William Lloyd Garrison, circa 1870.
December 10, 1805|
Newburyport, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Died||May 24, 1879
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Known for||Editor of The Liberator|
|Spouse(s)||Helen Eliza Benson|
William Lloyd Garrison (December 10, 1805 – May 24, 1879) was a prominent American abolitionist, journalist, suffragist, and social reformer. He is best known as the editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, which he founded with Isaac Knapp in 1831 and published in Massachusetts until slavery was abolished by Constitutional amendment after the American Civil War. He was one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and promoted "immediate emancipation" of slaves in the United States.
Born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Garrison began his newspaper career as an apprentice compositor for the Newburyport Herald. He became involved in the anti-slavery movement in the 1820s, and over time he rejected both the American Colonization Society and the gradualist views of most others involved in the movement. Garrison co-founded The Liberator to espouse his abolitionist views, and in 1832 he organized the New-England Anti-Slavery Society. This society expanded into the American Anti-Slavery Society, which espoused the position that slavery should be immediately abolished. Garrison also emerged as a leading advocate of women's rights, which prompted a split in the abolitionist community. In the 1870s, Garrison became a prominent voice for the women's suffrage movement.
Garrison was born on December 10, 1805, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, the son of immigrants from the British colony of New Brunswick, in present-day Canada. Under An Act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen, Abijah Garrison, a merchant sailing pilot and master, had obtained American papers and moved his family to Newburyport in 1806. The U.S. Embargo Act of 1807, intended to injure Great Britain, caused a decline in American commercial shipping. The elder Garrison became unemployed and deserted the family in 1808. Garrison's mother was Frances Maria Lloyd, reported to have been tall, charming, and of a strong religious character. She started referring to their son William as Lloyd, his middle name, to preserve her family name. She died in 1823, in the city of Baltimore, Maryland.
Garrison sold home-made lemonade and candy as a youth, and also delivered wood to help support the family. In 1818, at 13, Garrison began working as an apprentice compositor for the Newburyport Herald. He soon began writing articles, often under the pseudonym Aristides. Aristides was an Athenian statesman and general nicknamed "the Just." After his apprenticeship ended, Garrison and a young printer named Isaac Knapp bought their own newspaper in 1826, the short-lived Free Press. One of their regular contributors was poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier. In this early work as a small town newspaper writer, Garrison acquired skills he would later use as a nationally known writer, speaker and newspaper publisher. In 1828, he was appointed editor of the National Philanthropist in Boston, Massachusetts, the first American journal to promote legally-mandated temperance.
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At the age of 25, Garrison joined the anti-slavery movement, later crediting the 1826 book of Presbyterian Reverend John Rankin, Letters on Slavery, for attracting him to the cause. For a brief time he became associated with the American Colonization Society, an organization that promoted the resettlement of free blacks to a territory (now known as Liberia) on the west coast of Africa. Although some members of the society encouraged granting freedom to slaves, others considered relocation a means to reduce the number of already free blacks in the United States. Southern members thought reducing the threat of free blacks in society would help preserve the institution of slavery. By late 1829–1830, "Garrison rejected colonization, publicly apologized for his error, and then, as was typical of him, he censured all who were committed to it."
Garrison began writing for and became co-editor with Benjamin Lundy of the Quaker newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation in Baltimore, Maryland. With his experience as a printer and newspaper editor, Garrison changed the layout of the paper and handled other operation issues. Lundy was freed to spend more time touring as an anti-slavery speaker. Garrison initially shared Lundy's gradualist views, but while working for the Genius, he became convinced of the need to demand immediate and complete emancipation. Lundy and Garrison continued to work together on the paper in spite of their differing views. Each signed his own editorials.
Garrison introduced "The Black List," a column devoted to printing short reports of "the barbarities of slavery—kidnappings, whippings, murders." For instance, Garrison reported that Francis Todd, a shipper from Garrison's home town of Newburyport, Massachusetts, was involved in the domestic slave trade, and that he had recently had slaves shipped from Baltimore to New Orleans in the coastwise trade on his ship the Francis. (This was thoroughly legal, although the US had in 1807 prohibited the international slave trade from Africa.)
