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Jul 4, 2000

The Sin of Slavery: A Biography of William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison was the greatest publicist for the emancipation of American slaves. He did more than anybody else to make slavery a burning issue.

While Anthony Benezet, Thomas Paine and others had spoken out against slavery long before Garrison was born, there had never been an American abolitionist movement. Indeed, in the late 18th century, it appeared that American slavery was dying out. Starting with Vermont in 1777, one Northern state after another abolished slavery. Then demand for cheap cotton soared, Eli Whitney’s gin (1793) provided a more efficient way to process it, the Louisiana Purchase (1803) increased the amount of land to grow it on, and the number of American slaves soared from around 500,000 during the Revolutionary War to about 4 million by the Civil War.

When Garrison resolved to fight slavery, two anti-slavery views prevailed: that slavery should be ended gradually and that slaves should be “colonized” back to Africa. He focused on immediate emancipation without compensation to slaveholders, and in a few years that became the battle cry of American abolitionists. As his compatriot Wendell Phillips explained, “Garrison was the first man to begin a movement designed to annihilate slavery. He announced the principle, arranged the method, gathered the forces, enkindled the zeal, started the argument, and finally marshaled the nation for and against the system.”

Garrison was a bold man of action. With just a few dollars in his pocket, he founded and for 35 years edited the best-known abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator which Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe praised for “its frankness, fearlessness, truthfulness, and independence.” Garrison organized the New England Anti-Slavery Society which launched the abolitionist movement. He was a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He traveled continuously to speak about the horrors of slavery. He brought over the great English anti-slavery orator George Thompson, and he recruited Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass who became the most famous abolitionist orators.

Garrison needed considerable courage, because most people in the North didn’t want to hear about the slavery issue. Anti-slavery talk threatened to disrupt business and split the Union. And besides, even people who opposed slavery didn’t generally like blacks. He was jailed in Baltimore. North Carolina indicted him for provoking slave revolts. The Georgia legislature offered $5,000—big money in those days—for anybody who brought him back to their state for trial and probable hanging. Six Mississippi slaveholders offered $20,000 for anyone who could deliver Garrison. Pro-slavery goons put up a nine-foot-high gallows in front of Garrison’s house. A Boston mob tried to lynch him.

Nobody blasted slavery like Garrison. “And what has brought our country to the verge of ruin,” he wrote, “THE ACCURSED SYSTEM OF SLAVERY! To sustain that system, there is a general willingness to destroy LIBERTY OF SPEECH and of the PRESS, and to mob or murder all who oppose it. In the popular fury against the advocates of a bleeding humanity, every principle of justice, every axiom of liberty, every feeling of humanity—all the fundamental axioms of republican government are derided and violated with fatal success.”

Garrison’s provocative language turned off many people, and he was accused of setting back the abolitionist movement. But proposals for gradual emancipation had been voted down everywhere in the South. Wellesley College historian William E. Cain observed, “there is no proof that Garrison slowed down reforms by slave owners of their system…It was not the kind of discussion of slavery that Garrison fostered, but any discussion at all, that pro-slavery forces were concerned about.” As historian Dwight Lowell Dumond put it, “There was nothing to retard.”

Unlike many reformers who know what they’re against but don’t think through what they’re for, Garrison had an exhilarating vision—natural rights. “Black children,” he declared, “possess the same inherent and unalienable rights as ours…” He frequently cited the Declaration of Independence. He crusaded for women’s rights and peace as well as the emancipation of slaves. He defended persecuted Chinese immigrants. And he wrote: “I avow myself to be a radical free trader, even to the extent of desiring the abolition of all custom-houses, as now constituted, throughout the world. That event is far distant, undoubtedly, but I believe it will come with the freedom and enlightenment of mankind.”

Garrison affirmed the harmony of social cooperation in a free society. “There is a prevalent opinion that…the poor and vulgar are taught to consider the opulent as their natural enemies. Where is the evidence that our wealthy citizens, as a body, are hostile to the interests of the laboring classes? It is not in their commercial enterprises, which whiten the ocean with canvas and give employment to a useful and numerous class of men. It is not found in the manufacturing establishments, which multiply labor and cheapen the necessities of the poor. It is not found in the luxuries of their tables, or the adornments of their dwellings, for which they must pay in proportion to their extravagance.”

Liberty was the keynote of his personal life. His wife Helen, whom he married on September 4, 1834, was the daughter of a Connecticut abolitionist. They moved to a little place they called “Freedom’s Cottage,” on Bower Street, Roxbury, near Boston. They named most of their children after abolitionists: Wendell Phillips, George Thompson, Charles Follen, Francis Jackson and Elizabeth Pease. Another son was named after Garrison, a daughter after Helen. Garrison and his wife were together until her death in 1876.

