1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Garrison, William Lloyd
GARRISON, WILLIAM LLOYD (1805–1879), the American anti-slavery leader, was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, U.S.A., on the 10th of December 1805. His parents were from the British province of New Brunswick. The father, Abijah, a sea-captain, went away from home when William was a child, and it is not known whether he died at sea or on land. The mother, whose maiden name was Lloyd, is said to have been a woman of high character, charming in person and eminent for piety. She died in 1823. William had a taste for books, and made the most of his limited opportunities. His mother first set him to learn the trade of a shoemaker, first at Newburyport, and then, after 1815, at Baltimore, Maryland, and, when she found that this did not suit him, let him try his hand at cabinet-making (at Haverhill, Mass.). But this pleased him no better. In October 1818, when he was in his fourteenth year, he was made more than content by being indentured to Ephraim W. Allen, proprietor of the Newburyport Herald, to learn the trade of a printer. He soon became an expert compositor, and after a time began to write anonymously for the Herald. His communications won the commendation of the editor, who had not at first the slightest suspicion that he was the author. He also wrote for other papers with equal success. A series of political essays, written by him for the Salem Gazette, was copied by a prominent Philadelphia journal, the editor of which attributed them to the Hon. Timothy Pickering, a distinguished statesman of Massachusetts. His skill as a printer won for him the position of foreman, while his ability as a writer was so marked that the editor of the Herald, when temporarily called away from his post, left the paper in his charge.
The printing-office was for him, what it has been for many another poor boy, no mean substitute for the academy and for the college. He was full of enthusiasm for liberty; the struggle of the Greeks to throw off the Turkish yoke enlisted his warmest sympathy, and at one time he seriously thought of entering the West Point Academy and fitting himself for a soldier’s career. His apprenticeship ended in 1826, when he began the publication of a new paper (actually the old one under a new name), the Free Press, in his native place. The paper, whose motto was “Our Country, our Whole Country, and nothing but our Country,” was full of spirit and intellectual force, but Newburyport was a sleepy place and the enterprise failed. Garrison then went to Boston, where, after working for a time as a journeyman printer, he became the editor of the National Philanthropist, the first journal established in America to promote the cause of total abstinence from intoxicating liquors. His work in this paper was highly appreciated by the friends of temperance, but a change in the proprietorship led to his withdrawal before the end of the year. In 1828 he was induced to establish the Journal of the Times at Bennington, Vermont, to support the re-election of John Quincy Adams to the presidency of the United States. The new paper, though attractive in many ways, and full of force and fire, was too far ahead of public sentiment on moral questions to win a large support. In Boston he had met Benjamin Lundy (q.v.), who had for years been preaching the abolition of slavery. Garrison had been deeply moved by Lundy’s appeals, and after going to Vermont he showed the deepest interest in the slavery question. Lundy was then publishing in Baltimore a small monthly paper, entitled The Genius of Universal Emancipation, and he resolved to go to Bennington and invite Garrison to join him in the editorship. With this object in view he walked from Boston to Bennington, through the frost and snow of a New England winter, a distance of 125 m. His mission was successful. Garrison was deeply impressed by the good Quaker’s zeal and devotion, and he resolved to join him and devote himself thereafter to the work of abolishing slavery.
In pursuance of this plan he went to Baltimore in the autumn of 1829, and thenceforth the Genius was published weekly, under the joint editorship of the two men. It was understood, however, that Garrison would do most of the editorial work, while Lundy would spend most of his time in lecturing and procuring subscribers. On one point the two editors differed radically, Lundy being the advocate of gradual and Garrison of immediate emancipation. The former was possessed with the idea that the negroes, on being emancipated, must be colonized somewhere beyond the limits of the United States; the latter held that they should be emancipated on the soil of the country, with all the rights of freemen. In view of this difference it was agreed that each should speak on his own individual responsibility in the paper, appending his initial to each of his articles for the information of the reader. It deserves mention here that Garrison was then in utter ignorance of the change previously wrought in the opinions of English abolitionists by Elizabeth Heyrick’s pamphlet in favour of immediate, in distinction from gradual emancipation. The sinfulness of slavery being admitted, the duty of immediate emancipation to his clear ethical instinct was perfectly manifest. He saw that it would be idle to expose and denounce the evils of slavery, while responsibility for the system was placed upon former generations, and the duty of abolishing it transferred to an indefinite future. His demand for immediate emancipation fell like a tocsin upon the ears of slaveholders. For general talk about the evils of slavery they cared little, but this assertion that every slave was entitled to instant freedom filled them with alarm and roused them to anger, for they saw that, if the conscience of the nation were to respond to the proposition, the system must inevitably fall. The Genius, now that it had become a vehicle for this dangerous doctrine, was a paper to be feared and intensely hated. Baltimore was then one of the centres of the domestic slave trade, and upon this traffic Garrison heaped the strongest denunciations. A vessel owned in Newburyport having taken a cargo of slaves from Baltimore to New Orleans, he characterized the transaction as an act of “domestic piracy,” and avowed his purpose to “cover with thick infamy” those engaged therein. He was thereupon prosecuted for libel by the owner of the vessel, fined $50, mulcted in costs, and, in default of payment, committed to gaol. His imprisonment created much excitement, and in some quarters, in spite of the pro-slavery spirit of the time, was a subject of indignant comment in public as well as private. The excitement was fed by the publication of two or three striking sonnets, instinct with the spirit of liberty, which Garrison inscribed on the walls of his cell. One of these, Freedom of Mind, is remarkable for freshness of thought and terseness of expression.
