Life of William Lloyd Garrison/Introduction

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I thank you very much for sending me your biography of Garrison.[1]

Reading it, I lived again through the spring of my awakening to true life. While reading Garrison’s speeches and articles, I vividly recalled to mind the spiritual joy that I experienced twenty years ago when I found the law of nonresistance. I was inevitably brought to this law by the recognition of the Christian teaching in its fullest meaning, and it revealed to me the great joyous ideal to be realized in Christian life. Even as far back as the forties, nonresistance was not only recognized and proclaimed by Garrison, but also placed by him at the foundation of his practical activity in the emancipation of the slaves. (I learned later about Ballou.)

At the time, my joy was mingled with bewilderment as to how it was that this great Gospel truth, explained by Garrison fifty years ago, could have been so hushed up that I had now to express it as something new. My bewilderment was especially increased by the fact that not only people antagonistic to the progress of mankind, but also the most advanced and progressive men, were either completely indifferent to this law or actually opposed to the promulgation of that which lies at the foundation of all true progress.

But as time went on, it became clearer and clearer to me that the general indifference and opposition that were then expressed, and still continue to be expressed pre-eminently among political workers, towards this law of nonresistance are merely symptoms of the great significance of this law.

“The motto upon our banner,” wrote Garrison in the midst of his activity, “has been from the commencement of our moral warfare ‘OUR COUNTRY IS THE WORLD; OUR COUNTRYMEN ARE ALL MANKIND.’ We trust that it will be our only epitaph. Another motto we have chosen is ‘UNIVERSAL EMANCIPATION.’ Up to this time, we have limited its application to those who in this country are held by Southern taskmasters as marketable commodities, goods and chattels, and implements of husbandry. Henceforth we shall use it in its widest latitude: the emancipation of our whole race from the dominion of man, from the servitude of self, from the government of brute force, and from the bondage of sin. We shall bring it under the dominion of God, under the control of an inward spirit, and under the government of the law of love.”

Garrison, as a man enlightened by Christian teaching, having begun with the practical aim of strife against slavery, very soon understood that the cause of slavery was not the casual temporary seizure of a few million negroes by the Southerners, but the ancient and universal recognition, contrary to Christian teaching, of the right of coercion on the part of certain people in regard to certain others. A pretext for recognizing this right has always been that men regarded it as possible to eradicate or diminish evil by brute force – i.e. also by evil. Having once realized this fallacy, Garrison put forward against slavery neither the suffering of slaves, nor the cruelty of slaveholders, and not the social equality of men, but the eternal Christian law of refraining from opposing evil by violence – i.e. of nonresistance. Garrison understood that which the most advanced among the fighters against slavery did not understand: that the only irrefutable argument against slavery is the denial of the right of any man over the liberty of another under any conditions whatsoever.

The Abolitionists endeavored to prove that slavery was unlawful, disadvantageous, and cruel, that it depraved men, and so on. But the defenders of slavery in their turn proved the untimeliness and danger of emancipation, and the evil results liable to follow it. Neither the one nor the other could convince his opponent. Whereas Garrison, understanding that the slavery of the negroes was only a particular instance of universal coercion, put forward a general principle with which it was impossible not to agree: the principle that under no pretext has any man the right to dominate or to use coercion over his fellows.

Garrison did not so much insist on the right of negroes to be free, as he denied the right of any man whatsoever, or of any body of men, to forcibly coerce another man in any way. For the purpose of combating slavery, he advanced the principle of struggle against all the evil of the world.

This principle advanced by Garrison was irrefutable, but it affected and even overthrew all the foundations of established social order. Therefore, those who valued their position in that existing order were frightened at its announcement, and still more at its application to life. They endeavored to ignore it and elude it. They hoped to attain their object without the declaration of the principle of nonresistance to evil by violence, and that application of it to life which would destroy, as they thought, all orderly organization of human life. The result of refusing to recognize coercion’s unlawfulness was a fratricidal war that externally solved the slavery question, but which introduced the American people to the new and perhaps still greater evil of that corruption which accompanies every war.

