Thursday, May 13, 2010

Great Men of America: William Lloyd Garrison


William Lloyd Garrison was born in 1805, in Newburyport, Massachusetts to Canadian immigrants. By the age of three his father, a merchant sailor, abandoned him and the family.  Although the religious community helped support the family, William did what he could as a child by selling homemade lemonade, candy, and delivering firewood.  By age fourteen William had become an apprentice with the local Newburyport Herald and soon began writing under the pseudonym Aristides, an Athenian statesman and general known as "the Just", a fitting start to what would become his lifelong career.

Even though he was faced with a childhood that gives many an excuse to not even try today William didn't let that hold him back and should be familiar to a black community that struggles with children being abandoned by their fathers.  Earlier, when I wrote about Booker T. Washington, I stated that one of my goals was to display that "Many figures in "white history" have ties to abolition or civil rights movements and drawing a connection between the two would help counter the view that all whites in American history are evil racists."  William Lloyd Garrison is one of the best examples of this due to his uncompromising nature and refusal to yield in his fight for the emancipation of the black man.

Garrison first joined the abolition movement in 1829 at the age of 25 when he joined the American Colonization Society, an organization which promoted sending freed blacks to territory in Africa.  Although some members supported the idea that blacks should be liberated, the majority of members within this organization had no interest in freeing slaves, and saw this as a way of protecting the institution of slavery.  Upon making this discovery "Garrison rejected colonization, publicly apologized for his error, and then, as was typical of him, he censured all who were committed to it."

Shortly after, Garrison joined with Benjamin Lundy to become co-editor of Genius of Universal Emancipation, a newspaper from Baltimore, Maryland.  It was here Garrison became increasingly radical.  Previously he had been, like most abolitionists of the time, a gradualist - someone who advocates emancipation through a slow, gradual process.  While he worked here, however, he adopted the stance of the immediatist, or someone who believes that emancipation is necessary immediately and completely.  In addition to his new ideology he increased the severity of his writings by publishing the "Black List" which directly targeted both individuals and the institution of slavery by reporting "the barbarities of slavery — kidnappings, whippings, murders."

Eventually the Black List got him in trouble, and the pro-slavery courts of Maryland were more than happy to find him guilty of libel.  He served seven weeks in jail before his fine was paid by another abolitionist, and once free he left Maryland and returned to New England.

Upon return to New England Garrison started The Liberator, the most radical abolition newspaper of its time.  In his first issue he addressed those who were critical of his severe language and radical message:


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 to 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.

His newspaper and influence grew slowly with just 400 subscriptions in the second year, but Garrison carried on his crusade with zeal.  He created the New England Anti-Slavery Society not long after he started The Liberator, and the American Anti-Slavery Society a year after that.  He traveled to the United Kingdom and spent time helping the anti-slavery efforts there, and in 1840 he formed a third organization called Friends of Universal Reform.  Even after internal dissent fractured the American Anti-Slavery Society, Garrison persevered and rebuilt the organization.

Despite a constant barrage of death threats, a bounty of $5000 dollars for his arrest in Georgia, and one case where a lynch mob chased him through the streets of Boston, Garrison continued to publish The Liberator and fight for abolition until his dream came true.  On December 29th, 1865, Garrison published his 1,820th and final issue of The Liberator, summing up his long path as an abolitionist:

Commencing my editorial career when only twenty years of age, I have followed it continuously till I have attained my sixtieth year—first, in connection with The Free Press, in Newburyport, in the spring of 1826; next, with The National Philanthropist, in Boston, in 1827; next, with The Journal of the Times, in Bennington, Vt., in 1828–9; next, with The Genius of Universal Emancipation, in Baltimore, in 1829–30; and, finally, with the Liberator, in Boston, from the 1st of January, 1831, to the 1st of January, 1866;—at the start, probably the youngest member of the editorial fraternity in the land, now, perhaps, the oldest, not in years, but in continuous service,—unless Mr. Bryant, of the New York Evening Post, be an exception. ... 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.

For forty years William Lloyd Garrison had fought tooth and nail for the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of black slaves.  I cannot imagine the joy and relief he felt when, finally, the noble goal he had worked so hard for finally came to pass.

Garrison spent the remaining years of his life fighting on behalf of other causes he believed in, such as temperance, women's suffrage, and civil rights for blacks, however he largely believed he had fought the fight, and the war was mostly over for him.  He died May 24th, 1879 at the age of 74.  His pallbearers were his old abolition friends, both black and white, and Frederick Douglass spoke at his memorial service, saying "It was the glory of this man that he could stand alone with the truth, and calmly await the result"

Revisionist history today paints a nasty picture of America in the past.  Too often whites are presented as racists which created a racist nation and government that harms the minorities of America to this day.  But throughout our history are many whites who fought hard and risked their careers, families, and lives for the sake of racial equality.  To look back at American history and say "This is white history" and "This is black history" is to disgrace the many men and women who were a part of that fight, and serves no purpose other than to carry on racism.

"If those who deserve the lash feel it and wince at it I shall be assured that I am striking the right persons in the right place.” - William Lloyd Garrison explaining his refusal to moderate his words

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