John G. Whittier, the Quaker poet, interceded with Henry Clay to pay Garrison’s fine and thus release him from prison. To the credit of the slaveholding statesman it must be said that he responded favourably, but before he had time for the requisite preliminaries Arthur Tappan, a philanthropic merchant of New York, contributed the necessary sum and set the prisoner free after an incarceration of seven weeks. The partnership between Garrison and Lundy was then dissolved by mutual consent, and the former resolved to establish a paper of his own, in which, upon his sole responsibility, he could advocate the doctrine of immediate emancipation and oppose the scheme of African colonization. He was sure, after his experiences at Baltimore, that a movement against slavery resting upon any less radical foundation than this would be ineffectual. He first proposed to establish his paper at Washington, in the midst of slavery, but on returning to New England and observing the state of public opinion there, he came to the conclusion that little could be done at the South while the non-slaveholding North was lending her influence, through political, commercial, religious and social channels, for the sustenance of slavery. He determined, therefore, to publish his paper in Boston, and, having issued his prospectus, set himself to the task of awakening an interest in the subject by means of lectures in some of the principal cities and towns of the North. It was an up-hill work. Contempt for the negro and indifference to his wrongs were almost universal. In Boston, then a great cotton mart, he tried in vain to procure a church or vestry for the delivery of his lectures, and thereupon announced in one of the daily journals that if some suitable place was not promptly offered he would speak on the common. A body of infidels under the leadership of Abner Kneeland (1774–1844), who had previously been in turn a Baptist minister and the editor of a Universalist magazine, proffered him the use of their small hall; and, no other place being accessible, he accepted it gratefully, and delivered therein (in October 1830) three lectures, in which he unfolded his principles and plans. He visited privately many of the leading citizens of the city, statesmen, divines and merchants, and besought them to take the lead in a national movement against slavery; but they all with one consent made excuse, some of them listening to his plea with manifest impatience. He was disappointed, but not disheartened. His conviction of the righteousness of his cause, of the evils and dangers of slavery, and of the absolute necessity of the contemplated movement, was intensified by opposition, and he resolved to go forward, trusting in God for success.
On the 1st of January 1831, without a dollar of capital, and without a single subscriber, he and his partner Isaac Knapp (1804–1843) issued the first number of the Liberator, avowing their “determination to print it as long as they could subsist on bread and water, or their hands obtain employment.” Its motto was, “Our country is the world—our countrymen are mankind”; and the editor, in his address to the public, uttered the words which have become memorable as embodying the whole purpose and spirit of his life: “I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard.” Help came but slowly. For many months Garrison and his brave partner, who died long before the end of the conflict, made their bed on the floor of the room, “dark, unfurnished and mean,” in which they printed their paper, and where Mayor Harrison Gray Otis of Boston, in compliance with the request of Governor Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina, “ferreted them out” in “an obscure hole,” “their only visible auxiliary a negro boy.” But the paper founded under such inauspicious circumstances exerted a mighty influence, and lived to record not only President Lincoln’s proclamation of emancipation, but the adoption of an amendment to the constitution of the United States for ever prohibiting slavery. It was the beginning and the nucleus of an agitation that eventually pervaded and filled every part of the country. Other newspapers were afterwards established upon the same principles; anti-slavery societies, founded upon the doctrine of immediate emancipation, sprang up on every hand; the agitation was carried into political parties, into the press, and into legislative and ecclesiastical assemblies; until in 1861 the Southern states, taking alarm from the election of a president known to be at heart opposed to slavery though pledged to enforce all the constitutional safeguards of the system, seceded from the Union and set up a separate government.