Garrison had a big bald head and blue eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses. Essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson described him as “a virile speaker.” Joseph Copley, editor of a Pittsburgh religious newspaper, recalled that Garrison “was a quiet, gentle and I might say handsome man—a gentleman, indeed, in every sense of the word.” English abolitionist Harriet Martineau: “Garrison had a good deal of the Quaker air; and his speech is deliberate like a Quaker’s but gentle as a woman’s…Every conversation I had with him confirmed my opinion that sagacity is the most striking attribute…” Wendell Phillips avowed: “Such is my conviction of the soundness of his judgment and his rare insight into all the bearings of our cause, that I distrust my own deliberate judgment, when it leads me to a different conclusion from his.”

William Lloyd Garrison was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, December 10, 1805, the son of Frances Maria Lloyd and Abijah Garrison. His mother was descended from Irish immigrants, and his father was a red-bearded, hard-drinking sea captain who was seldom at home and left for good after he lost his job because of the 1807 Embargo Act. Garrison’s mother struggled to make ends meet as a nurse, and she taught her children moral values.

In 1818 Garrison began an apprenticeship at the Newburyport Herald. He seems to have been horrified by newspaper advertisements, placed by slave owners, which told how to identify runaway slaves. For instance: “from being whipped, has scars on his back, arms and thighs…stamped N.E. on the breast and having both small toes cut off…seriously injured by a pistol shot…branded on the left cheek, thus ‘R”…a ring of iron on his left foot…a large neck iron.”

Southern slavery was enforced by Black Codes. As the pro-slavery Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas admitted, “Slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations.” Historian Milton Meltzer reported that the Black Codes “surrounded the slave with a wall of prohibitions. He could not leave the plantation without a pass. He could not carry arms. He could not gamble. He could not blow a horn or beat a drum. He could not smoke in public or swear. He could not assemble with other slaves unless a white were present. He could not walk with a cane or make a ‘joyful demonstration.’ He could not ride in a carriage except as a servant. He could not buy or sell goods except as his master’s agent. He could not keep dogs, horses, sheep, or cattle. He could not visit a white or a free black’s home or entertain them in his home. He could not live in a place separate from his master. He could not be taught to read or write. He could not get, hold, or pass on any ‘incendiary’ literature.”

In 1826, Garrison became editor of the Newburyport Free Press, and on June 8th, he published a poem by shy, 18-year-old John Greenleaf Whittier from Haverhill, Massachusetts. Whittier was proud of his Quaker heritage—German Quakers from Philadelphia had organized the first protest against slavery back in 1688, and no Quakers owned slaves since 1777. Whittier was inspired by John Milton’s Areopagetica (1643), the eloquent early case for freedom of the press, and by the poems of Lord Byron who had died fighting for Greek independence.

In March 1828, Garrison met the thin, stoop-shouldered, red-haired Quaker saddle-maker Benjamin Lundy who promoted colonization, as shipping blacks back to Haiti and Africa was called. Lundy invited Garrison to edit his newspaper The Genius of Universal Emancipation when it moved to Baltimore.

Since Baltimore was a slave port, Garrison would have seen notices like this: “To be sold, a cargo of ninety-four prime, healthy NEGROES, consisting of thirty-nine men, fifteen boys, twenty-four women, and sixteen girls, just arrived.” Garrison hid a runaway slave who had been lashed 37 times for failing to load a wagon fast enough. He learned that if blacks were colonized, it would be against their will. Consequently, he abandoned the colonization idea and embraced immediate emancipation—the right “to make contracts, to receive wages, to accumulate property, to acquire knowledge, to dwell where he chooses, to defend his wife, children, and fireside.” Garrison denounced two slave traders as “highway robbers” and was fined $100 for libel. Since he couldn’t raise that much money, he went to jail. He was released after 49 days when the New York Quaker merchant Arthur Tappan paid the fine.

Meanwhile, as the fast-growing North gained seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, many Southerners concluded they must promote the expansion of slavery—a contrast with Founders like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry and George Washington who, although they owned slaves, acknowledged that slavery was evil. Virginia Senator John Randolph ridiculed the Declaration of Independence, and South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun called slavery “the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.”

