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.


A number of writers in this century have made somewhat quizzical inquiries into the psychology not only of Garrison but of the antebellum abolitionists as a class, suspecting from the sheer intensity—if not perversity—of their words and actions that there must have been something awry in the very impulse that had led them to undertake such work. One writer believed that these agitated spirits, caught up in the democratic stirrings and reforming fervor of the times, tormented by what they pictured as a rising cotton aristocracy—arrogant, patriarchal, dueling, hard-drinking, and brutal, contaminating the very springs of the nation’s morals—simply struck out at the Slave Power in a frenzy of indiscriminate righteousness.

Another scholar saw the movement as primarily generated by the remnants of a displaced elite, a successor generation of formerly prominent New England families whose influence had been superseded by the coarser values of an expanding industrial class, and who were determined now, with abolition as their vehicle, to recapture the moral leadership their elders had once held. Still another, concerned only with Garrison’s case, argued that Garrison from the outset was impelled by literary ambition and a craving for fame as a writer, and by the confidence “that defying power was the way he could become famous.” Another was impressed by what she perceived to be the abolition movement’s most striking feature, a thirst for martyrdom.2

There are plausible elements in each of these versions; there are also some difficulties. The abolitionists, the most radical of all the antebellum reformers, were for that reason on the outer margin of every community they lived in or entered, and this was as true in New England as anywhere else. So any effort to formulate for them a sociological or psychological category of recruitment is bound to have in it aspects of the far-fetched, the evidence being as fragmentary and disconnected as it is. And whatever else these people may have had in common before they became abolitionists—even any who, like Garrison, may have dreamed of becoming famous writers—dwindles in significance to what they had in common afterward. That something—the most obvious of all the ex- planations for their doing what they did—was a total, unqualified, uncompromising commitment to the cause, which even included a willingness, if necessary, to suffer for it.

Benjamin Lundy was an undersized middle-aged widower who had given up everything, including his trade of harness-making, as well as the care of his motherless children to foster families, in order to travel across the country addressing antislavery meetings, pleading for the formation of local antislavery societies, and begging funds to maintain his paper, the Genius of Universal Emancipation, which he printed in Baltimore and issued from there. Garrison was transfixed by Lundy’s example (“My soul was on fire then”), and the two agreed to combine their energies forthwith, the management of the Genius being put largely in Garrison’s hands, in Baltimore, so that Lundy might have more time and scope for his missionary efforts.

Garrison’s editorials thereupon proceeded, in their single-minded ferocity, to outrun Lundy’s more moderate ideas, and in effect to drive the paper out of existence. Garrison was indicted for libel after having attacked the character of a prominent shipowner for his connection with the internal slave trade. He was adjudged guilty and, being unable to pay the fine, was lodged for some weeks in the Baltimore jail, which did much to solidify his newborn determination that the extinction of slavery should be his life’s work. His and Lundy’s parting was wholly amicable, and Lundy praised the zeal and integrity of his young coadjutor. Yet Lundy seems also to have concluded that it would be better if the two continued their work by separate paths, and tactfully ignored the younger man’s soundings about resuming their collaboration.

Back in Boston in the fall of 1830, Garrison was accordingly soliciting funds for an abolition newspaper of his own. The Liberator, destined to be the longest-lived of all such publications throughout the antebellum era, made its first appearance on January 1, 1831, and would continue to appear once a week for the next thirty-five years. The opening statement of its editor, who had just turned twenty-five, has been quoted innumerable times, partly, no doubt, simply because its menacing predictions all turned out to be true:

I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or 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.


Garrison insisted from the outset that there could be no “gradualist” approaches to ridding the country of slavery. There was only one way: immediate, unqualified, uncompensated emancipation. The colonization movement for repatriating freed slaves in Liberia, which was making some headway by the 1830s and had some respectable support, was a prime target of his thunder. (In light of the all but universal racial prejudice then predominant, “repatriation” in effect meant “banishment,” and was a pious cover for clearing as many free blacks out of the country as possible.) Garrison himself was entirely free from prejudice, another thing that set him apart from his times in general, and from many of his own antislavery associates in particular. He was on friendly terms with the widest variety of black people, mingling with them socially, often availing himself of their hospitality, and he gratefully welcomed their wholehearted support of The Liberator. When the New England Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1832, after much urging and exertion on Garrison’s part, it was on the basis of immediatism, equal rights, and against colonization.

