Essay On William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison 1805-1879

American social reformer, journalist, nonfiction writer, speech writer, and biographer.

Generally regarded as the foremost figure of the United States abolitionist movement, Garrison was a widely recognized speaker, political agitator, and voice of reform in nineteenth-century America. Expressing radical views through his influential anti-slavery periodical the Liberator (1831-65), Garrison was an outspoken supporter of alcohol prohibition, women's suffrage, nonviolent resistance, and other social issues. Religiously devout and fervent in his opposition to injustice, Garrison earned a reputation for political extremism, once setting fire to a copy of the United States Constitution, declaring it “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell” for its sanction of slavery. In devoting three and a half decades of his public career to the complete elimination of slavery in the United States, Garrison contributed to the polarization of American society in the years leading up to the Civil War, and in his zealous drive toward racial equality he became a rallying figure for both adherents and opponents of abolitionism. Faced with the unforgiving task of rousing Northerners from their general indifference to slavery and condemning Southern slaveholders for their immorality, Garrison saw his goal realized with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which emancipated all black slaves in 1865. The remainder of his life Garrison devoted to less visible causes in the name of social and moral progress in American society.

Biographical Information

Born on December 10, 1805 in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Garrison was the son of a Nova Scotian immigrant, Abijah Garrison, and his wife Frances Maria Lloyd. His father abandoned the family before Garrison was three years old, leaving Garrison's mother to raise three children alone. Poor economic prospects prohibited the young Garrison from completing his education. After only a few years of grammar school he began a period of indentured labor, eventually becoming an apprentice printer with the Newburyport Herald in 1818. The apprenticeship lasted seven years and Garrison proved well suited to the work. He continued his career in journalism as editor of the Essex County Free Press in 1826. The newspaper failed, but Garrison persevered, transferring to the National Philanthropist, a Boston-based prohibition paper. His work with the National Philanthropist demonstrated the young Garrison's growing reformist zeal. He began to write editorials in favor of moral and political improvement, speaking out against the consumption of alcohol, sexual promiscuity, and the institution of slavery, among other social ills. With increasing visibility in the anti-slavery circles of New England, but little local response to his opinions on reform, Garrison accepted a position with the Genius of Universal Emancipation, a Baltimore journal he began to co-edit with abolitionist Benjamin Lundy in 1829. In its pages, Garrison advocated the full and immediate emancipation of all American slaves, an extremely radical anti-slavery position at that moment in United States history. He also rebutted arguments for the colonization of freed slaves in Africa, a position he had previously supported but no longer found suitable. Garrison's broadsides against slavery in the Genius of Universal Emancipation were accompanied by personalized attacks, including one aimed at Newburyport businessman Francis Todd for his involvement in the slave trade. Todd sued Garrison for libel after learning of the accusation, and a Baltimore court sentenced Garrison, who was unable to pay his fine, to six months in jail. During his incarceration, Garrison composed a small pamphlet entitled A Brief Sketch of the Trial of William Lloyd Garrison for an Alleged Libel on Francis Todd, of Newburyport, Massachusetts (published in 1834; but circulated in 1830). The sketch attracted the attention of philanthropist Arthur Tappan, who paid Garrison's fine, thereby securing the journalist's release after seven weeks of imprisonment. Returning to Boston, Garrison found support for his anti-slavery attitudes still modest, but on the rise. He initiated a new periodical, calling it the Liberator, in January of 1831. That year also witnessed the outbreak of the infamous Nat Turner slave rebellion. The insurrection, which resulted in the murder of sixty-one whites and the eventual execution of its black instigators, prompted a fevered outbreak of racial tension in the United States. Even as he decried the brutality of this rebellion, Garrison capitalized on the climate of unrest it had created to promote his abolitionist campaign in the Liberator. Meanwhile, the outspoken Garrison had attracted numerous detractors, culminating in a call by the Georgia state legislature in November of 1831 to arrest and abduct the Liberator's editor in exchange for a $5,000 reward. The payment was never claimed, and Garrison used the publicity to slight the moral disposition of the slaveholding South. In 1832, the reformer published his Thoughts on African Colonization. That year, the New England Anti-Slavery Society was assembled and named Garrison as its secretary. He sailed across the Atlantic for the first time in 1833 to meet with anti-slavery supporters in Great Britain. After his return in the fall of 1834, he married Helen Benson, daughter of an eminent New England abolitionist. Appearing at a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society the following year, Garrison was attacked by an angry mob. The intervention of city police allowed Garrison to escape unharmed. Later, he would parlay the incident into a public relations spectacle. In the ensuing years, divisions within the American abolitionist movement, especially between Garrison and members of the New England clergy, threatened his success. In the summer of 1840, Garrison returned once again to England, as a delegate to the International Anti-Slavery Convention in London. The segregation of women from the main convention floor, however, forced him to silently demur in protest for the duration of the conference. In 1843 Garrison became president of the American Anti-Slavery Society, occupying the position for more than two decades as the face of abolitionism in the United States. As the 1840s progressed, the nation witnessed a steady increase in public awareness of, if not direct sympathy with, the anti-slavery movement, in part due to Garrison's political agitation and speaking. Political tensions swelled as the union continued its westward expansion, culminating in the pivotal Compromise of 1850 and ratification of the notorious Fugitive Slave Law. Garrison decried the law and similar political concessions to the South. Having publicly denounced the framers of the United States Constitution for condoning slavery, Garrison refused to placate his enemies or soften the tone of his rhetoric. The infamous raid by abolitionist John Brown on a federal weapons arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October of 1859 once again stirred public unease. Brown was executed, and Garrison, while disparaging his violent methods, credited him as a champion of the abolitionist cause in the Liberator. The election of Abraham Lincoln to the United States presidency in 1860, followed by the secession of the Southern states and the eruption of the American Civil War in 1861 ensured a violent resolution to the anti-slavery conflict. Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which declared the freedom of all slaves, became the law of the land in 1865 after the conclusion of the war and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. With his efforts to eliminate slavery largely realized at this time, Garrison supported the dissolution of the American Anti-Slavery Society and retired from a prominent role in public life. He continued his social reform efforts, however, protesting against the sale and use of alcohol and tobacco, and working to protect the rights of women and Native Americans until his death on May 24, 1879.