Garrison sought the abolition of slavery by moral means alone. He knew that the national government had no power over the system in any state, though it could abolish it at the national capital, and prohibit it in the territories. He thought it should bring its moral influence to bear in favour of abolition; but neither he nor his associates ever asked Congress to exercise any unconstitutional power. His idea was to combine the moral influence of the North, and pour it through every open channel upon the South. To this end he made his appeal to the Northern churches and pulpits, beseeching them to bring the power of Christianity to bear against the slave system, and to advocate the rights of the slaves to immediate and unconditional freedom. He was a man of peace, hating war not less than he did slavery; but he warned his countrymen that if they refused to abolish slavery by moral power a retributive war must sooner or later ensue. The conflict was irrepressible. Slavery must be overthrown, if not by peaceful means, then in blood. The first society organized under Garrison’s auspices, and in accordance with his principles, was the New England Anti-Slavery Society, which adopted its constitution in January 1832. In the spring of this year Garrison issued his Thoughts on African Colonization, in which he showed by ample citations from official documents that the American Colonization Society was organized in the interest of slavery, and that in offering itself to the people of the North as a practical remedy for that system it was guilty of deception. His book, aided by others taking substantially the same view, smote the society with a paralysis from which it never recovered. Agents of the American Colonization Society in England having succeeded in deceiving leading Abolitionists there as to its character and tendency, Garrison was deputed by the New England Anti-Slavery Society to visit England for the purpose of counteracting their influence. He went in the spring of 1833, when he was but twenty-seven years of age, and was received with great cordiality by British Abolitionists, some of whom had heard of his bold assaults upon American slavery, and had seen a few numbers of the Liberator. The struggle for emancipation in the West Indies was then at the point of culmination; the leaders of the cause, from all parts of the kingdom, were assembled in London, and Garrison was at once admitted to their councils and treated with distinguished consideration. He took home with him a “protest” against the American Colonization Society, signed by Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay, Samuel Gurney, William Evans, S. Lushington, T. Fowell Buxton, James Cropper, Daniel O’Connell and others, in which they declared their deliberate judgment that “its precepts were delusive,” and “its real effects of the most dangerous nature.” He also received assurances of the cordial sympathy of British Abolitionists with him in his efforts to abolish American slavery. He gained a hearing before a large popular assembly in London, and won the confidence of those whom he addressed by his evident earnestness, sincerity and ability.
Garrison’s visit to England enraged the pro-slavery people and press of the United States at the outset, and when he returned home in September with the “protest” against the Colonization Society, and announced that he had engaged the services of George Thompson as a lecturer against American slavery, there were fresh outbursts of rage on every hand. The American Anti-Slavery Society was organized in December of that year (1833), putting forth a masterly declaration of its principles and purposes from the pen of Garrison. This added fresh fuel to the public excitement, and when Thompson came over in the next spring, the hostility to the cause began to manifest itself in mobs organized to suppress the discussion of the slavery question. Now began what Harriet Martineau called “the martyr age in America.” In the autumn of 1835 Thompson was compelled, in order to save his life, to embark secretly for England. Just before his departure the announcement that he would address the Woman’s Anti-Slavery Society of Boston created “a mob of gentlemen of property and standing,” from which, if he had been present, he could hardly have escaped with his life. The whole city was in an uproar. Garrison, almost denuded of his clothing, was dragged through the streets with a rope by infuriated men. He was rescued with great difficulty, and consigned to the gaol for safety, until he could be secretly removed from the city.
