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The Liberator


There appear to be two opposing theories, implicit in how various historians have thought about the ending of slavery, for explaining the process whereby substantial numbers, perhaps a majority, of people in the Northern states were converted to an antislavery frame of mind during the thirty years or so prior to the Civil War. According to one, the conversion occurred for the most part in indirect ways, and resulted as much in a detestation of the “Slave Power”—the planter class and its supporters—as in an abomination of the condition of slavery itself. The proslavery forces’ insistence on pushing their system into the newly opened western territories, and demanding perpetual federal protection for it there and everywhere else, along with their disregard for such venerated civil liberties as freedom of speech, freedom of debate, freedom of the press, and the right of petition in their determination to stifle all discussion of slavery in Congress and at home, had all but worn away Northern patience by 1860.

The result was a strain of antislavery feeling that had certainly not been there thirty years earlier. But although there seems to have been a widespread presentiment, to judge from the outcome of the 1860 election, that slavery, as Lincoln had put it in his “House Divided” speech, was “in course of ultimate extinction,” this hardly signified a general determination to do away with slavery then and there. It came well short of the direct and uncomplicated demand abolitionists had all along been making for immediate and unqualified emancipation.

The other theory, simpler and more direct, cuts through all this. It assumes that the predominant force that brought Northern sentiment as close as it did to a perception of slavery as a poison in the nation’s body was generated by three decades of unrelenting abolitionist agitation. There was, in other words, a direct correlation between the advance of antislavery attitudes and the abolitionists’ continued insistence—through their lectures, their tracts and newspapers, their exposures of plantation life, and their revival meetings—that slavery was a mortal sin polluting not only those who actively kept it in being but also those who simply tolerated its continued existence. The process was one of dogged, persevering, earnest instruction and persuasion.

My own inclination is to favor the first theory, which seems better suited to account for the steady hardening of hostile Northern feeling toward the slaveholding South. Such a view makes fuller room for responses to Southerners’ words and actions in which slavery was an issue but not the only issue. It also accommodates a variety of opinions increasingly antagonistic in some way to slavery as a social system yet not carried to the point of an abolitionist remedy for it. 1

It could well be, for instance, that the critical turn in Northern sentiment really came with regard to the issue not of slavery—at least not directly—but of the right of petition. The aging ex-president John Quincy Adams led a ferocious nine-year fight in the House of Representatives for repeal of the “gag rule” which Southern members and a contingent of their Northern supporters had established to prevent the reception of petitions for ending slavery in the District of Columbia. With the eventual success of this effort in 1844, by which time most remaining support for the gag rule in the North had melted away under the heat of public opinion, the prestige of Adams—who had denied all along that he was an abolitionist—had become enormous.

But perhaps that is not the point at which the matter should rest. There may be more important questions beyond that of where the “credit” should be assigned; conceivably the two theories need not be seen as wholly incompatible. In any event, Henry Mayer’s excellent new life of William Lloyd Garrison makes as strong a case for the second theory as we are likely to see, indeed going a step beyond it. Garrison in this account has a depth of character that previous treatments never quite accorded him; and quite aside from the question of whether Garrison or anyone else should be seen as the predominant figure in preparing the public mind for the ending of slavery, Mr. Mayer’s portrait opens up a view of something of equal if not greater interest. This is the quality, the rhythms, the hardships, and most of all the satisfactions, of an entire life dedicated to the unswerving promotion of an extremist cause.

William Lloyd Garrison, born on December 12, 1805, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, underwent a boyhood and early family life from which the clutch of poverty was never absent. His maternal grandparents had come to North America from England as indentured servants; his father’s people were farmers, though Abijah Garrison himself preferred a seafaring life and was gone from home for long periods of time. Eventually he left for good, though the record does not say whether he simply deserted his wife and three children or was thrown out by an exasperated spouse who had had enough of his drinking away his shore time in Newburyport’s dockside taverns. In any case Fanny Garrison, working about town as a practical nurse and with charitable assistance from friends, thenceforth became the family’s sole support.

Lloyd, as he was called, was a well-behaved boy who gave his mother little trouble. He was in fact quite a comfort to her, helping to eke out the family’s income by selling homemade molasses candy in the street and collecting leftovers from the tables of his mother’s employers. He loved to sing, and ran about piping psalm tunes and hymns with great enthusiasm. His mother, as a headstrong young girl, had been banished from home by her scandalized Anglican parents and sent to live with a grandmother for having been swept up and converted by the fervor of itinerant Baptist preaching. She had therewith put on a new personality and fashioned a way of addressing a hostile world that would equip her to deal with life’s perversities and injustices; Fanny Garrison’s was a religion of exhortation and combat; for her it was a war against sin and depravity. Her son Lloyd seems to have absorbed something of her example, for it was in a similar spirit that he would conceive his own life’s duty and mission.

