William Lloyd Garrison
For a great work God raises up a great man. Usually he is trained in the
hard school of poverty, to give him courage and perseverance. Usually he
stands alone among a great multitude, that he may have firmness and
William Lloyd Garrison was born to be preeminently the deliverer of the
slave. For two hundred years the curse of African slavery had rested
upon one of the fairest portions of our land. Everybody thought it an
evil to keep four million human beings from even the knowledge of how to
read and write, and a cruelty to sell children away from parents, to
toil forever without home or kindred. Everybody knew that slavery was as
ruinous almost to master as to slave; that labor was thereby despised,
and that luxury was sapping the vigor of a race. But every slave meant
money, and money is very dear to mankind.
Before the Declaration of Independence, three hundred thousand slaves
had been brought to this country. Some of the colonists remonstrated,
but the traffic was not stopped till 1808. The Quakers were opposed to
human bondage from the first, and decided, in 1780, to free all their
slaves. Vermont had freed hers three years previously, and other
Northern States soon followed. Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton,
and others were outspoken against the sin; but it continued to increase
till, in 1810, we had over a million slaves.
Five years before this time, in a plain, wooden house in Newburyport,
Mass., a boy was born who was to electrify America, and the world even,
on this great subject. William Lloyd Garrison's father was a
sea-captain, a man who loved books and had some literary ambition; the
mother was a noble woman, deeply religious, willing to bear all and
brave all for conscience' sake, and fearless in the path of duty. She
early taught her boy to hate oppression of every kind, and to stand
everywhere for the right. Very poor, there was no chance for William,
either in school or college. When he was seven, his mother, having found
work for herself as a nurse for the sick, placed the child with a deacon
of the town, where he learned to split wood and other useful things. At
nine, the careful mother put him to the shoemaking trade, though he was
scarcely large enough to hold the lap-stone. He was not happy here,
longing for something that made him think.
Perhaps he would like to build tables and chairs better, so he was
apprenticed to a cabinet-maker; but here he was no more satisfied than
with the monotony of sewing leather. At his own request, the dealer
cancelled the agreement, and the boy found a place to set type on the
Newburyport "Herald." At last he had obtained the work he loved. He
would some day own a paper, he thought, and write articles for it. Ah!
how often poor boys and rich build air-castles which tumble to the
ground. It is well that we build them, for life soon becomes prosaic
enough to the happiest of us.
At sixteen he wrote an article for the "Herald," signing it "An Old
Bachelor." Imagine his surprise and delight when he saw it really in
print! Meantime his mother, who was six hundred miles away, wrote him
devoted letters, ever encouraging and stimulating him to be upright and
temperate. A year later she died, and William was left to fight his
battles alone. He missed the letters,--missed having some one to whom he
could tell a boy's hopes and fears and temptations. That boy is
especially blest who has a mother to whom he can confide everything;
such a boy usually has a splendid future, because by her wisdom and
advice he becomes well fitted for life, making no foolish experiments.
Reading as much as possible, at nineteen William wrote some political
articles for a Salem paper, and, strange to say, they were attributed to
Hon. Timothy Pickering! Surely, he could do something in the world now;
so when his apprenticeship was over and he had worked long and
faithfully, he started a paper for himself. He called it the "Free
Press." It was a good title, and a good paper; but, like most first
literary adventures, it proved a failure. Perhaps he ought to have
foreseen that one can do little without capital; but youth is about as
blind as love, and rarely stops to reason.
Did one failure discourage him? Oh, no! He went to Boston, and found a
place in a printing office. He soon became the editor of the "National
Philanthropist," the first paper established to advocate total
abstinence from intoxicants. His motto was a true one, not very popular,
however, in those days, "Moderate drinking is the down-hill road to
drunkenness." He was now twenty-two, poor, but God-fearing and
self-reliant. About this time there came to Boston a man whose influence
changed young Garrison's whole life,--Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker,
thirty-nine years of age. Leaving his father's home at nineteen, he had
spent four years at Wheeling, Va., where he learned the saddler's trade,
and learned also the cruelties of slave-holding. After this he moved to
Ohio, and in four years earned three thousand dollars above his living
expenses. When he was twenty-six he organized an Anti-slavery Society at
his own house, and, promising to become assistant editor of an abolition
paper, he went to St. Louis to dispose of his stock of saddlery.
Business was greatly depressed, the whole region being agitated over the
admission of Missouri as a slave State; and, after spending two years,
Lundy returned to Ohio, on foot, in winter, his property entirely gone.