Anti-slavery societies were greatly multiplied throughout the North, and many men of influence, both in the church and in the state, were won to the cause. Garrison, true to his original purpose, never faltered or turned back. The Abolitionists of the United States were a united body until 1839–1840, when divisions sprang up among them. Garrison countenanced the activity of women in the cause, even to the extent of allowing them to vote and speak in the anti-slavery societies, and appointing them as lecturing agents; moreover, he believed in the political equality of the sexes, to which a strong party was opposed upon social and religious grounds. Then there were some who thought Garrison dealt too severely with the churches and pulpits for their complicity with slavery, and who accused him of a want of religious orthodoxy; indeed, according to the standards of his time he was decidedly heterodox, though he had an intensely religious nature and was far from being an infidel, as he was often charged with being. He was, moreover, not only a non-resistant but also an opponent of all political systems based on force. “As to the governments of this world,” he said, “whatever their titles or forms we shall endeavour to prove that in their essential elements, as at present administered, they are all anti-Christ; that they can never by human wisdom be brought into conformity with the will of God; that they cannot be maintained except by naval and military power to carry them into effect; that all their penal enactments, being a dead letter without any army to carry them into effect, are virtually written in human blood; and that the followers of Jesus should instinctively shun their stations of honor, power, and emolument—at the same time ‘submitting to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake’ and offering no physical resistance to any of their mandates, however unjust or tyrannical.” These views were very distasteful to many, who, moreover, felt that Garrison greatly injured abolitionism by causing it to be associated in men’s minds with these unpopular views on other subjects. The dissentients from his opinions determined to form an anti-slavery political party, while he believed in working by moral rather than political party instrumentalities. These differences led to the organization of a new National Anti-Slavery Society in 1840, and to the formation of the “Liberty Party” (q.v.) in politics. (See Birney, James G.) The two societies sent their delegates to the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, and Garrison refused to take his seat in that body, because the women delegates from the United States were excluded. The discussions of the next few years served to make clearer than before the practical workings of the constitution of the United States as a shield and support of slavery; and Garrison, after a long and painful reflection, came to the conclusion that its pro-slavery clauses were immoral, and that it was therefore wrong to take an oath for its support. The Southern states had greatly enlarged representation in Congress on account of their slaves, and the national government was constitutionally bound to assist in the capture of fugitive slaves, and to suppress every attempt on their part to gain their freedom by force. In view of these provisions, Garrison, adopting a bold scriptural figure of speech, denounced the constitution as “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” and chose as his motto, “No union with slaveholders.”
One class of Abolitionists sought to evade the difficulty by strained interpretations of the clauses referred to, while others, admitting that they were immoral, felt themselves obliged, notwithstanding, to support the constitution in order to avoid what they thought would be still greater evils. The American Anti-Slavery Society, of which Garrison was the president from 1843 to the day of emancipation, was during all this period the nucleus of an intense and powerful moral agitation, which was greatly valued by many of the most faithful workers in the field of politics, who respected Garrison for his fidelity to his convictions. On the other hand, he always had the highest respect for every earnest and faithful opponent of slavery, however far their special views might differ. When in 1861 the Southern states seceded from the Union and took up arms against it, he saw clearly that slavery would perish in the struggle, that the constitution would be purged of its pro-slavery clauses, and that the Union henceforth would rest upon the sure foundations of liberty, justice and equality to all men. He therefore ceased from that hour to advocate disunion, and devoted himself to the task of preparing the way for and hastening on the inevitable event. His services at this period were recognized and honoured by President Lincoln and others in authority, and the whole country knew that the agitation which made the abolition of slavery feasible and necessary was largely due to his uncompromising spirit and indomitable courage.
In 1865 at the close of the war, he declared that, slavery being abolished, his career as an abolitionist was ended. He counselled a dissolution of the American Anti-Slavery Society, insisting that it had become functus officiis, and that whatever needed to be done for the protection of the freedmen could best be accomplished by new associations formed for that purpose. The Liberator was discontinued at the end of the same year, after an existence of thirty-five years. He visited England for the second time in 1846, and again in 1867, when he was received with distinguished honours, public as well as private. In 1877, when he was there for the last time, he declined every form of public recognition. He died in New York on the 24th of May 1879, in the seventy-fourth year of his age, and was buried in Boston, after a most impressive funeral service, four days later. In 1843 a small volume of his Sonnets and other Poems was published, and in 1852 appeared a volume of Selections from his Writings and Speeches. His wife, Helen Eliza Benson, died in 1876. Four sons and one daughter survived them.
Garrison’s son, William Lloyd Garrison (1838–1909), was a prominent advocate of the single tax, free trade, woman’s suffrage, and of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and an opponent of imperialism; another son, Wendell Phillips Garrison (1840–1907), was literary editor of the New York Nation from 1865 to 1906.
The above article, with certain modifications, reproduces the account given in the 9th edition of this work by Oliver Johnson (reprinted from his Garrison: an Outline of his Life, New York, 1879). The writer (1809–1889) was a prominent Abolitionist, editor, and an intimate friend of Garrison; he edited the Liberator during Garrison’s absence in England in 1833, and later was an editor or an associate editor of various journals, including, after the Civil War, the New York Tribune and the New York Evening Post. He also published an excellent brief biography in William Lloyd Garrison and his Times (Boston, 1880).
The great authority on the life of Garrison is the thorough and candid work of his sons, W. P. and F. J. Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison 1805–1879: The Story of his Life told by his Children (4 vols., New York, 1885–1889), which is indispensable for the student of the anti-slavery struggle in America. Goldwin Smith’s The Moral Crusader: a Biographical Essay on William Lloyd Garrison (New York, 1892) is a brilliant sketch.