Major Works

Garrison's written and oratorical works overwhelmingly demonstrate his radical approach to the major reform issues he recognized in nineteenth-century American society: moral laxity, the consumption of alcohol, deficiencies in women's rights, institutional corruption, and above all, the practice of slavery. In a series of fiery public addresses, delivered throughout New England, Garrison exhorted the American people to free themselves of non-Christian practices and to wage war against sin by supporting an impulse toward the universal abolition of black slavery. Garrison expanded his arguments to include other reformist inclinations, including his desire to promote the religious doctrine of perfectionism—the urge to emulate the perfected moral state of Jesus Christ—and his belief in nonresistance to violence—pacifism, or nonviolent civil disobedience—in the pages of his newspaper the Liberator. For Garrison, the journal became a personal mouthpiece of reform, and, despite its relatively small circulation, it exerted a major influence on public opinion about slavery. In numerous speeches Garrison articulated his confrontational and steadfast position. Among his notable addresses, No Compromise with Slavery (1854) endeavors to sway listeners to halt the unethical practice of slaveholding, and to undertake this mission without equivocation, conciliation, or appeasement. In his 1859 speech “No Fetters in the Bay State!” Garrison singled out the odious Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which allowed slaveholders to forcibly retrieve slaves who had fled north to freedom and return them to southern plantations, as a central example of the hypocrisy and moral vacuity of a nation that allowed and excused the practice of slavery. Among Garrison's written works, Thoughts on African Colonization (1832) details his arguments against the proposed recolonization of Africa by former slaves, a plan promoted by some moderate abolitionists but never actualized. In the work, Garrison laid bare the flawed nature of such a scheme that would presume to resolve the problem of slavery by sending American blacks to a continent where they would largely be received as outsiders and members of the underclass. A single example of his purely literary work, Garrison's collection of lyric verse Sonnets and Other Poems (1843) is thought to attest to the vigor of his moral conviction and sentiment, rather than to his talent as a versifier.

