William Lloyd Garrison (December 12, 1805 – May 24, 1879) was a prominent United States abolitionist, journalist, and social reformer. He is best known as the editor of the radical abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, and as one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society. A controversial figure, Garrison was outspoken and uncompromising in his stance against slavery, famously declaring, "I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD!"
Garrison appeared strident in an era when slavery was widely accepted and institutional racism and the degrading conditions of blacks undermined the recognition of their inherent human equality and civil rights. While many liberal reformers favored more gradualist approaches, Garrison boldly demanded the immediate emancipation of slaves and often turned his rhetoric on Northerners who disagreed with him, accusing them of "moral lapses." Garrison saw the U.S. Constitution as inherently flawed because of its equivocation on slavery, and his stridency, in the minds of many reformers, was tactically counterproductive.
Despite his extreme rhetoric, Garrison believed in nonviolent resistance until the actual outbreak of the Civil War, which he supported as a remedy to slavery. Garrison was also outspoken in support of women's rights and included early feminists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as members of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
Garrison was the object of vilification in the North and of frenzied hatred in the South, where a bounty was put on his head. Following the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution ending slavery and providing the legal basis of full citizenship for former slaves, the deeply religious Garrison retired from his lifelong mission. He is recognized as a leading voice of the abolition movement, who articulated the civil and human rights of slaves, yet whose passion and rhetorical extremism also exacerbated divisions that led to the Civil War.
Garrison was born in Massachusetts on December 12, 1805. His family was impoverished by the passage of the Embargo Act in 1807 and they were forced to scrounge for food and sell homemade molasses to make ends meet. His father, a sailor, abandoned the family the following year.
Garrison did not receive much formal education. He began working as a writer at his hometown Newburyport Herald in 1818, becoming editor in 1824. In 1828 helped edit a Boston temperance paper, the National Philanthropist, and later reformist newspapers in Bennington, Vermont, and Baltimore, Maryland.
Committing his life both to the reform movement and a newspaper career, Garrison founded The Liberator in 1831, for which he worked for the next thirty years. Garrison used the Liberator as a platform for his abolitionist views. He served as president of the American Anti-Slavery Society, making him a prominent voice in nineteenth century American politics.
On September 4, 1834, Garrison married Helen Eliza Benson (1811-1876), the daughter of a retired abolitionist merchant. The couple had five sons and two daughters; a son and a daughter died as children.
Garrison, ailing from kidney disease, went to live with his daughter Fanny's family in New York City in April 1879. He died just before midnight on May 24, 1879. Garrison was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts on May 28, 1879, after a public memorial service with eulogies by Theodore Dwight Weld and Wendell Phillips. Eight abolitionist friends, both white and black, served as his pallbearers. Flags were flown at half-staff all across Boston.
When he was 25, Garrison joined the abolition movement. For a brief time he became associated with the American Colonization Society, an organization that believed free blacks should immigrate to a territory on the west coast of Africa. Although some members of the society encouraged granting freedom to slaves, the majority saw the relocation as a means to reduce the number of free blacks in the United States and thus help preserve the institution of slavery. By 1830, Garrison had rejected the programs of the American Colonization Society.
Garrison credited Reverend John Rankin of Ohio as a primary influence on his career, calling him his "anti-slavery father" and saying that Rankin's "book on slavery was the cause of my entering the anti-slavery conflict."
Garrison soon became involved with the opposition to slavery, writing for and then becoming co-editor with Benjamin Lundy of the Quaker Genius of Universal Emancipation newspaper in Baltimore, Maryland. Garrison's experience as a printer and newspaper editor allowed him to revamp the layout of the paper and freed Lundy to spend more time traveling as an antislavery speaker. Garrison initially shared Lundy's gradualist views, but, while working for the Genius, he became convinced of the need to demand immediate and complete emancipation. Lundy and Garrison continued to work together on the paper in spite of their differing views, agreeing simply to sign their editorials to indicate who had written them.
