site logo

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 la
d. 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

God Almighty!'"

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."