Who was William Lloyd Garrison? Discover the remarkable life of William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent 19th-century abolitionist known for his relentless fight against slavery and dedication to social reform.
William Lloyd Garrison; (1805-1879), American abolitionist leader, who was regarded as the conscience behind the movement to abolish slavery in the United States. Unlike fellow abolitionist John Brown, who came to prominence late, Garrison was famous—or notorious—all through the history of the antislavery movement, publishing his journal, the Liberator, from 1831 to 1865. Personally mild in temperament, he adopted a radical editorial tone and was unrelenting in his moral crusade.
Garrison was born in Newburyport, Mass., on Dec. 12, 1805. A sober, pious child, raised in poverty, he became a printer’s apprentice on the Newburyport Herald at the age of 13, and at 17 he was contributing essays to the paper. In 1826 he and another Newburyport printer attempted to publish a paper called the Free Press, but it failed within a few months. The next year Garrison was in Boston as editor of the National Philanthropist, a journal advocating temperance.
In 1828, Garrison met Benjamin Lundy, who inspired him to join the antislavery cause. The Bennington (Vt.) Journal of the Times, which Garrison edited that year, advocated the gradual emancipation of slaves and colonization of freed Negroes in Africa. Soon after, while editing Lundy’s Genius of Universal Emancipation in Baltimore, Garrison adopted a violent tone toward slave traders. He was convicted of libel and spent seven weeks in jail in 1830 until his fine was paid by Arthur Tappan, a New York merchant and reformer.
Breaking with Lundy on the matter of colonization, Garrison proposed to publish an antislavery paper that would rouse the country. The Liberator began publication in Boston on Jan. 1, 1831. It was supported mainly by free Negroes and never had more than 3,000 subscribers, but its editorial policy was unprecedented and uncompromising. It denounced slave-holding as a crime, held that a moderate approach gave comfort to partisans of slavery, and demanded “immediate” abolition. Garrison did not expect immediate action, but he considered it immoral to treat slavery as a legitimate institution and maintained that honorable people ought to repudiate the system.
The Nat Turner slave uprising in Virginia in August 1831 stirred Southern fears that Negroes were being incited to rebellion. Part of the blame was directed at Garrison, and Southern states outlawed circulation of the Liberator and sought to prosecute him.
In 1832, in Boston, Garrison formed the New England Anti-Slavery Society, the first American abolitionist organization based on “immediatist” principles. Its early membership was remarkable in including local Negroes of no particular distinction, along with elements of the Boston aristocracy, notably Rev. Samuel J. May, Ellis Gray Loring, David Lee Child, and Samuel E. Sewall.
Also in 1832, Garrison published Thoughts on African Colonization, which helped discredit that scheme. Visiting England in 1833, he was accepted as the leader of the American abolitionists. He returned to help launch the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadephia late in 1833. Garrison’s picturesque following included women such as Maria Weston Chapman, Lydia Maria Child, and Abby Kelley Foster, and their use of “Garrisonian” methods offended contemporary prejudices. On Oct. 21, 1835, a Boston riot against the abolitionists endangered Garrison’s life.
With sentiment against slavery rising throughout the North in the late 1830’s, many partisans of abolition sought to carry their campaign to the polls. Garrison, however, persisted in his moral approach, preaching immediate repudiation of slavery. He went so far as to condemn the U. S. Constitution and the federal government as proslavery. His ideas impressed leading intellectuals, including James Russell Lowell and Henry Thoreau, but increasingly alienated responsible political abolitionists. Disagreements among the “moral” and “political” abolitionists culminated in a bitter fight within the American Anti-Slavery Society. In 1840, Garrison won nominal control of the organization, but the society declined as the advent of the Liberty party presaged a strong turn to political action.
Garrison’s moral crusade gained new acceptability in the 1850’s. The Fugitive Slave Act, part of the congressional Compromise of 1850 (see Fugitive Slave Laws), seemed to indicate slavery would not be ended through political action. Increasing anti-Southern feeling in the North made Garrison appear a prophet of uncompromising integrity; even his shocking act of burning a copy of the Constitution at Framing-ham, Mass., on July 4, 1854, did not destroy this image. Although a pacifist, he accepted the Civil War as necessary, and at its conclusion he was viewed as the conscience of the abolition crusade.
Garrison continued publication of the Liberator until the adoption of the 13th Amendment ended slavery in 1865. Thereafter he devoted himself to other reform movements, notably woman suffrage, prohibition, and advancing the rights of American Indians. He died in New York City on May 24, 1879.