Garrison decided he must launch an anti-slavery newspaper. With financial backing from Arthur Tappan and the Boston lawyer Ellis Gray Loring, Garrison rented an 18-square-foot office in Merchants Hall. It had just enough room for a desk, a table, two chairs and a mattress where Garrison could rest. He bought a cheap little press and borrowed type during the night when another publisher wasn’t using it. He began putting out The Liberator on January 1, 1831. It was a four-page weekly, appearing every Friday, each page 14 by 9-1/4 inches with four columns per page. His masthead displayed a phrase adapted from Thomas Paine: “Our Country is the World—Our Countrymen Are Mankind.”

Garrison declared his views with this editorial: “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or 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 like 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 Liberator was always a shoestring venture. After a year, there were only 50 white subscribers; a year later, just 400. Three-quarters of subscribers were free blacks. Total circulation never exceeded 3,000. Although The Liberator lost money and nearly bankrupted Garrison, he published it for 35 years without missing a single week—1,820 issues altogether.

Garrison was blamed for inciting the August 1831 rebellion led by slave Nat Turner against slaveholders in Southampton County, Virginia, where about 60 whites were killed. Southern states made it illegal to speak or write about abolition. In Mississippi, men suspected of being abolitionists were hanged.

Garrison established the New-England Anti-Slavery Society which started January 1, 1832 in the basement of the African Baptist Church on Boston’s Joy Street. Later, as other states formed abolitionist societies, the name was changed to Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.

Garrison was convinced that as long as colonization was considered a respectable cause, it would paralyze the anti-slavery movement. He wrote a pamphlet, Thoughts on African Colonization (1832), which insisted blacks had the right to choose where they would live. Garrison went to England where agents of the American Colonization Society were trying to raise money, and he persuaded English abolitionist heroes William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson to repudiate colonization. He saw Daniel O’Connell, the great champion of Irish freedom. Garrison eliminated colonization as a factor in the abolitionist movement.

Garrison still faced stubborn opposition throughout the North. Influential Unitarians thought slavery was no concern of Northerners. Presbyterians refused to preach against slavery. A majority of Baptist ministers refused. In 1836, the General Conference of the Methodist Church ordered members not to participate in anti-slavery agitation. Bills to restrict abolitionist literature were introduced in the legislatures of Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Free blacks were banned in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and Oregon. A Marblehead, Massachusetts mob wrecked the printing press and home of publisher Amos Dresser who had previously suffered a public lashing for abolitionist agitation in Nashville. In New Canaan, New Hampshire, local people used oxen to drag a school into a nearby swamp, because the teacher was educating black children. A pro-slavery mob burned down Pennsylvania Hall, an abolitionist gathering place on Philadelphia’s Sixth Street between Race and Arch Streets, and then the mob torched an orphanage for black children.

The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society announced that on October 21, 1835 George Thompson would be speaking at their annual meeting, Anti-Slavery Hall, 46 Washington Street. Thompson had helped abolish slavery in the West Indies (1833), and he organized more than 300 antislavery societies throughout the North. Pro-slavery goons offered $100 for the capture of Thompson, so he could be tarred and feathered. After Garrison appeared at the hall, a lynch mob threw a noose around his neck and dragged him away. He was rescued by valiant friends.

Twenty-four-year-old Harvard-educated Wendell Phillips saw the attempted lynching from his law office on Court Street. According to biographer Ralph Korngold, he was “six feet tall, deep-chested, broad-shouldered and with a soldierly bearing.” Phillips joined the abolitionist movement, became its greatest orator and one of Garrison’s closest associates.

Theodore Weld, who had organized over a hundred anti-slavery societies in Ohio, was another stalwart who helped Garrison. Weld married Angelina Grimke who, together with her sister Sarah, toured the antislavery lecture circuit. Many ministers were upset to see women speaking out in public, but Garrison exulted in the struggle “against wind and tide, against the combined powers of Church and State.”

Runaway slave Frederick Douglass was another of Garrison’s recruits. After he had escaped from Maryland in 1838, he discovered The Liberator which “sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before!” Douglass, as an eyewitness to slavery, became one of the most effective anti-slavery speakers.

Garrison developed more radical views. He wrote the Declaration of Sentiments of the Non-Resistance Society (1838) which, among other things, proclaimed: “every human government is upheld by physical strength and its laws are enforced virtually at the point of a bayonet…We cannot acknowledge allegiance to any human government, neither can we oppose any such government by a resort to physical force…The history of mankind is crowded with evidences proving that physical coercion is not adapted to moral regeneration…We register our testimony, not only against all war, but against all preparation for war.”