None of his ardor for freedom having abated, he determined to start a
monthly paper, though poor and entirely ignorant about printing. This
sheet he called the "Genius of Universal Emancipation," printed twenty
miles from his home, the edition being carried on his back, each month,
as he walked the long distance. He moved shortly after to East
Tennessee, walking half of the eight hundred miles, and gradually
increased his subscription list. Several times his life was in danger;
but the slight, gentle Quaker kept quietly on his course. In 1824 he set
out on foot for Baltimore, paying his way by saddlery or
harness-mending, living on the poorest fare; and he subsequently
established the "Genius" there. While he was absent from home, his wife
died, leaving twins, and his five children were divided among friends.
Deeply sorrowing, he renewed his resolve to devote his life to worse
than motherless children,--those sold into bondage,--and made his way as
best he could to Boston. Of such material were the foundation stones of
the anti-slavery cause.
At his boarding-place Lundy met Garrison, and told him his burning
desire to rid the country of slavery. The heart of the young printer was
deeply moved. He, too, was poor and unknown, but he had not forgotten
his mother's teachings and prayers. After some time he agreed to go to
Baltimore, and help edit the "Genius of Universal Emancipation." Lundy
was in favor of sending the slaves to the West Indies or Africa as fast
as their masters would consent to free them, which was not very fast.
Garrison said, "The slaves are here by no fault of their own, and do not
deserve to be sent back to barbarous Africa." He was in favor of
immediate freedom for every human being.
Baltimore had slave-pens on the principal streets. Vessel-loads of
slaves, torn from their homes, were sent hundreds of miles away to
southern ports, and the auction-block often witnessed heart-rending
scenes. The tender heart of Garrison was stirred to its very depths. In
the first issue of his paper he declared for Immediate Emancipation, and
soon denounced the slave-trade between Baltimore and New Orleans as
"domestic piracy," giving the names of several citizens engaged in the
traffic, among them a vessel-owner from his own town, Newburyport. The
Northern man immediately arrested Garrison for "gross and malicious
libel," and he was found guilty by a slave-holding court, and fined
fifty dollars and costs. No one was ready to give bail, and he was
thrown into prison. The young man was not in the least cast down, but,
calm and heroic, wrote two sonnets on the walls of his cell.
Meantime, a noble young Quaker at the North, John G. Whittier, was
deeply anxious for Garrison. He had no money to pay his fine, but,
greatly admiring Henry Clay, whom he hoped to see President, wrote him
urging that he aid the "guiltless prisoner." Clay would doubtless have
done so, but Arthur Tappan, one of New York's noble men, sent the money,
releasing Garrison from his forty-nine days' imprisonment. Wendell
Phillips says of him, "He was in jail for his opinions when he was just
twenty-four. He had confronted a nation in the very bloom of his youth."
Garrison had not been idle while in prison. He had prepared several
lectures on slavery, and these he now gave when he could find a hearing.
Large churches were not opened to him, and nobody offered him two
hundred dollars a night! The free colored people welcomed him gladly,
but the whites were usually indifferent or opposed to such "fanatical"
ideas. At last he came to Boston to start a paper,--that city where
brains and not wealth open the doors to the best society. Here, with no
money nor influential friends, he started the "Liberator," with this for
his motto, "I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as
justice. On this subject I do not wish to speak or write with
moderation. 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 North was bound hand and foot by the slave-trade almost as
effectually as the South. The great plea was the fear lest the Union
would be dissolved. Cotton factories had sprung up on every hand, and it
was believed that slave-labor was essential to the producing of cotton.
Some thought it would not be safe to free the slaves; that
assassinations would be the result. The real secret, however, was that
each slave meant several hundred dollars, and freedom meant poverty to
the masters. Meantime, the "Liberator" was making itself felt, despite
Garrison's poverty. The Vigilance Association of South Carolina offered
a reward of $1,500 for the apprehension and prosecution of any white
person who might be detected in distributing or circulating it. In
Raleigh, N.C., the grand jury found a bill against the young editor,
hoping to bring him to that State for trial. Hon. Robert Y. Hayne, of
South Carolina, having received a paper by mail, wrote to Harrison Gray
Otis, Mayor of Boston, to ascertain the sender. Mr. Otis caused an agent
to visit the office of the "Liberator," and returned answer to Mr.
Hayne, that he found it "an obscure hole, his only visible auxiliary a
negro boy; and his supporters a few very insignificant persons of all
And where was this "obscure hole"? In the third story of a business
block, "the walls dingy," says Mr. Oliver Johnson in "Garrison and his
Times"; "the small windows bespattered with printers' ink; the press
standing in one corner; the long editorial and mailing table covered
with newspapers; the bed of the editor and publisher on the floor--all
these make a picture never to be forgotten." Their food, what little
they had, was procured at a neighboring bakery.
