The Cato Home Study Course, Vol. 9 Part 2: William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator
William Lloyd Garrison said that slavery violates the fundamental right of all individuals to be free, and he dedicated his life to abolishing the practice.
William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) was moved to devote all of his energy and resources to a tireless crusade for abolition. In response to those who criticized him for his enthusiasm, he retorted, “I have need to be all on fire, for there are mountains of ice around me to melt.” His “immediatism” was realistic but uncompromising: “We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be, we shall always contend.” (It bears mentioning, however, that while Garrison criticized John Brown for his attempt to liberate the slaves through a slave uprising, Henry David Thoreau defended Brown, writing, “No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments. In that sense, he was the most American of us all.”)
The readings by Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and William Ellery Channing argue that slavery violates the fundamental equal right of all individuals to be free. The readings from Immanuel Kant and from Bruno Leoni argue that the internal logic of law requires that law be equally applicable to all, a requirement that chattel slavery notoriously fails, and one that many lesser infringements on liberty may fail as well.
Readings to Accompany The Audio
From The Libertarian Reader: William Lloyd Garrison, “Man Cannot Hold Property in Man” (pp. 77–80); Frederick Douglas, “You Are a Man, and So Am I” (pp. 81–87); William Ellery Channing, “A Human Being Cannot Be Justly Owned” (pp. 88–91); Herbert Spencer, “The Right to Ignore the State” (pp. 149–53); Immanuel Kant, “Equality of Rights” (pp. 142–48); Lysander Spooner, “The Constitution of No Authority” (pp. 154–60).
From Libertarianism: A Primer: Chapter 11, “The Obsolete State” (pp. 256–75).
From Freedom and the Law: Chapter 3, “Freedom and the Rule of Law” (pp. 58–75).
Some Problems to Ponder & Discuss
• Some proponents of abolishing slavery favored compensating the slaveholders for loss of their slaves. Others argued that it was the slaves who deserved compensation for the loss of their liberty. Which position is more just? Which is more practical?
• Would secession by the Northern states from the Union have been justified as a means of eliminating the Fugitive Slave Laws?
• What should a conscientious citizen do when the demands of the state conflict with the moral voice of conscience?
Suggested Additional Reading
Aileen S. Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834–1850 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1989). This book examines the debates over how to eliminate slavery, with a central focus on the radical approach of William Lloyd Garrison. Kraditor discusses how such issues as moral suasion, civil disobedience, electoral activism, and slave rebellions were debated and action was taken.
For Further Study
Jennifer Trusted, Free Will and Responsibility (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984). For those interested in the deep connection drawn by rights theorists between personal choice and responsibility, which motivated the early rights theorists, the Abolitionists, and the individualist feminists of the nineteenth century, this book offers a careful examination of the philosophical issues involved. Libertarianism, understood as the theory that individuals can initiate actions and responsibility for action can be traced back to them, is neatly contrasted with determinism, understood as the view that our behavior is entirely determined by external factors, with a corresponding lack of personal moral responsibility for behavior. The book is written in an accessible style and does not require any extensive philosphical background.
Frank Chodorov, Fugitive Essays, Charles H. Hamilton, ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1980). In addition to containing a moving essay on Henry David Thoreau, this book is full of wisdom about how a free man might live in a world only partially free. Chodorov wrote a very provocative and insightful little essay, “Don’t Buy Bonds” (reprinted in his Out of Step: The Autobiography of an Individualist [New York: Devin‐Adair, 1962], which is unfortunately no longer in print.
Lewis Perry, Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995). Perry focuses on the more radical abolitionists, many of whom rejected slavery on the same grounds that they rejected absolute government.