Critical Reception

Popular and critical reaction to Garrison during his lifetime was anything but ambivalent. As a provocative, radical, and highly visible agitator, actively engaged with the most hotly debated issue of social reform in nineteenth-century America, Garrison generally elicited views as extreme as his own. Supporters heaped praise, calling him a courageous champion of justice and morality. Detractors responded with vehement condemnation, labeling him a dangerous fanatic. Meanwhile, divisions within the antislavery movement in the 1840s and 1850s, frequently generated by Garrison's unswerving belief in his principles and complete refusal to compromise, caused even former adherents, such as the charismatic freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, to split with him over the methods of eliminating slavery and enacting social reform. Additionally, Garrison's tendency to denounce a host of social ills in conjunction with abolitionist claims, always with an unwavering, missionary zeal, frequently led to major rifts among his allies. With the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865 and the forthcoming era of black emancipation, however, the main thrust of Garrison's position on slavery had been realized. Moderate abolitionists tended to realign with Garrison, allowing him to enjoy victory as the most immediately identifiable hero of the movement. Nevertheless, by the late nineteenth century, social and political historians had begun to question elements of the Garrison legend. The appearance in 1913 of John Jay Chapman's adulatory biography of the reformer, which de-emphasized Garrison's radicalism in order to mold a figure more satisfying to the mainstream, did little to halt the process. In 1933, historian Gilbert Hobbs Barnes published his revisionist study, The Antislavery Impulse, a work that halted the conciliatory trend and forcefully questioned Garrison's success, accusing him of a counterproductive extremism that contributed to the outbreak of armed hostilities between North and South. Barnes's assessment dominated scholarly opinion of Garrison for two decades, until the mid-1950s when critics began the process of harmonizing extreme views. Since this time, contemporary critics have tended to accept Garrison's significance as a historical embodiment of American abolitionism, while noting that he did not actually lead the abolitionist movement, but rather served as a focal point. By the end of the twentieth century, few would dispute Garrison's overall influence as a reformer. Meanwhile, a number of postmodern commentators have shifted scholarly concentration away from historical assessments of Garrison in order to conduct rhetorical and literary analyses of his speeches and writing, usually within the cultural contexts of mid nineteenth-century America and from the vantage point of a contemporary awareness of the ongoing process of social reform.

While it is oversimplifying historical changes and development by foregrounding a few years as central to the transformation of American attitudes towards slavery, a series of events and publications in the late 1820s and early 1830s were a turning point in the consolidation of the views that would lead to the Civil War. Abolitionist sentiment began to develop in the American colonies at the beginning of the eighteenth century, picking up speed among religious groups, especially the Quakers, as the century proceeded. However, the Revolution brought the question of slavery to the foreground. While patriots frequently evoked metaphors of slavery in denouncing the tyranny of Great Britain towards the colonies, more skeptical commentators noted how actual slavery was common throughout the colonies. The Declaration of Independence helps to exemplify this tension. In his original draft, after emphasizing that the Continental Congress holds that “all men are created equal,” Jefferson, in his long list of accusations against the King, contended that he had “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere.” While the paragraph was self-serving and inaccurate, stating that the King had forced slaves upon the unwilling colonists, it tied the rights that Jefferson saw as the basis for the Americans’ drive for independence to those violated by African slavery. The Continental Congress excised the paragraph from the final document, as it proved potentially too politically divisive. Its place in the initial draft, however, speaks to not just Jefferson’s but many of his compatriots’ sense that their arguments for freedom somehow applied to the slaves in their midst. In the decades to come, many Southerners would try to figure out ways to end slavery without disrupting their economy and society, while the new Northern states, where slavery had never been as essential, implemented programs of gradual emancipation, so that by 1830 a clear dividing line between the free and slave states had been created.

The historical truism has been that at the end of the eighteenth century most white Southerners viewed slavery as a necessary evil, as an evil, but one that they could not figure out how to conclude peacefully. Jefferson exemplifies this view, as he seldom, if ever, excuses slavery in his writings, yet he cautions against emancipation and cannot seem to imagine, due to his own racism, his sense of the ill-feelings that will persist between whites and blacks, and his recognition of the South’s dependence on enslaved black labor, any route to achieving abolition. By 1830 or so, however, attitudes in the South had started to change, and rather than being a necessary evil, slavery was beginning to be defended as a positive good for both whites and blacks. While several Southern states had considered legal schemes for the gradual emancipation of slavery, Virginia would be the last to do so, in January and February of 1832. Part of this entrenchment in defense of slavery derived from Southern reactions to what they saw as the increasing influence of radical abolitionism. Meanwhile, much of the anti-slavery activity throughout the nation had centered on colonizationist schemes, institutionalized in the American Colonization Society, founded in 1817. Unable or unwilling to imagine a post-emancipation, inter-racial society, colonizationists sought to free African-American slaves and then send them to Africa. But while colonizationists saw the plan as sending free blacks “back” to Africa, the vast majority of slaves in the United States were two-or-three generations removed from the experience of living in Africa. Colonizationists succeeded in freeing some slaves and in establishing the nation of Liberia in 1822, but the financial difficulties of compensating slave-owners for their property in slaves and of paying to transport thousands of people across the Atlantic were never fully addressed.

