very moving passage where Garrison and Frederick Douglass travel in August 1846 to meet the great abolitionist Thomas Clarkson who died the following month.



Carl Bunin contributed this first section:

January 1, 1831

William Lloyd Garrison first published The Liberator
(four hundred copies printed in the
middle of the night using borrowed type),
which became the leading abolitionist paper in the United States.
He labeled slave-holding a crime and called for immediate abolition.
From the first issue:

“I will be harsh as truth, and uncompromising as justice.
On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak,
or write with moderation.
“Assenting to the ‘self-evident truth’ maintained in the
American Declaration of Independence,
‘that all men are created equal, and endowed
by their Creator with certain unalienable rights—
among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’
I shall strenuously contend for the
immediate enfranchisement of our slave population.”

William Lloyd Garrison

This second section is provided by the William Lloyd Garrison Papers:

CREATOR: Garrison, William Lloyd, 1805-1879
TITLE: William Lloyd Garrison papers
DATES: 1833-1882
REPOSITORY: Massachusetts Historical Society
1154 Boylston StreetBoston, MA


This collection consists of the papers of Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, including correspondence between Garrison, his wife Helen Eliza (Benson) Garrison, other members of the Benson family of Brooklyn, Connecticut, and several of the Garrison children.


William Lloyd Garrison was a renowned 19th-century abolitionist and reformer. He was born on December 10, 1805, in Newburyport, Mass., the fourth child of Abijah and Frances Maria (Lloyd) Garrison. His father, a sea captain, deserted the family before Garrison was three years old. Placed in the care of Deacon Ezekiel Bartlett, Garrison had a meager education, and in 1818, he was apprenticed for seven years to Ephraim W. Allen, editor of the Newburyport Herald. On March 22, 1826, he became editor of the local Free Press. When the Free Press failed, Garrison sought employment in Boston as a journeyman printer, and in the spring of 1828, he and Nathaniel H. White launched the National Philanthropist, a paper opposed to intemperance, lotteries, Sabbath-breaking, and war. That same year, he met Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker, who turned Garrison's attention to the evils of slavery. After a short time as editor of the Journal of the Times, an anti-Jackson paper based in Bennington, Vt., Garrison returned to Boston in March 1829 and, on Independence Day in the Park Street Church, delivered the first of many public addresses denouncing slavery. Later that summer, he became co-editor with Lundy of the Baltimore weekly Genius of Universal Emancipation.

Garrison was one of the first American abolitionists to demand not a gradual abolition of slavery, but the "immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves." In the Genius of Universal Emancipation, he vehemently criticized his opponents and accused Newburyport ship-owner Francis Todd of engaging in the domestic slave trade, for which Garrison was sued and found guilty of libel. Unable to pay his fine, he was imprisoned for seven weeks in the Baltimore jail and was released only through the intervention of philanthropist Arthur Tappan. During the autumn of 1830, Garrison lectured in eastern cities and eventually founded his famous periodical, the Liberator. Faced with limited resources and a circulation of less than 3,000, he and his partner Isaac Knapp printed the paper on a hand-press from borrowed type. The first issue, which came out on January 1, 1831, contained Garrison's manifesto ending with the words: "I am in earnest--I will not equivocate--I will not excuse--I will not retreat a single inch--and I will be heard."

Though Garrison was a non-violent activist, his condemnation of slavery and slave-owners was uncompromising and often inflammatory. For example, beginning with its 17th issue, the Liberator bore the image of a slave auction near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. This image infuriated Southerners, who threatened Garrison with bodily harm. The state of Georgia offered a reward of $5,000 for his arrest and conviction.

The New England Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1831, and Garrison, who had helped to draft its constitution, was elected corresponding secretary. In 1832, he wrote a pamphlet, Thoughts on African Colonization, that denounced the work of the American Colonization Society, an organization he had initially supported. In early May 1833, Garrison sailed for England to solicit funds for a manual-labor school for black youth. There he met and befriended many abolitionists, including Daniel O'Connell and George Thompson. On December 4, 1833, Garrison and more than fifty other delegates from ten states met in Philadelphia to form the American Anti-Slavery Society. Its declaration of principles included pacifistic language and was largely written by Garrison, who would serve for a short time as the organization's foreign secretary.