Todd filed a suit for libel in Maryland against both Garrison and Lundy; he thought to gain support from pro-slavery courts. The state of Maryland also brought criminal charges against Garrison, quickly finding him guilty and ordering him to pay a fine of $50 and court costs. (Charges against Lundy were dropped on the grounds that he had been traveling when the story was printed.) Garrison refused to pay the fine and was sentenced to a jail term of six months. He was released after seven weeks when the anti-slavery philanthropist Arthur Tappan donated the money for the fine. Garrison decided to leave Baltimore, and he and Lundy amicably agreed to part ways.
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. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.
Paid subscription to The Liberator was always smaller than its circulation. In 1834 it had two thousand subscribers, three-fourths of whom were blacks. Benefactors paid to have the newspaper distributed to influential statesmen and public officials. Although Garrison rejected physical force as a means for ending slavery, his critics took his demand for immediate emancipation literally. Some believed he advocated the sudden and total freeing of all slaves, and considered him a dangerous fanatic. Nat Turner's slave rebellion in Virginia just seven months after The Liberator started publication fueled the outcry against Garrison in the South. A North Carolina grand jury indicted him for distributing incendiary material, and the Georgia Legislature offered a $5,000 reward for his capture and conveyance to the state for trial.
Among the anti-slavery essays and poems which Garrison published in The Liberator was an article in 1856 by a 14-year-old Anna Dickinson.
The Liberator gradually gained a large following in the northern states. By 1861 it had subscribers across the North, as well as in England, Scotland, and Canada. It was received in state legislatures, governor's mansions, Congress, and the White House. After the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment, Garrison published the last issue (number 1,820) on December 29, 1865, writing a "Valedictory" column. After reviewing his long career in journalism and the cause of abolitionism, he wrote:
The object for which the Liberator was commenced—the extermination of chattel slavery—having been gloriously consummated, it seems to me specially appropriate to let its existence cover the historic period of the great struggle; leaving what remains to be done to complete the work of emancipation to other instrumentalities, (of which I hope to avail myself,) under new auspices, with more abundant means, and with millions instead of hundreds for allies.
In addition to publishing The Liberator, Garrison spearheaded the organization of a new movement to demand the total abolition of slavery in the United States. By January 1832, he had attracted enough followers to organize the New-England Anti-Slavery Society which, by the following summer, had dozens of affiliates and several thousand members. In December 1833, abolitionists from ten states founded the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS). Although the New England society reorganized in 1835 as the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, enabling state societies to form in the other New England states, it remained the hub of anti-slavery agitation throughout the antebellum period. Many affiliates were organized by women who responded to Garrison's appeals for women to take active part in the abolition movement. The largest of these was the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, which raised funds to support The Liberator, publish anti-slavery pamphlets, and conduct anti-slavery petition drives.
The purpose of the American Anti-Slavery Society was the conversion of all Americans to the philosophy that "Slaveholding is a heinous crime in the sight of God" and that "duty, safety, and best interests of all concerned, require its immediate abandonment without expatriation."
Meanwhile, on September 4, 1834, Garrison married Helen Eliza Benson (1811–1876), the daughter of a retired abolitionist merchant. The couple had five sons and two daughters, of whom a son and a daughter died as children.
The threat posed by anti-slavery organizations and their activity drew violent reaction from slave interests in both the Southern and Northern states, with mobs breaking up anti-slavery meetings, assaulting lecturers, ransacking anti-slavery offices, burning postal sacks of anti-slavery pamphlets, and destroying anti-slavery presses. Healthy bounties were offered in Southern states for the capture of Garrison, "dead or alive".
On October 21, 1835, a mob of several thousand surrounded the building housing Boston's anti-slavery offices, where Garrison had agreed to address a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society after the fiery British abolitionist George Thompson was unable to keep his engagement with them. Mayor Theodore Lyman persuaded the women to leave the building, but when the mob learned that Thompson was not within, they began yelling for Garrison. Lyman was a staunch anti-abolitionist but nonetheless wanted to avoid bloodshed and suggested Garrison escape by a back window while Lyman told the crowd Garrison was gone. The mob spotted and apprehended Garrison, tied a rope around his waist, and pulled him through the streets towards Boston Common, calling for tar and feathers. The mayor intervened and had Garrison arrested and rushed off to the Leverett Street Jail for his own protection.