But Garrison believed other principles must accompany the crusade against slavery—equal rights for women and equal participation by them in the abolitionist movement, pacifism and nonviolent resistance, and refusal to pursue abolition’s ends through political means. And these demands generated strains within the movement itself that persisted down to the end. Meetings of the national and New England societies, at which Garrison was always a dominant presence, were seldom free from factionalism and schisms. Garrison nevertheless maintained a rigid line of consistency throughout, with little in the way of compromise or adjustment to the views of others, just as he had promised in the first issue of The Liberator.

Garrison traveled to London in the spring of 1833 in order to establish relations with England’s abolitionists and their leaders. He was welcomed at once to their daily breakfasts at a coffeehouse across from the medieval Guildhall; he met such figures as Thomas Fowell Buxton, George Thompson (with whom he would form a lifelong friendship and who made several visits to the United States to assist in the cause), Thomas Clarkson, and the venerable William Wilberforce, who conferred the English movement’s blessing on Garrison as America’s foremost antislavery apostle. He was given an ovation by an audience of thousands he addressed at Exeter Hall, telling them that America—unlike England, where an act of Parliament was about to end slavery in its colonies forever—was perverting its highest principles in continuing to tolerate the evil curse. He marveled at the absence of public racial discrimination as he went about London, and he rejoiced that emancipation had the hearty support of public opinion.

But he returned to an America in which the atmosphere was in every way the contrary of the one he had just left. Mobs everywhere were ready to form and to fall upon him for having disparaged his country and its institutions before English audiences; and indeed there was one such mob gathering in New York on the very day he stepped off the ship, which would likely have given him some rough handling had he not strolled through it unrecognized. He was less lucky in October 1835 when a gang in Boston laid hands on him, tied a rope about his waist, and dragged him hither and thither until the mayor and his men managed to get him spirited off and lodged overnight in the city jail for his own safety.

To be sure, these mobs had plenty to goad them, or believed they had. Few had heard the like of such language as Garrison poured forth week after week; he was implacable, intolerant, inflexible, “uncompromising as justice.” Slaveholding was a sin for which there was no extenuation; no slavemaster, he said, could bear the name of a good man; even the well-intentioned anywhere in the land who made the least accommodation, however indirect, to chattel bondage were “as much Satanic agents…as the slaveholders themselves.” Garrison’s zealotry repelled many within the movement itself, as well as maddening thousands outside of it. His friend John Greenleaf Whittier deplored his having become “a Robespierre,” with “a perfect incapacity of tolerating those who differed from him.” The saintly Samuel May implored him to be more temperate, “and keep more cool; why, you are all on fire.” To which Garrison simply replied, “I have need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt.”

And yet the harsh philippic, the form for which he was overwhelmingly known, reflected only the public, “printed” voice that went with the cause; he had another voice, a markedly different, private one, and a different personality to go with it. People meeting him for the first time, braced for a glowering ranter, were invariably astonished at the mild, friendly, and courteous being who greeted them. Harriet Martineau found his conversation “as gladsome as his countenance, and as gentle as his voice,” and pronounced him “the most bewitching personage” she had met in America. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had once thought of Garrison as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” came to see him as “a lamb in a wolf’s disguise.” He also had rather a waggish streak, and made dreadful puns. (When a horse barn was the only place available for one of the abolitionists’ early meetings, he told the assemblage that this had at least put the movement on “a stable foundation.”)

Garrison’s diffident courtship of Helen Benson, the daughter of an amiable and generous family in eastern Connecticut devoted to philanthropic causes, and the large-heartedness of their subsequent family life, make an unusually attractive story. Lloyd had warned Helen that in view of the calling to which he had bound himself they would never be wealthy, and indeed they did have to scrimp, borrow, and make do for many a year. Enough assistance came eventually from antislavery benefactors in the 1850s to bring some stability to The Liberator’s finances, and to allow the family a degree of comfort.

Nor did Garrison in the least resemble a stern Victorian patriarch. He cheerfully performed a large part of the household chores, chopping the wood, tidying up, and minding the children (he loved children and cats), singing happily the while. There were many joys, many hardships, and a fair number of sorrows, including the death of two of his children. Four of them reached adulthood, and Mr. Mayer does justice both to the individuality of each one and to the affection that united them.

