Abolitionist-in-Chief

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Today when Americans think of emancipation they think of Abraham Lincoln. They remember how it was he who signed the Emancipation Proclamation and gave freedom to several million slaves. Long before Abraham Lincoln signed the proclamation, however, there was a Massachusetts newspaper editor who saw the injustices inflicted on African-American slaves. He was incensed by what he saw and dedicated himself to ending that injustice once and for all. His name was William Lloyd Garrison. This is the story of how he rose to become the foremost abolitionist of his day.

William Lloyd Garrison’s commitment to social justice was deeply rooted in the spiritual upbringing of his youth. He was born in the small village of Newburyport, Massachusetts north of Boston in December 1805. Shortly after he turned three, his father abandoned the family. His mother then became the dominant force in his life. As a devout Baptist, she instructed Garrison and his siblings in Christian teachings. He also spent large periods of time living with neighbors while his mother struggled to provide for the family. Like his mother, the neighbors encouraged him to study sermons and memorize large sections of the Bible. His studies convinced him to oppose the vices so apparent in the rest of society. After watching his older brother destroy himself through alcoholism, he realized he had to fight against all vices. The most effective way was by expressing his views through the written word. He apprenticed himself to the editor of the local newspaper and began to write columns denouncing corruption and licentiousness. It was not long before his activities led him to join the ranks of other social reformers.

Garrison’s work as a newspaperman convinced him that his principles mattered more than to which political party he belonged. His greatest desire was to defend the truth against all who opposed him. Some of those opponents were members of the United States government who had become more secular in their thinking. As a devoted Christian, Garrison held firm to the conviction that politics needed to reflect Christian values. He became convinced the public consciousness had to be renewed and then used to destroy the social conflicts plaguing American cities. He decided to resettle in Boston where he could help lead New England and the rest of the nation to a spiritual purification. Remembering his brother’s struggles, he joined the new temperance movement to encourage abstinence from alcohol. He befriended evangelical minister Lyman Beecher, one of the movement’s leaders, and wrote articles for the National Philanthropist. His work with these social reformers invigorated him. He determined to become a moral prophet who denounced evil wherever he saw it. It was not long before this calling led him to a cause even more noble than that of temperance.

William Lloyd Garrison had previously had little association with African-Americans, but by the end of the 1820s, he had dedicated his life to eradicating the institution of slavery. His enlistment began in March 1828 when he was introduced to Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker who was the leading abolitionist at the time. He listened to Lundy describe slavery and was appalled at the amount of domination slave masters exercised over their slaves. More importantly, he became convinced ownership of slaves contrasted with God’s authority over the entire human race. Lundy had advised a system of gradual emancipation, and Garrison had initially followed his example. He circulated a petition asking Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. The petition was rejected. With the rejection, Garrison’s attitude began to change. He was approached by the American Colonization Society to give a speech at the Park Street Church in Boston supporting voluntary emancipation and colonization (the immigration and settlement) of African-Americans in Africa. Instead he declared to the congregation he was “sick of our hypocritical cant about the inalienable rights of man” while allowing “barbarity and despotism” to flourish. He called for churches to take the lead in calling on the government to act. He also advocated the establishment of antislavery societies that would demand immediate abolition of slavery throughout the country. His speech infused new passion in the cause. In the aftermath of his rousing address he travelled to Baltimore to co-edit The Genius of Universal Emancipation with his old friend Lundy. He argued to his readers that slaves were “entitled to immediate and complete emancipation.” One of his attacks was so severe he was sued for libel and sent to jail. Not even a jail cell could stop him though. He continued to write antislavery literature, in which he equated his current fate to that of a martyr. Supporters paid his fine, and he was released. By that time the newspaper had ceased printing, so he returned to Boston.

Now calling himself an “immediate abolitionist,” Garrison determined to inflame the passions of those like him who wanted to see a quick end to slavery. He knew he already had some support in New England, but he realized he would need a broad base if he were to succeed in his mission. He travelled across the North lecturing against colonization and other halfway measures. His speeches alienated him from Lyman Beecher and the Protestant establishment but endeared him to Quakers and Unitarians like Theodore Dwight Weld. Antislavery societies sprung up in New England, New York and Ohio. New centers of education like Oberlin College came into existence to equip young abolitionists for the fight. Garrison found himself applauded by these men and women who shared his conviction that slavery defied the law of God. As his popularity increased, he saw an opportunity to give the cause a voice by printing a newspaper wholly dedicated to the abolition of slavery.