Soon Georgia passed a law offering $5,000 to any person arresting and
bringing to trial, under the laws of the State, and punishing to
conviction, the editor or publisher of the "Liberator." What a wonder
that some ruffian at midnight did not break into the "obscure hole," and
drag the young man off to a slave-vessel lying close by in the harbor!
The leaven of anti-slavery was beginning to work. Twelve "fanatics"
gathered one stormy night in the basement of an African church in
Boston, and organized the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832.
The following year, as the managers of the American Colonization Society
had sent an agent to England, it was deemed best to send Garrison abroad
to tell Wilberforce and others who were working for the suppression of
slavery in the West Indies, that it was not a wise plan to send the
slaves to Africa. It was difficult to raise the money needed; but
self-sacrifice usually leaves a good bank-account. The "fanatic," only
twenty-eight, was received with open arms by such men as Lord Brougham,
Wilberforce, Clarkson, and Daniel O'Connell. Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton
gave a breakfast in his honor. When the guests had arrived, among them
Mr. Garrison, Mr. Buxton held up both hands, exclaiming, "Why, my dear
sir, I thought you were a black man!" This, Mr. Garrison used to say,
was the greatest compliment of his life, because it showed how truly and
heartily he had labored for the slave. A great meeting was arranged for
him at Exeter Hall, London. How inspiring all this for the young
reformer! Here he met the eloquent George Thompson, and asked him to
visit our country, which invitation he accepted.
On his return the American Anti-Slavery Society was formed, Dec. 4,
1833, at Philadelphia, delegates coming from eleven States. John G.
Whittier was chosen Secretary. The noble poet has often said that he was
more proud that his name should appear signed to the Declaration of
Principles adopted at that meeting than on the title-page of any of his
volumes. Thus has he ever loved liberty.
The contest over the slavery question was growing extremely bitter.
Prudence Crandall of Canterbury, Conn., a young Quaker lady, admitted
several colored girls to her school, who came from Boston, New York, and
Philadelphia. The people were indignant at such a commingling of races.
Shopkeepers refused to sell her anything; her well was filled with
refuse, and at last her house was nearly torn down by a midnight mob.
Lane Theological Seminary, Cincinnati, Western Reserve College, Hudson,
O., with some others, were nearly broken up by the conflict of opinion.
Some anti-slavery lecturers were tarred and feathered or thrown into
prison. In New York, a pro-slavery mob broke in the doors and windows of
a Presbyterian church, and laid waste schoolhouses and dwellings of
colored people. In Philadelphia, the riots lasted three days, forty-four
houses of colored people being nearly or quite destroyed.
In Boston, a "most respectable" mob, composed, says Horace Greeley, "in
good part of merchants," dispersed a company of women belonging to the
Female Anti-Slavery Society, while its President was engaged in prayer.
Learning that Garrison was in the adjoining office, they shouted, "We
must have Garrison! Out with him! Lynch him!"
Attempting to escape by the advice of the Mayor, who was present, he
sought refuge in a carpenter's shop, but the crowd drew him out, and
coiling a rope around his body, dragged him bareheaded along the street.
One man called out, "He shan't be hurt; he is an American!" and this
probably saved his life, though many blows were aimed at his head, and
his clothes were nearly torn from his body. The Mayor declaring that he
could only be saved by being lodged in jail, Garrison pressed into a
hack, and was driven as rapidly as possible to the prison, the maddened
crowd clinging to the wheels, dashing against the doors and seizing hold
of the horses. At last he was behind the bars and out of their reach. On
the walls of his cell he wrote:--
"William Lloyd Garrison was put into this cell on Wednesday afternoon,
Oct. 21, 1835, to save him from the violence of a respectable and
influential mob, who sought to destroy him for preaching the abominable
and dangerous doctrine that 'all men are created equal,' and that all
oppression is odious in the sight of God. Confine me as a prisoner, but
bind me not as a slave. Punish me as a criminal, but hold me not as a
chattel. Torture me as a man, but drive me not like a beast. Doubt my
sanity, but acknowledge my immortality."
The "respectable" mob had wrought wiser than they knew. Garrison and his
"Liberator" became more widely known than ever. Famous men and women now
joined the despised Abolitionists. The conflict was growing deeper.
Elijah P. Lovejoy, the ardent young preacher of Alton, Illinois, was
murdered by four balls at the hands of a pro-slavery mob, who broke up
his printing-press, and threw it into the river. A public meeting was
held in Faneuil Hall to condemn such an outrage. A prominent man in the
gallery having risen to declare that Lovejoy "died as the fool dieth," a
young man, unknown to most, stepped to the rostrum, and spoke as though
inspired. From that day Wendell Phillips was the orator of America. From
that day the anti-slavery cause had a new consecration.