At the same time, most African Americans seem to have been skeptical of such plans, in part because of the underlying racism of such projects and in part because of their ties to America. Throughout the early years of the nineteenth century, African-American writers and orators repeatedly invoked the heritage of the Revolution and black contributions to it in calling for an end to slavery, and two significant slave revolts (or conspiracies)—in Virginia, led by Gabriel Prosser, in 1800, and in South Carolina, led by Denmark Vesey, in 1822— took place, reinforcing the potential instability of the system. When David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World appeared in 1829, however, it marked something distinctly different, a kind of vociferous attack on slavery that had seldom, if ever, been seen in print. Little is known of Walker’s life. He was born in the South to a free African-American woman and a slave father and eventually moved to Boston early in the 1820s, when he was in his young 20s. As the title of his pamphlet indicates, unlike most other early African-American anti-slavery texts, it directly addresses blacks as its primary audience. In his pamphlet, Walker attacks colonizationist schemes for ignoring that black labor had done much to create the nation, and he insists on black equality, even as he chastises his racial brethren for not doing more to resist slavery. He draws on historical examples of slavery to attack Jefferson’s racism and to maintain that black slavery had no precedent for its inhumanity and repeatedly invokes the Bible to remind his readers, black and white, that God will judge the slave-holders. But what truly marked his radical break with anti-slavery rhetoric of the past was his call for blacks to take up the cause on their own and to violently resist slavery. Where much anti-slavery rhetoric of the past (and of the decades to come) would focus on attempting to persuade white Americans to end slavery, Walker foregrounded the role blacks had to take in ending the institution, strongly suggesting that it would only be through righteous bloodshed that they would be able to achieve their freedom.

While the exact circulation of the pamphlet is unclear, it seems to have caused a great stir through the underground network through which it circulated. Several Southern states and cities attempted to ban it, with Georgia even offering a reward for Walker’s capture. The most famous slave revolt in U. S. history—Nat Turner’s Southampton insurrection—occurred only two years after the Appeal appeared, and although no historical evidence suggests any direct influence, many white Southerners—and white Northerners—linked the two together as revealing the fragile and dangerous nature of continuing slavery in the United States. Along with increased Northern agitation against slavery, these events led many white Southerners to become more and more adamant in their defense of slavery. While these events corresponded with a hardening of more racist defenses of slavery in the South, it spurred white Northern abolitionists to reconsider their rhetoric and their gradualist approach to ending slavery. Most importantly, in January of 1831, William Lloyd Garrison would begin publishing The Liberator —what would become the most important periodical in the radical abolitionist movement. While Garrison had earlier been part of the colonizationist movement, he had come to see its severe limitations and to recognize its racism. With The Liberator , Garrison staked out new ground for white abolitionists, insisting on immediate, rather than gradual, emancipation of all slaves and attacking the Constitution as enshrining slavery in the institutional fabric of the nation. Garrison believed in the peaceful termination of slavery through moral suasion and thus distanced himself from both Walker’s Appeal and Turner’s rebellion, but he did see them and other similar episodes as evidence that God would not turn his back on the slaves. His refusal to temper his renunciation of slavery as utterly sinful and ungodly turned many moderate abolitionists away, but he succeeded in helping to create a radical vanguard that helped to pave the way to the acceptance of abolitionism by more and more Northerners. In the 1830s, Garrison would help found the New England and American Anti-Slavery Societies, but his brand of abolitionism would meet with resistance from other anti-slavery activists on several grounds. He sought and allowed women to take active roles in the movement, leading to some breaks within the movement from those who thought that women should not appear in public to speak on political matters. At the same time, though, he eschewed any active participation in direct political means, arguing that the hearts of Americans had to be changed first and that the pro-slavery nature of the Constitution rendered national political institutions inescapably corrupt. This position led to further breaks within the abolitionist movement, as those seeking to use the political system established political parties, most notably the Liberty Party, to seek emancipation. Garrison’s intransigence on this and other issues finally led to Frederick Douglass’s very personal break with him in 1851. While Garrison had been a mentor and an important influence on Douglass as he emerged as a leading abolitionist in the 1840s, Douglass came to feel constrained by Garrison’s position and dogmatism. Despite these strains within the anti-slavery community, Garrison would continue to be a leading voice in the fight against slavery through the Civil War.

Abolitionism was always a minority movement in the North, and in the 1830s, it was met with a great deal of resistance in many Northern locales, with anti-abolitionist mobs forming in a number of towns and cities—one killing the abolitionist journalist Elijah Lovejoy in 1837. As the slavery controversy continued, more white Northerners began to feel at least somewhat uncomfortable with slavery’s presence in the nation. As we will see, the abolitionist literature that developed out of the foundation established by Walker and Garrison would play a central role in encouraging anti-slavery sentiment.

Source: Saylor Academy
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