William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), American editor, reformer, and antislavery crusader, became the symbol of the age of aggressive abolitionism.

William Lloyd Garrison was born on Dec. 10, 1805, in Newburyport, Mass. His father deserted the family in 1808, and the three children were raised in near poverty by their mother, a hardworking, deeply religious woman. Young Garrison lived for a time in the home of a kindly Baptist deacon, where he received the bare rudiments of an education. He was later apprenticed to a shoemaker, a cabinetmaker, and finally to the printer and editor of the Newburyport Herald.

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Editor and Printer

Garrison borrowed money in 1826 to buy part of the Newburyport Free Press; it soon failed. He worked as a printer in Boston and in 1827 helped edit a temperance paper, the National Philanthropist. Seeing life as an uncompromising moral crusade against sin, and believing it possible to perfect a Christian society by reforming men and institutions, Garrison fitted easily into the evangelical currents of his time. In 1828 a meeting with Benjamin Lundy, the Quaker antislavery editor of the Genius of Emancipation, called his attention to that cause. Since 1828 was a presidential election year, Garrison accepted editorship of a pro-Jackson newspaper in Vermont, in which he also supported pacifism, temperance, and the emancipation of slaves. After the election, Garrison accepted a position with Lundy on the Genius in Baltimore.

Garrison's Brand of Abolitionism

The antislavery movement at this time was decentralized and divided. Some people believed slavery should be abolished gradually, some immediately; some believed slaves should be only partly free until educated and capable of being absorbed into society, others that they ought to be freed but settled in colonies outside the United States. There were those who saw slavery as a moral and religious issue; others considered abolition a problem to be decided by legal and political means. Garrison, like Lundy, at first favored gradual emancipation and colonization. But soon Garrison opposed both means as slow and impractical, asking in his first editorial in the Genius for "immediate and complete emancipation" of slaves.

Garrison's militancy got the paper and himself into trouble. Successfully sued for libel, he spent 44 days in jail, emerging in June 1830 with plans for an abolitionist paper of his own. Encouraged by Boston friends, he and a partner published the first number of the Liberator on Jan. 1, 1831, bearing the motto, "Our country is the world—our countrymen are mankind," adapted from Thomas Paine. Attacking the "timidity, injustice, and absurdity" of gradualists and colonizationists, Garrison declared himself for "the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population." Promising to be "as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice," he warned his readers, "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 Liberator, which never had a circulation of over 3,000 and annually lost money, soon gained Garrison a national abolitionist reputation. Southerners assumed a connection between his aggressive journalism and Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia and tended to see him as a symbol of unbridled Northern antislavery radicalism; Georgia, in fact, offered $5,000 for his arrest and conviction. Garrison, for his part, continued to pour invective not only on slaveholders but on those who failed to attack the system as violently as he; Northerners who equivocated were guilty of "moral lapses," Southerners were "Satanic man stealers." His bitter attacks on the colonizationists, summarized in Thoughts on Colonization (1832), and his running battle with the New England clergy (whose churches he called "cages of unclean birds") for their refusal to condemn slavery unconditionally probably lost more adherents for the antislavery cause than they gained. Garrison introduced discussions into his paper of "other topics … intimately connected with the great doctrine of inalienable human rights," among them women's rights, capital punishment, antisabbatarianism, and temperance (he also opposed theaters and tobacco). Thus by the late 1830s abolition was but one portion (albeit the most important) of Garrison's plan for the "universal emancipation" of all men from all forms of sin and injustice.

Organizing the Movement

Recognizing the need for organization, Garrison was instrumental in forming the New England Antislavery Society (later the Massachusetts Antislavery Society) in 1832 and served as its secretary and salaried agent. He visited England in 1833, returning to help found the national American Antislavery Society. In September 1834 he married Helen Benson of Connecticut, who bore him seven children, five of whom survived. When his friend George Thompson, the British abolitionist, visited Boston in 1835, feeling ran so high that a "respectable broadcloth mob," as Garrison called it, failing to find Thompson, seized and manhandled Garrison. Garrison's refusal to consider political action as a way of abolishing slavery (he felt it would delay it) and his desire to join the antislavery movement to other reforms gradually alienated many supporters. In 1840 his stand seriously divided the American Antislavery Society and led to formation of the rival American and Foreign Antislavery Society.

In 1844 Garrison adopted the slogan "No union with slaveholders," arguing that since the Constitution was a proslavery document, the Union it held together should be dissolved by the separation of free from slave states. Yet, despite his reputation, Garrison was a pacifist and did not believe in violence. He thought Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin important chiefly as a novel of "Christian non-resistance," and though he respected John Brown's aim, he did not approve of his method. He wanted, he wrote, "nothing more than the peaceful abolition of slavery, by an appeal to the reason and conscience of the slaveholder."

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Civil War

Garrison supported the Civil War for he believed it an act of providence to destroy slavery, and his son served as an officer in a Massachusetts African American regiment. Critical at first of President Abraham Lincoln for making preservation of the union rather than abolition of slavery his chief aim, Garrison praised the President's Emancipation Proclamation and supported his reelection in 1864—as Wendell Phillips and some other abolitionists did not. Garrison favored dissolution of the American Antislavery Society in 1865, believing its work done, but he lost to Phillips, who wished to continue it. Garrison wrote his last editorial on Dec. 29, 1865, "the object for which the Liberator was commenced—the extermination of chattel slavery—having been gloriously consummated," and retired to Roxbury, Mass., writing occasionally for the press. He died on May 24, 1879.

Despite his reputation, Garrison's influence was restricted to New England (where it was not unchallenged), and his brand of immediatism was never the majority view. When the main thrust of abolition after 1840 turned political, pointing toward the Free Soil and Republican parties, Garrison remained outside, and in terms of practical accomplishment, others did more than he. Yet it was Garrison who became the general symbol of abolitionism. He was influential in relating it to issues of free speech, free press, and the rights of assembly and petition and to the powerful religious evangelism of the times. In his harsh and tactless way, he forced popular awareness of the gap between what the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution said and what the nation did, constantly challenging the country to put its ideals into practice.

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Further Reading on William Lloyd Garrison

The biography written by Garrison's sons, Wendell Phillips Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison (4 vols., 1885-1889), though not wholly trustworthy, is essential. Oliver Johnson, William Lloyd Garrison and His Times, with an introduction by John Greenleaf Whittier (1880), is unduly admiring. Ralph Korngold's study of Wendell Phillips and Garrison, Two Friends of Man (1950), is excellent. Russel B. Nye, William Lloyd Garrison and the Humanitarian Reformers (1955), is a useful short biography. Walter M. Merrill, Against Wind and Tide (1963), and John L. Thomas, The Liberator: William Lloyd Garrison (1963), are good recent studies. George M. Fredrickson, ed., William Lloyd Garrison (1968), is a three-part work comprising a selection of Garrison's writings, articles expressing opinions of him by his contemporaries, and articles by modern writers appraising his work.