William Lloyd Garrison was the most prominent of the young, radical abolitionists who burst on the American landscape in the 1830s. Garrison attacked black slavery, prevalent throughout the southern states, with unparalleled vehemence. Exasperated at the betrayal of the Revolutionary promise that all forms of human bondage would disappear in this new land of liberty and marshaling all the evangelical fervor of the religious revivals then sweeping the country, Garrison demanded no less than the immediate emancipation of all slaves. He not only opposed any compensation to slaveholders and any colonization outside the country of freed slaves, but also demanded full political rights for all blacks, whether in the North or the South.

The son of a sailor who had abandoned his family, Garrison grew up in a poor but pious Baptist household in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He served as a printer’s apprentice and then made his first notable mark on antislavery activism when he went to jail rather than pay a fine for libeling as a “highway robber and murderer” a New England merchant who shipped slaves between Baltimore and New Orleans. This near‐​sighted, prematurely balding, 25‐​year‐​old editor brought out the first issue of a new weekly paper, the Liberator, in Boston on January 1, 1831. He left no doubt about his refusal to compromise with the sin of slavery:

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 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.

Garrison conceded that the elimination of slavery would, in practice, take time. However, that should not, he felt, inhibit forthright condemnation of this moral evil. “Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be we shall always contend.”

The crusading editor, however, did not look to direct political action to eradicate slavery. Moral suasion and nonviolent resistance were his strategies. With agitation, he at first hoped to shame slaveholders into repentance. By early 1842, Garrison had gone so far as to denounce the U.S. Constitution for its proslavery clauses as “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” He publicly burned a copy during one 4th of July celebration, proclaiming: “So perish all compromises with tyranny!” He now believed that, if anything, the North should secede from the central government. The slogan “No Union with Slave‐​Holders” appeared on the masthead of Garrison’s Liberator for years.

The Liberator would continue to appear every week without interruption—despite recurrent financial straits, antagonism from respectable leaders throughout the North, and even an enraged mob that almost lynched its editor—until passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery 35 years after the paper’s founding. Garrison also helped organize the American Anti‐​Slavery Society in 1833. Although 2,000 local societies with 200,000 members had sprung into existence by 1840, abolitionists remained only a tiny minority of the American population. Hope for greater public sympathy helped splinter the movement into acrimonious, doctrinal factions. A primary source of discord was Garrison’s early and hearty support of the movement for women’s rights, which was a direct offshoot of abolitionism. Controversy also raged around Garrison’s advocacy of disunion, denunciation of the Constitution, opposition to voting and to political parties, anarchism and pacifism, and disillusionment with and rejection of organized churches. The Liberator stood at the center of all these debates, which were conducted throughout its pages by all sides.

Often overlooked today is the extent to which abolitionism was a manifestation of 19th‐​century classical liberalism. Garrison denounced slavery as man‐​stealing, a violation of the principle of self‐​ownership, and praised the system of free labor. This worldview made him hostile to the fledgling trade‐​union movement and sympathetic to free trade and laissez‐​faire. Later, during the American Civil War, the prospect of finally ridding the country of human bondage seduced the Liberator’s editor into compromising his earlier principles by supporting Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party, and the Union war effort. Yet without the foundation provided by Garrison’s inflammatory but compelling writing, speaking, and organizing, there may have been no effective antislavery movement at all.

Further Readings

Cain, William E., ed. William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight against Slavery: Selections from The Liberator. Boston: Bedford Books, 1995.

Foner, Eric. “Abolitionism and the Labor Movement in Ante‐​bellum America.” Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War. Eric Foner, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Kraditor, Aileen S. Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834–1850. New York: Random House, 1969.

Mayer, Henry. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Perry, Lewis. Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973.

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel
Originally published