Meanwhile, the substance of the question remained unsolved, and the same problem, only in a new form, now stands before the people of the United States. The question was, and still is, how to free the negroes from the violence of all the whites, and the whites from the violence of all the negroes. The solution of the problem in its new form is certainly not to be accomplished by the lynching of negroes, nor by any skilful and liberal measures of American politicians, but only by the application to life of that same principle which was proclaimed by Garrison half a century ago.

The other day, in one of the most progressive periodicals, I read the opinion of an educated and intelligent writer, expressed with complete assurance in its correctness, that my recognition of the principle of nonresistance to evil by violence is a lamentable and somewhat comic delusion, which, considering my old age and certain merits, can only be passed over in indulgent silence.

I encountered exactly the same attitude towards this question in my conversation with the remarkably intelligent and progressive Bryan. He also, with the evident intention of gently and courteously showing me my delusion, asked me how I explained my strange principle of nonresistance to evil by violence. As usual, he brought forward the argument of the brigand who kills or violates a child, which seems to everyone irrefutable. I told him that I recognize nonresistance to evil by violence because, having lived seventy-five years, I have never, except in discussions, encountered that imaginary brigand, who, before my eyes, desired to kill or violate a child, but that perpetually I did and do see not one, but millions of real brigands using violence towards children and women and men and old people and laborers in the name of the recognized right of violence over one’s fellows. When I said this, my kind interrogator, with his naturally quick perception, not giving me time to finish, laughed and recognized that my argument was satisfactory.

No one has seen the imaginary brigand, but the world, groaning under violence, lies before everyone’s eyes. Yet no one sees, nor desires to see, that the struggle that can liberate man from violence is not a struggle with some imaginary brigand, but with those actual brigands who practice violence over men.

Nonresistance to evil by violence really means only that the mutual interaction of rational beings with each other should consist, not in violence (which can only be tolerated in relation to lower organisms deprived of reason), but in rational persuasion. Consequently, all those who desire to further the welfare of mankind should strive towards this substitution of rational persuasion for coercion.

It would seem quite clear that fourteen million people were killed in the course of the last century, that the labor and lives of millions of men are now spent on wars necessary to no one, that all the land is in the hands of those who do not work on it, that all the produce of human labor is swallowed up by those who do not work, that all the deceits which reign in the world exist only because violence is allowed for the purpose of suppressing that which appears evil to some people, and that one should therefore endeavor to replace violence by persuasion. That this may become possible, it is necessary first of all to renounce the right of coercion.

It is strange to say it, but the most progressive people of our circle regard it as dangerous to repudiate the right of violence and to endeavor to replace it be persuasion. These people, having decided that it is impossible to persuade a brigand not to kill a child, also think it impossible to persuade the workingmen not to take the land and the produce of their labor from those who do not work. Therefore, these people find it necessary to coerce the laborers.

As a result, and it is sad to say so, the failure to understand the significance of the principle of nonresistance to evil by violence can only be explained by such a distortion of the conditions of human life that those who examine the principle of nonresistance imagine that its adaptation to life and the substitution of persuasion for coercion would destroy all possibility of that social organization and of those conveniences of life which they enjoy.

But the change need not be feared. The principle of nonresistance is not a principle of coercion, but of concord and love, and cannot be made coercively binding upon men. The principle of nonresistance to evil by violence, which consists in the substitution of persuasion for brute force, can only be accepted voluntarily. In whatever measure it is freely accepted by men and applied to life – according to the measure in which people renounce violence and establish their relations upon rational persuasion – only in that measure is true progress in the life of men accomplished.

Therefore, whether men desire it or not, it is only in the name of this principle that they can free themselves from the enslavement and oppression of each other. Whether men desire it or not, this principle lies at the basis of all true improvement in the life of men which has taken place and is still to take place.

Garrison was the first to proclaim this principle as a rule for the organization of the life of men.[2] In this is his great merit. If he did not attain the pacific liberation of the slaves in America at the time, he indicated the way of liberating men in general from the power of brute force. Therefore, Garrison will forever remain one of the greatest reformers and promoters of true human progress.

Yásnaya Polyána, January 1904


[1] A Short Biography of William Lloyd Garrison by Vladimir Tchertkoff [Chertkov] and Florence Holah. London, The Free Age Press, 1904.