Victor Nuovo: William Lloyd Garrison

Editor’s note: This is the 44th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
The best way to introduce readers to William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) is to allow him to speak for himself:
“Assenting to the ‘self evident truth that all men are created equal,’ I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population … I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? 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.”
These words introduced the first issue of an abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, which Garrison edited from 1831 until 1865. It became the voice of the abolitionist movement in America. They convey a sense of urgency and moral seriousness; indeed, the abolitionist movement comes as near to moral purity as anything in the history of the world might reach. Its seriousness of purpose and clarity of expression is a perfect antidote to the romance and sentimentality evoked by the popular myth and lore of the American Civil War; it dissipates that misbegotten aura, like a strong wind dispelling the haze and bringing into view the clear sky above, where goodness and justice reign pure and send their radiance into the darkness below. It remains a tonic that we might all try taking in this age of political corruption and moral emptiness.
“Immediate enfranchisement of our slave population” was regarded by many as an extreme position, and Garrison was regarded by many as a fanatic. More moderate advocates of abolition favored a gradual approach to this goal and looked askance at complete integration of the black and white populations; others accepted immediate liberation but advocated a policy of relocation to another continent. The American Colonization Society was founded in 1821 for this purpose: to relocate free blacks to Africa, ignoring the fact that most American blacks were native born Americans. Three American presidents supported the Society: Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. Garrison at first supported this program, but was soon repelled by its shallowness and inherent racism.
What is especially noteworthy about the abolitionist movement is the manner in which it promoted its cause. The leading advocates of abolition were constantly on the lecture circuit, but their wider and perhaps most decisive influence was made possible through newsprint. The newspaper as a socially reforming instrument came of age, and Garrison became a master of the medium; it became his body. I am reminded of the late Marshall McLuhan’s remark “The medium is the message.” But, unlike McLuhan and his heirs — the proponents of social media — Garrison ennobled the medium by making it an instrument of justice.
Garrison was a mere youth of 25 when he began his career as an abolitionist. He was impulsive and very quickly became an object of derision among the hoi polloi. In September 1835 a gallows was erected by unknown persons opposite his residence, and a month later a racist mob in Boston attacked him, put a noose around his necks and dragged him through the streets.
One wonders why in Massachusetts, where slavery had been abolished, the villainy of racist mobs should prevail. Why would white males, who had no financial interest in slavery, and a generation later whose sons would go to war to end slavery, behave in this way? And not only the Boston mob, but its aristocracy, with supposedly elevated minds, looked down on Garrison and Garrisonism as crude and unbecoming. Even today, there are historians who treat him as an outsider, beyond the mainstream. If that is so, then it may be more a reflection on the deficiencies of the main currents of American thought than on Garrison.
In any case, Garrison’s editorials in The Liberator contain a catalog of progressive ideas. In addition to his demand for the abolition of slavery, he was an early advocate for women’s suffrage. His doctrine of non-resistance anticipated the teachings and methods of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He was deficient in one important respect: He ignored the rising labor movement.
He was not perfect. His militancy made him sometimes dogmatic, and he was not always consistent with his own principles, which brought him into conflict with reformers who shared his point of view and supported his causes, among them Frederick Douglass (1818–95), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–96) and Wendell Phillips (1811–84). Douglass will be the subject of the next essay; so I will pass by him for the moment and comment here only on the last two.
Garrison was critical of Stowe’s depiction of the character of Uncle Tom in her eponymous novel. He found Uncle Tom too forgiving of his masters, and too willing to suffer the miseries of servitude. And yet, as Stowe pointed out in her correspondence with him, Uncle Tom was the embodiment of Garrison’s own principle of non-resistance. Garrison’s response was that political change required a more militant pacifism. He did not give details.
His quarrel with Wendell Phillips was more substantial. As the war drew to a close, Garrison was more and more drawn toward Lincoln and his conciliatory policies toward the South, and his leniency toward the secessionist states that were now seeking re-entry to the Union. Garrison’s vision of immediate enfranchisement narrowed; he no longer demanded that former slaves be granted the full civil rights of citizens, in particular, the right to vote. It was enough that they were free. Phillips would have none of this. He wanted complete integration. There was a parting of the ways. Garrison left the movement; and under Phillips’ leadership, abolitionism enlarged into a wider movement for progressive social reform that continues today. More will follow.

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