Garrison's appeal for women's mass petitioning against slavery sparked a controversy over women's right to a political voice. In 1837, women abolitionists from seven states convened in New York to expand their petitioning efforts and repudiate the social mores that proscribed their participation in public affairs. That summer, sisters Angelina Grimké and Sarah Grimké responded to the controversy roused by their public speaking with treatises on woman's rights – Angelina's "Letters to Catherine E. Beecher" and Sarah's "Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and Condition of Woman" – and Garrison published them first in The Liberator and then in book form. Instead of surrendering to appeals for him to retreat on the "woman question," Garrison announced in December 1837 that The Liberator would support "the rights of woman to their utmost extent." The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society appointed women to leadership positions and hired Abby Kelley as the first of several female field agents.
In 1840, Garrison's promotion of woman's rights within the anti-slavery movement was one of the issues that caused some abolitionists, including New York brothers Arthur Tappan and Lewis Tappan, to leave the AAS and form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which did not admit women. In June of that same year, when the World Anti-Slavery Convention meeting in London refused to seat America's women delegates: Garrison, Charles Lenox Remond, Nathaniel P. Rogers and William Adams refused to take their seat as delegates as well, and joined the women in the spectator's gallery. The controversy introduced the woman's rights question not only to England, but also to future woman's rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who attended the convention as a spectator accompanying her delegate-husband, Henry B. Stanton.
Although Henry Stanton had cooperated in the Tappans' failed attempt to wrest leadership of the AAS from Garrison, he was part of another group of abolitionists unhappy with Garrison's influence—those who disagreed with Garrison's insistence that because the U.S. Constitution was a pro-slavery document, abolitionists should not participate in politics and government. A growing number of abolitionists—including Stanton, Gerrit Smith, Charles Turner Torrey, and Amos A. Phelps—wanted to form an anti-slavery political party and seek a political solution to slavery. They withdrew from the AAS in 1840, formed the Liberty Party, and nominated James G. Birney for president. By the end of 1840, Garrison announced the formation of a third new organization, the Friends of Universal Reform, with sponsors and founding members including prominent reformers Maria Chapman, Abby Kelley Foster, Oliver Johnson, and Amos Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott).
Although some members of the Liberty Party supported woman's rights, including women's suffrage, Garrison's Liberator continued to be the leading advocate of woman's rights throughout the 1840s, publishing editorials, speeches, legislative reports and other developments concerning the subject. In February 1849, Garrison's name headed the women's suffrage petition sent to the Massachusetts legislature, the first such petition sent to any American legislature, and he supported the subsequent annual suffrage petition campaigns organized by Lucy Stone and Wendell Phillips. Garrison took a leading role in the May 30, 1850, meeting that called the first National Woman's Rights Convention, saying in his address to that meeting that the new movement should make securing the ballot to women its primary goal. At the national convention held in Worcester the following October, Garrison was appointed to the National Woman's Rights Central Committee, which served as the movement's executive committee, charged with carrying out programs adopted by the conventions, raising funds, printing proceedings and tracts, and organizing annual conventions.
In 1849, Garrison became involved in one of Boston's most notable trials of the time. Washington Goode, a black seaman had been sentenced to death for the murder of a fellow black mariner, Thomas Harding. In The Liberator Garrison argued that the verdict relied on "circumstantial evidence of the most flimsy character ..." and feared that the determination of the government to uphold its decision to execute Goode was based on race. As all other death sentences since 1836 in Boston had been commuted, Garrison concluded that Goode would be the last person executed in Boston for a capital offense writing, "Let it not be said that the last man Massachusetts bore to hang was a colored man!" Despite the efforts of Garrison and many other prominent figures of the time, Goode was hanged on May 25, 1849.
Garrison became famous as one of the most articulate, as well as most radical, opponents of slavery. His approach to emancipation stressed "moral suasion," non-violence, and passive resistance. While some other abolitionists of the time favored gradual emancipation, Garrison argued for "immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves." On July 4, 1854, he publicly burned a copy of the Constitution, condemning it as "a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell," referring to the compromise that had written slavery into the Constitution. In 1855, his eight-year alliance with Frederick Douglass disintegrated when Douglass converted to political abolitionists' view that the document could be interpreted as being anti-slavery.
Garrison's outspoken anti-slavery views repeatedly put him in danger. Besides his imprisonment in Baltimore and the price placed on his head by the State of Georgia, he was the object of vituperation and frequent death threats. On the eve of the Civil War, a sermon preached in a Universalist chapel in Brooklyn, New York, denounced "the blood thirsty sentiments of Garrison and his school; and did not wonder that the feeling of the South was exasperated, taking as they did, the insane and bloody ravings of the Garrisonian traitors for the fairly expressed opinions of the North."