From this time till 1860 the struggle between freedom and slavery was
continuous. The South needed the Territories for her rapid increase of
slaves. The North was opposed; but in the year 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska
Act, devised by Stephen A. Douglas, repealed the Missouri Compromise of
1820, which had prohibited slavery north of latitude 36 deg. 30', the
southern boundary of Kansas. Kansas at once became a battle-ground.
Armed men came over from Missouri to establish slavery. Men came from
New England determined that the soil should be free, if they spilled
their blood to gain it. The Fugitive Slave Law, whereby slaves were
returned without trial by jury, and slave-owners allowed to search the
North for their slaves, made great bitterness. The brutal attack of
Preston Brooks, of South Carolina, on Charles Sumner, for his speech on
Kansas, and the hanging of John Brown by the State of Virginia for his
invasion of Harper's Ferry with seventeen white men and five negroes,
calling upon the slaves to rise and demand their liberty, brought
matters to a crisis.
Garrison was opposed to war; but after the firing on Sumter, April 12,
1861, it was inevitable. For two years after Abraham Lincoln's election
to the Presidency, Garrison waited impatiently for that pen-stroke which
set four million human beings free. When the Emancipation Proclamation
was issued, Jan. 1. 1863, Garrison's life-work was accomplished.
Thirty-five years of untiring, heroic struggle had not been in vain.
When two years later the stars and stripes were raised again over Fort
Sumter, he was invited by President Lincoln, as a guest of the
government, to witness the imposing scene. When Mr. Garrison arrived in
Charleston, the colored people were nearly wild with joy. Children sang
and men shouted. A slave made an address of welcome, his two daughters
bearing a wreath of flowers to their great benefactor. Garrison's heart
was full to overflowing as he replied, "Not unto us, not unto us, but
unto God be all the glory for what has been done in regard to your
emancipation.... Thank God, this day, that you are free. And be resolved
that, once free, you will be free forever. Liberty or death, but never
slavery! While God gives me reason and strength, I shall demand for you
everything I claim for the whitest of the white in this country."
The same year he discontinued the publication of the "Liberator,"
putting in type with his own hands the official ratification of the
Thirteenth Amendment, forever prohibiting slavery in the United States,
and adding, "Hail, redeemed, regenerated America! Hail, all nations,
tribes, kindred, and peoples, made of one blood, interested in a common
redemption, heirs of the same immortal destiny! Hail, angels in glory;
tune your harps anew, singing, 'Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord
Two years after the war Mr. Garrison crossed the ocean for the fourth
time. He was no longer the poor lad setting type at thirteen, or
sleeping on the hard floor of a printing-room, or lying in a Baltimore
jail, or the victim of a Boston mob. He was the centre of a grand and
famous circle. The Duke and Duchess of Argyle and the Duchess of
Sutherland paid him special honors. John Bright presided at a public
breakfast given him at St. James' Hall, London. Such men as John Stuart
Mill, Herbert Spencer, and Prof. Huxley, graced the feast. Mr. Bright
said in his opening address, concerning Mr. Garrison: "His is the
creation of that opinion which has made slavery hateful, and which has
made freedom possible in America. His name is venerated in his own
country; venerated in this country and in Europe, wheresoever
Christianity softens the hearts and lessens the sorrows of men."
Edinburgh conferred upon him the freedom of the city, an honor accorded
to one other American only,--George Peabody. Birmingham, Manchester, and
other cities held great public meetings to do him reverence.
On his return, such friends as Sumner, Wilson, Emerson, Longfellow,
Lowell, Greeley, and others presented him with $30,000. The remainder of
his life he devoted to temperance, woman-suffrage, and every other
reform calculated to make the world better. His true character was shown
when, years before, appointed to the London Anti-Slavery Convention as a
delegate, he refused to take his seat after his long journey across the
ocean, because such noble co-workers as Lucretia Mott, Mrs. Wendell
Phillips, and others, were denied their place as delegates. Thus
strenuous was he for right and justice to all. Always modest, hopeful,
and cheerful, he was as gentle in his private life with his wife and
five children, as he was strong and fearless in his public career. He
died at the home of his daughter in New York, May 24, 1879, his children
singing about his bed, at his request:
"Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve,"
"Rise, my soul, and stretch thy wings."
At sunset, in Forest Hills, they laid the brave man to rest, a quartette
of colored singers around his open grave, singing, "I cannot always
trace the way."
"The storm and peril overpast,
The hounding hatred shamed and still,
Go, soul of freedom! take at last
The place which thou alone canst fill.
"Confirm the lesson taught of old--
Life saved for self is lost, while they
Who lose it in His service hold
The lease of God's eternal day."