In 1835, George Thompson came to the United States on a lecture tour, but opponents protested many of his appearances. On October 21, at a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, a mob of several thousand assembled intending to tar-and-feather Thompson. The abolitionist had been warned, however, and the crowd seized Garrison instead, dragging him through the streets with a rope around his neck. Garrison, saved through the intervention of Mayor Theodore Lyman, spent the night in the Leverett Street jail and withdrew from the city in the morning.

Garrison was an effective propagandist, but his fanaticism, self-righteousness, and receptivity to radical ideas often antagonized even his ardent supporters. His desire to link abolitionism with other reform movements, such as women's rights, cost him the support of more conservative abolitionists, who were dismayed at the inclusion of Sarah and Angelina Grimke as speakers at their meetings. Also, the indifference of many clergymen to the slavery issue brought Garrison into open conflict with orthodox churches. He eventually denied the plenary inspiration of the Bible and even attended a meeting of the "Friends of Universal Reform" in November 1840. He vigorously denounced theaters, tobacco, capital punishment, and imprisonment for debt. However, his opposition to concerted political action led to a schism in the anti-slavery movement and the formation of third party. In June 1840, Garrison refused to participate in the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in London when he discovered that women were excluded from the proceedings.

As early as 1841, Garrison, who condemned the United States for continuing to sanction slavery, began urging the North to secede from the Union. Many members of the American Anti-Slavery Society emphatically protested, but under pressure from Garrison, the organization resolved, in January 1843, that the Constitution was "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell" that "should be annulled." Later that same year, Garrison was elected president of the American Anti-Slavery Society. In the summer and autumn of 1846, he visited England for the third time, addressing reform meetings, and in August 1847, he and Frederick Douglass went on a lecture tour beyond the Alleghenies, where Garrison debated defenders of the Union night after night. In 26 days, he spoke more than 40 times.

However, resistance among the abolitionists to Garrison's disunionist stance was growing. Garrison, who had strongly opposed the Mexican War and the annexation of Texas, denounced Daniel Webster's "Seventh of March" speech that encouraged compromise on the issue of slavery in the new territory. But Webster's speech provoked a strong reaction against Garrison and the disunionist faction, and at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society on May 7, 1850, a mob led by Isaiah Rynders disrupted the proceedings. But Garrison persisted.

On July 4, 1854, at an abolitionist gathering in Framingham, Mass., Garrison publicly burned the Constitution of the United States. He welcomed the secession of the South in 1860-1861, though as a pacifist, he could not sanction John Brown's uprising at Harpers Ferry. He criticized Lincoln's uncertain policies, but, recognizing the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation, would not openly condemn the president. At the December 1863 meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia, the two factions of abolitionists finally reconciled.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, in April 1865, Garrison and George Thompson attended the ceremonies in Charleston, S.C., and witnessed the raising of the Stars and Stripes over Fort Sumter. Garrison gave a brief address. He had proposed the dissolution of the American Anti-Slavery Society in January 1865, but his motion was rejected. He did, however, decline a 23rd term as its president and was succeeded by Wendell Phillips. The final issue of the Liberator, which came out on December 29, 1865, contained Garrison's editorial celebrating the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Despite two painful accidents that made physical activity difficult, Garrison traveled to England again in 1867. On his return, he became an intermittent contributor to the New York Independent and continued his activism for prohibition, women's suffrage, justice for Native Americans, and the elimination of prostitution. In 1868, Garrison's admirers raised a testimonial fund for him of more than $30,000. His wife Helen Eliza Garrison died of pneumonia on January 28, 1876, and Garrison made his last trip to England the following year, but his health was so poor that he could only occasionally appear in public. He died of a kidney disease on May 24, 1879, at the home of his daughter Fanny Garrison Villard in New York. He was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston.


Fuess, Claude M. "William Lloyd Garrison." Dictionary of American Biography. Ed. Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone. Vol. 7. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1937. 168-7

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