At thirteen the young Garrison began a seven-year apprenticeship in the print shop of Ephraim Allen, who was also editor of the Newburyport Herald. Allen was an earnest and upright man who believed that a newspaper, more than merely purveying the news, should be a vehicle of “literary, moral, and religious instruction.” To instruct and exhort would be Garrison’s own calling, and the press would be his instrument for pursuing it. He was quick at mastering the essentials of the printing trade, soon became Allen’s best and most dependable worker, and was made foreman of the shop while still in his teens. He was actually allowed to write editorial pieces and literary sketches for the Herald before his apprenticeship was completed. It gave him the deepest gratification first to compose such items with pen and ink, then to set them in type with his own hands, and then to relish their appearance in print as he pulled them off the press himself.

What schooling he had was haphazard and intermittent, but his reading was voracious. Living in his master’s house, he was given full access to the Allens’ fairly ample library, and in addition borrowed books from virtually every acquaintance in town. He committed great stretches of Shakespeare and Milton to memory, and was lifted to heights of exaltation by the novels of Scott and especially by the verses of Byron. Scott’s heroes set their surroundings to rights through force of character; Byron’s made themselves felt through emotional extravagance. William Lloyd Garrison was filled with determination, as he entered upon adult life, to set things similarly to rights, and to move the world through the power of words.

Among the many merits of Mr. Mayer’s account is his feeling for particularity: his sense that something important is left out of any story if abstractions aren’t suitably counterbalanced by palpable “things”—things that work in a particular way, and have their own particular look, feel, and smell. He is precisely informed, for instance, about what an early-nineteenth-century print shop was like, long before the invention of the rotary press and linotype, and of what went on there, and why. When Garrison settled upon Boston in 1826 as the place where his life’s work was to be done, we are introduced to the town as Garrison first glimpsed it—with its labyrinths of streets and alleys, its snarl of incoming and outgoing commerce in Dock Square, its energy and movement. Mr. Mayer is a man of broad culture and a wide store of reference, which combine with literary verve to give depth, proportion, and continuity to the successive scenes in the life and times of an extraordinary particular person.

Garrison did not become an abolitionist right away, though it was not long before he did so, when still in his early twenties. Newburyport had another newspaper, not a very prosperous one, which was for sale and which the twenty-year-old Garrison hastened to buy with borrowed money. Federalism in politics—based on the Founders’ faith in talent and strong centralized government—was dead everywhere but in New England, and had virtually expired even there. Garrison nevertheless believed that Federalist principles were still indispensable to the maintenance of public morals and civic virtue, and in ringing tones denounced everyone who thought otherwise, meanwhile enmeshing himself in the snares of party politics. He was then vastly disillusioned to discover that the town’s remaining Federalist notables themselves were at that very time quietly altering their colors to get right with the changing order, and becoming National Republicans. The young editor, finding himself without a constituency, embittered by what he had seen of the workings of politics, and having his loan prematurely called in, divested himself of the paper and put Newburyport behind him forever.

Boston was both more exciting and more hospitable, or so at least was that stratum to which Garrison found himself especially drawn. Reform ideas were in the air, and the “left” consisted of young people in church congregations which by the later 1820s were being seized by waves of renewal. Garrison fell in with such a group at the house of the Reverend William Collier, where he lived and boarded. It consisted of young men “awake to the moral movements of the world,” who would talk into the night about “philanthropy” (the word then, unlike now, simply meant reform, or general improvement), about missionary work, pacifism, temperance, and other desirable objects. Garrison himself undertook, for a six-month period at Collier’s urging, the editorship of a temperance newspaper. He did so in no halfway spirit: “Moderate Drinking,” he declared, “Is the Downhill Road to Intemperance and Drunkenness.” Yet everything changed for Garrison in March 1828 with the appearance at Collier’s table of Benjamin Lundy, the Quaker abolitionist who was in Boston seeking support and assistance for his antislavery newspaper.

  1. 1

    I recently supported such a view in two articles, “A Hero of Antislavery,” and “JQA: For the Defense,” The New York Review, November 14, 1996, and April 23, 1998, respectively.

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