One of the regular features that Garrison introduced during his time at the Genius was "The Black List," a column devoted to printing short reports of "the barbarities of slavery—kidnappings, whippings, murders." One of Garrison's "Black List" columns reported that a shipper named Francis Todd from Garrison's home town of Newburyport, Massachusetts was involved in the slave trade, and that he had recently had slaves shipped from Baltimore to New Orleans on his ship Francis. Todd filed a suit for libel against both Garrison and Lundy, filing in Maryland in order to secure the favor of pro-slavery courts. The state of Maryland also brought criminal charges against Garrison, quickly finding him guilty and ordering him to pay a fine of $50 and court costs (Charges against Lundy were dropped on the grounds that he had been traveling and not in control of the newspaper when the story was printed). Garrison was unable to pay the fine and was sentenced to a jail term of six months. He was released after seven weeks when the antislavery philanthropist Arthur Tappan donated the money for the fine, but Garrison had decided to leave Baltimore and he and Lundy amicably agreed to part ways.
In 1831, Garrison returned to New England and founded a weekly anti-slavery newspaper of his own, The Liberator, initiating a 30-year war of words. In the first issue, Garrison stated:
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 to 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.
Initial circulation of the Liberator was relatively limited—there were fewer than four hundred subscriptions during the paper's second year. However, the publication gained subscribers and influence over the next three decades, until after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery nationwide by the Thirteenth Amendment, Garrison published the last issue (number 1,820) on December 29, 1865, writing in his "Valedictory" column:
Commencing my editorial career when only twenty years of age, I have followed it continuously till I have attained my sixtieth year—first, in connection with The Free Press, in Newburyport, in the spring of 1826; next, with The National Philanthropist, in Boston, in 1827; next, with The Journal of the Times, in Bennington, Vt., in 1828–9; next, with The Genius of Universal Emancipation, in Baltimore, in 1829–30; and, finally, with the Liberator, in Boston, from the 1st of January, 1831, to the 1st of January, 1866;—at the start, probably the youngest member of the editorial fraternity in the land, now, perhaps, the oldest, not in years, but in continuous service,—unless Mr. Bryant, of the New York Evening Post, be an exception. … The object for which the Liberator was commenced—the extermination of chattel slavery—having been gloriously consummated, it seems to me specially appropriate to let its existence cover the historic period of the great struggle; leaving what remains to be done to complete the work of emancipation to other instrumentalities, (of which I hope to avail myself,) under new auspices, with more abundant means, and with millions instead of hundreds for allies.
In 1832, Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society and one year later co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society. In 1833, Garrison visited the United Kingdom and assisted in the anti-slavery movement there. He intended that the Anti-Slavery Society should not align itself with any political party and that women should be allowed full participation in society activities. Garrison was influenced by the ideas of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone and other feminists who joined the society. These positions were seen as controversial by the majority of society members and there was a major rift in the society.
In 1839, two brothers, Arthur Tappan and Lewis Tappan, left and formed a rival organization, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society which did not admit women. A segment of the society also withdrew and aligned itself with the newly founded Liberty Party, a political organization which named James G. Birney as its Presidential candidate. By the end of 1840, Garrison announced the formation of a third new organization, the Friends of Universal Reform, with sponsors and founding members including prominent reformers Maria Chapman, Abby Kelley Foster, Oliver Johnson, and Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott).
Garrison made a name for himself as one of the most articulate, as well as most radical, opponents of slavery. His approach to emancipation stressed non-violence and passive resistance, and he attracted a vocal following. While some other abolitionists of the time favored gradual emancipation, Garrison argued for "immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves."
One of the most controversial events in pre-Civil War Boston history resulted from an Anti-Slavery Society lecture. In the fall of 1835, the society invited George Thompson, a fiery British abolitionist, to address them. When Thompson was unable to attend, Garrison agreed to take his place. An unruly mob threatened to storm the building in search of Thompson. The mayor and police persuaded the Boston Female Anti-Slavery members to leave. The mob, however, pursued Garrison through the streets of Boston. Garrison was rescued from lynching and lodged overnight in the Leverett Street Jail before leaving the city for several weeks.