From his home in Boston, Garrison began to craft a newspaper that would declare his views to the country and to the world. On January 1, 1831 Garrison proudly printed the first edition of his celebrated newspaper, The Liberator. In it he told his readers that neither he nor his compatriots could any longer “think, write or speak with moderation…I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat an inch and I WILL BE HEARD.” He made it clear he unequivocally opposed those who practiced slavery and those who abetted the institution. Garrison found support from white abolitionists, but his words appealed even more to those free African-Americans living in the North. They saw The Liberator as a tool to liberate their brothers and sisters in bondage. Garrison embraced these new readers and even described the newspaper as truly belonging to them saying, “it is their organ.” The popularity of the Liberator among those opposed to slavery was matched with equal hostility by those willing to tolerate the institution, yet Garrison refused to back down in the face of threats to his life and property.

Despite the criticism he faced for his beliefs, Garrison continued to fight for the cause he believed so strongly in. In late summer 1831 he, like others across the country, heard of Nat Turner’s slave insurrection in Virginia. By the time it was over, sixty white Virginians were dead. Garrison wrote how he deplored the brutality committed by the slaves but applauded them for resisting oppression. For his support, he received hundreds of letters from Northerners and Southerners alike blaming him for the revolt. Many Southern states outlawed distribution of the Liberator, and Georgian officials even offered a $15,000 reward for Garrison’s capture and transport to the South for trial. He also faced the outrage and violence of his fellow Bostonians, even having to spend the night in jail once for his own protection. This heated response thrilled Garrison. He was convinced the vitriol meant he was succeeding in forcing the issue into the national spotlight. He told critics that abolition was part of God’s millennial design for the spiritual purification of the human race. These harsh denunciations confirmed that he was now the principle spokesman for the abolitionists, and he intended to make use of that reputation.

For the rest of his life, William Lloyd Garrison fought for the freedom of African-Americans. He helped establish the American Anti-Slavery Society and then used the Liberator to push the agenda of the Society. He forged strong friendships with those just as committed to immediate emancipation as he was. Among these friends were Wendell Phillips, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, and Frederick Douglass. Though he had disagreements with many of them, he continued to work tirelessly for the end of slavery. He watched an increasing number of Northerners support politicians opposed to slavery. By the 1840s the country was tearing itself apart along sectional lines. In response, Garrison proposed that the North secede so there would be no connection with the slaveholding South. Though the idea was rejected, he continued to denounce the government for protecting slavery. He condemned the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 that gave each territory the right to decide if it would be slave or free. He wanted to see the entire country full of free inhabitants, both black and white.

By the end of the 1850s, he saw the Republican Party as the political party that would accomplish his long-held dream. He was proven right when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and when the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery was ratified in 1865. The remainder of his life was spent leading friends and supporters in fighting for complete vindication of the rights of African-Americans. The many years of struggle culminated with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, giving equal protection under the law to African-Americans, and with ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, giving African-Americans the right to vote. William Lloyd Garrison died at the end of May 1879 with the knowledge that his life’s work had finally been accomplished.

The story of emancipation of slaves in America is a little more complex than many of us have understood. Credit does not belong exclusively to Abraham Lincoln with his proclamation freeing the slaves. To be completely fair, we must recognize the man who helped give the abolitionist movement a national birth. Without William Lloyd Garrison, the cause may not have attracted as much publicity as it did. No one spent as much time or energy fighting to free African-Americans from the chains of slavery. His voice, his words were a clarion call to arms. Throughout the long struggle, he remained one of the most unrelenting advocates the slaves had. He never faltered or ceased firing volleys against those who defended slavery. It was he who inspired countless others to take up the cause. Abraham Lincoln may have been the “Great Emancipator,” but William Lloyd Garrison was, like the name of his newspaper, the Liberator.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Abolitionist-in-Chief

  1. AMAZING! Thank you Jake, for this incredible footnote in our country’s history.

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