By 1840, an estimated 200,000 people belonged to antislavery organizations, but the movement was losing momentum. Then came the Compromise of 1850 which included the Fugitive Slave Law, reinforcing constitutional provision requiring the return of runaway slaves. Any Northerner could be accused by a slave hunter of helping an alleged runaway slave, brought before a federal commissioner and imprisoned down South. Alleged runaways were denied a jury trial, and they couldn’t testify in their defense. Federal commissioners who decided cases were paid $5 if they freed the accused and $10 if they ordered him or her sent South. The Fugitive Slave Law spurred Cincinnati housewife Harriet Beecher Stowe, to write the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (March 1852) which chronicled the suffering and dignity of black slaves. English language editions sold 2 million copies, and the book was translated into 22 languages.

Garrison denounced the Constitution as a bulwark of slavery. On July 4, 1854, at an outdoor meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Framingham, several speakers, including Henry David Thoreau, attacked slavery. Then Garrison lit a candle, burned a copy of the Fugitive Slave Law and a copy of the Constitution. Garrison’s dire warnings were borne out by subsequent events. In 1857, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney issued his notorious Dred Scott decision which held that blacks were not citizens, they could not become citizens, and Congress couldn’t ban slavery in any new U.S. territory. John Brown’s October 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, intended to stir a slave rebellion, triggered a backlash against blacks and abolitionists.

Six weeks after Lincoln was elected President in 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union, and Garrison urged that it be permitted to go peacefully. “All Union-saving efforts are simply idiotic,” he wrote. The April 16, 1861 Confederate assault on U.S. Fort Sumter, Charleston, however, convinced Garrison slaves couldn’t be freed peacefully.

While Lincoln hated slavery, he wasn’t an abolitionist. He favored gradual emancipation and colonization. Everything was subordinate to his top priority which was forcing states to remain in the Union. All was forgiven by most abolitionists, though, when Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Aimed at encouraging black rebellion in the South, it declared that slaves there were free. It didn’t apply to slaves in border slaves still part of the Union, but it made freeing the slaves was a war aim, and Garrison backed Lincoln.

After the Civil War ended, April 9, 1865, Garrison toured America. He told Charleston blacks: “It was not on account of your complexion or race, as a people, that I espoused your cause, but because you were the children of a common Father, created in the same divine image, having the same inalienable rights, and as much entitled to liberty as the proudest slaveholder that ever walked the earth.”

In 1867, Garrison sailed with his daughter Fanny (Helen) and son Harry to Europe. They met British free trade crusader John Bright, economist John Stuart Mill, philosopher Herbert Spencer and Liberal Member of Parliament William Ewart Gladstone.

Garrison began to suffer excruciating pain from his kidneys. He went to New York so he could stay with his daughter Fanny Garrison Villard at Westmoreland Apartment House, 100 East 17th Street, on Fifth Avenue near Union Square. He lapsed into a coma and died a few minutes after 11:00 P.M., Saturday, May 24, 1879. He was 73.

Garrison’s remains were moved to Roxbury, Massachusetts where a funeral service was held on May 28th at the church of the First Religious Society. John Greenleaf Whittier, in a poetic tribute, called Garrison “A hand to set the captive free.” Wendell Phillips and Theodore Weld gave addresses. Individualist feminist Lucy Stone remembered how “Nothing could induce him to place himself with those who did not recognize the equal rights of all.” Garrison was buried next to his wife at Forest Hills Cemetery, Roxbury.

Garrison’s friends published books praising his moral vision, and he was revered for decades. But during the 20th century, the tendency has been to trash him. For instance, Gilbert H. Barnes’ The Anti-Slavery Impulse (1933) made a case that the key abolitionist was the shy political organizer Theodore Weld—not the flamboyant publicist Garrison. This view was maintained by Barnes’ former collaborator Dwight L. Dumond in Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom (1961). Harvard historian John L. Thomas, in The Liberator (1963), blamed Garrison for the Civil War. English professor Walter M. Merrill’s Against Wind and Tide (1963) belittled Garrison’s ideological views by suggesting they were a consequence of his unhappy childhood.

After wading through such indictments, historian Aileen S. Kraditor described this revelation: “I turned to Garrison’s own writings…and the more I read, the more I became convinced that I was meeting the man for the first time…Most of all I was increasingly struck by the logical consistency of his thought on all subjects.”

Before Garrison came along, there wasn’t much of a debate on American slavery, and slaveholders dominated both sides of it. He framed the issues more clearly and dramatically than anybody else. He stayed focused on the moral evil of slavery. He was an eloquent champion of natural rights for all. He took giant steps to help millions live free.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.