When someone attending one of Garrison's speeches objected that slavery was protected by the United States Constitution, Garrison replied that if this was true, then the Constitution should be burnt. Garrison had a long, close history with the former slave and abolitionist reformer Frederick Douglass but the two eventually had differences regarding the value of the United States Constitution, which Garrison called a "covenant with death and an agreement with Hell." Douglass had originally shared Garrison's anti-Constitution views, but he later came to be convinced, by the arguments of Lysander Spooner and Gerrit Smith, that the Constitution mandated emancipation, while Garrison burned copies of it publicly, calling it a pro-slavery document. The two men parted company and did not reconcile until the 1870s.
Garrison's outspoken anti-slavery views repeatedly put him in danger. Besides his imprisonment in Baltimore, the government of the State of Georgia offered a reward of $5,000 for his arrest, and he received numerous and frequent death threats.
Garrison occasionally allowed essays in The Liberator from others, including 14-year-old Anna Dickinson, who in 1856 wrote an impassioned article pleading for emancipation of the slaves.
After the abolition of slavery in the United States, Garrison continued working on other reform movements, especially temperance and women's suffrage. In May 1865, Garrison announced that he would resign the presidency of the American Anti-Slavery Society and proposed a resolution to declare victory in the struggle against slavery and dissolve the society.
The resolution prompted sharp debate, however, by critics—led by his long-time ally Wendell Phillips—who argued that the mission of the AAS was not fully completed until black Southerners gained full political and civil equality. Garrison maintained that while complete civil equality was vitally important, the special task of the AAS was at an end, and that the new task would best be handled by new organizations and new leadership. With his long-time allies deeply divided, however, he was unable to muster the support he needed to carry the resolution, and the motion was defeated 118-48. Garrison went through with his resignation, declining an offer to continue as president, and Wendell Phillips assumed the presidency of the AAS. Garrison declared that "My vocation, as an Abolitionist, thank God, has ended."
Returning home to Boston, he told his wife, "So be it. I regard the whole thing as ridiculous." He withdrew completely from the AAS, which continued to operate for five more years, until the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Garrison was hurt by the rejection of his resolution and remained peeved for years.
After his withdrawal from AAS and the end of The Liberator, Garrison continued to participate in public debate and to support reform causes, devoting special attention to the causes of feminism and of civil rights for blacks. During the 1870s, he made several speaking tours, contributed columns on Reconstruction and civil rights for the The Independent and the Boston Journal, took a position as associate editor and frequent contributor with the Woman's Journal, and participated in the American Woman Suffrage Association with his old allies Abby Kelley and Lucy Stone.
While working with the AWSA in 1873, he finally healed his long estrangements from Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips, affectionately reuniting with them on the platform at an AWSA rally organized by Kelly and Stone on the one hundredth anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. When Charles Sumner died in 1874, some Republicans suggested Garrison as a possible successor to his Senate seat; Garrison declined on grounds of his moral opposition to taking government office.
William Lloyd Garrison led the struggle for the emancipation of slaves during an era when slavery was expanding and growing more entrenched and implacable in the South. Like the British reformer William Wilberforce, Garrison was deeply religious and sought to expose the human horror of slavery and shame the conscience of the public. Unlike Wilberforce, Garrison as often angered would-be supporters with his harsh and uncompromising broadsides.
Garrison has served both as a model and a cautionary example for future reformers, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose faith, nonviolence, and passive resistance followed the example of Garrison, but whose firmness and principle was leavened with discretion and shrewd practical judgment.
Garrison and the Liberator also demonstrated the power that the press plays in shaping public opinion and its influence over politics. His involvement with various anti-slavery societies and the opinions expressed in his Liberator helped bring the issue of slavery to the forefront of American political life, leading to its position as a key issue in politics and the American Civil War.
Frederick Douglass spoke in memory of Garrison at a memorial service in a church in Washington, D.C., saying "It was the glory of this man that he could stand alone with the truth, and calmly await the result."
All links retrieved August 24, 2007.
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