After the United States abolished slavery, Garrison announced in May 1865 that he would resign the presidency of the American Anti-Slavery Society and offered a resolution declaring victory in the struggle against slavery and dissolving the society. The resolution prompted sharp debate, however, led by his long-time friend Wendell Phillips, who argued that the mission of the AAS was not fully completed until black Southerners gained full political and civil equality. Garrison maintained that while complete civil equality was vitally important, the special task of the AAS was at an end, and that the new task would best be handled by new organizations and new leadership. With his long-time allies deeply divided, however, he was unable to muster the support he needed to carry the resolution, and it was defeated 118–48. Declaring that his "vocation as an Abolitionist, thank God, has ended," Garrison resigned the presidency and declined an appeal to continue. Returning home to Boston, he withdrew completely from the AAS and ended publication of The Liberator at the end of 1865. With Wendell Phillips at its head, the AAS continued to operate for five more years, until ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution granted voting rights to black men. (According to Henry Mayer, Garrison was hurt by the rejection, and remained peeved for years; "as the cycle came around, always managed to tell someone that he was not going to the next set of [AAS] meetings" .)
After his withdrawal from AAS and ending The Liberator, Garrison continued to participate in public reform movements. He supported the causes of civil rights for blacks and woman's rights, particularly the campaign for suffrage. He contributed columns on Reconstruction and civil rights for The Independent and The Boston Journal.
In 1870, he became an associate editor of the women's suffrage newspaper, the Woman's Journal, along with Mary Livermore, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Lucy Stone, and Henry B. Blackwell. He served as president of both the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association. He was a major figure in New England's woman suffrage campaigns during the 1870s.
In 1873, he healed his long estrangements from Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips, affectionately reuniting with them on the platform at an AWSA rally organized by Abby Kelly Foster and Lucy Stone on the one hundredth anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. When Charles Sumner died in 1874, some Republicans suggested Garrison as a possible successor to his Senate seat; Garrison declined on grounds of his moral opposition to taking office.
Garrison spent more time at home with his family. He wrote weekly letters to his children and cared for his increasingly ill wife, Helen. She had suffered a small stroke on December 30, 1863, and was increasingly confined to the house. Helen died on January 25, 1876, after a severe cold worsened into pneumonia. A quiet funeral was held in the Garrison home. Garrison, overcome with grief and confined to his bedroom with a fever and severe bronchitis, was unable to join the service. Wendell Phillips gave a eulogy and many of Garrison's old abolitionist friends joined him upstairs to offer their private condolences.
Garrison recovered slowly from the loss of his wife and began to attend Spiritualist circles in the hope of communicating with Helen. Garrison last visited England in 1877, where he met with George Thompson and other longtime friends from the British abolitionist movement.
Suffering from kidney disease, Garrison continued to weaken during April 1879. He moved to New York to live with his daughter Fanny's family. In late May, his condition worsened, and his five surviving children rushed to join him. Fanny asked if he would enjoy singing some hymns. Although he was unable to sing, his children sang favorite hymns while he beat time with his hands and feet. On May 24, 1879, Garrison lost consciousness and died just before midnight.
Garrison was buried in the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood on May 28, 1879. At the public memorial service, eulogies were given by Theodore Dwight Weld and Wendell Phillips. Eight abolitionist friends, both white and black, served as his pallbearers. Flags were flown at half-staff all across Boston. Frederick Douglass, then employed as a United States Marshal, spoke in memory of Garrison at a memorial service in a church in Washington, D.C., saying, "It was the glory of this man that he could stand alone with the truth, and calmly await the result."
Garrison's namesake son, William Lloyd Garrison (1838–1909), was a prominent advocate of the single tax, free trade, women's suffrage, and of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. His second son, Wendell Phillips Garrison (1840–1907), was literary editor of The Nation from 1865 to 1906. Two other sons (George Thompson Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, his biographer and named after abolitionist Francis Jackson) and a daughter, Helen Frances Garrison (who married Henry Villard), survived him. Fanny's son Oswald Garrison Villard became a prominent journalist and a founding member of the NAACP.
Garrison & Knapp, editors and proprietors Liberator, 10 Merchants Hall, Congress Street
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