There were strains as well. Father spent too many late nights at the shop getting out the paper, and was too much away from home organizing and lecturing. Yet an exceptional devotion held the family together, and in the end Garrison’s was a life, in both its private and its public aspects, that powerfully enhanced the many other lives touched by it. It should be added that Mr. Mayer’s volume contains an unusually generous assortment of pictures. One, a photograph of Garrison sitting with his daughter Fanny, both faces serenely alight, is in itself almost worth the price of the book.


Garrison’s conviction that abolitionists must abstain from political action (trimming and compromise would always accompany it), and that the federal Constitution was a proslavery document—“a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell” under which there was no way slavery could be abolished—probably caused more friction within the movement than any of the other positions he took as adjuncts to abolition. Perhaps his most provocative act occurred at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s Fourth of July picnic at Framingham in 1854, when he defiantly burned copies of the Fugitive Slave Act (a product of the Compromise of 1850) and the United States Constitution.

It was consequently ironic that on this very issue—that of resorting to political means for abolitionist ends—Garrison’s radical associates should turn on him for betraying his own principles when The Liberator began looking with favor on the rise of the Republican Party and the emergence of Lincoln, and then for abandoning his pacifism and supporting the war. Still, Garrison’s early avowal of those principles had been for a purpose, to maintain an uncluttered path for the great object to which he would devote his life and all his energies, and although the means had now changed, the end never would.

With the object closer and closer at hand, with executive action and the exigencies of war moving to bring it there, William Lloyd Garrison had all but joined the Republican Party. He supported Lincoln’s renomination in 1864 (many abolitionists violently opposed it), and was present at the Baltimore convention when it occurred. On his way home he stopped in Washington, where congressmen and other high officials were by then glad to pay him their respects, and was invited into the White House by the President himself for a lengthy and cordial chat. He was one of the dignitaries who traveled to Charleston in April 1865 for the ceremony of raising the Union flag once more over Fort Sumter. Addressing an overflowing crowd of emancipated blacks in Charleston’s Zion Church was, he later affirmed, the most “unspeakably satisfying” moment of his career.

He was now honored and respected; the great goal for which he had labored nearly forty years had been achieved. But the satisfactions of his closing years were dimmed by two further ironies. The Liberator, whose reason for existence had been the abolition of slavery, had fulfilled its mission. He concluded that it would now be best to discontinue the paper, and did so at the end of 1865. Yet the loss left him desolate and rudderless. Though he could relish the renown he had won, life, as he had known its rhythms from youth to old age, had lost much of its meaning. The achievement of emancipation, his central purpose, was consummated and had thus vanished; his vocation was gone.

He tried to keep going, but the same single-mindedness that had carried Garrison through the crusade against slavery was no longer available, and would not in any case have been an asset, for addressing the complex issues of Reconstruction. He could never quite engage himself with those issues, and had little influence concerning them. The whole edifice of his ideas had been erected on the premise that for the slave, freedom was the ultimate, the pinnacle; with the shackles struck off the rest would follow; all would somehow come right. Of course it didn’t, and in some ways still hasn’t. In any case the old intensity of his work-filled days had ebbed away; he would now begin things and for one or another reason not finish them. Helen died early in 1876, and his distraction was complete; he never recovered from losing her. He lived only three years more himself. On the day of Garrison’s funeral in May 1879, flags flew at half-staff over Boston and all across the state of Massachusetts.

A final query. What exactly was the function of William Lloyd Garrison and those who acted similarly, in preparing the way for the ending of slavery, and in relation to the other influences converging toward the same end? Where does the extremist—the fanatic, the single-minded zealot—fit? The 1850s saw an accelerating series of events that seemed to imbue antislavery feeling with a life of its own. The Wilmot Proviso and its fate, the Fugitive Slave Act, the recapture of the escaped slaves Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns, “Bleeding Kansas” and its proslavery killer gangs, the beating of Charles Sumner, the Dred Scott decision, the hanging of John Brown: all these seemed to speak for themselves; they needed no agitators to interpret their meaning to an increasingly aroused Northern public.

Moreover, those people who did contribute to the conversion of that public between 1830 and 1860 were not all agitators. They represented a variety of sentiment well short of immediate abolitionism, beginning with advocates of colonization (not all of whom were hypocrites), and including Free-Soilers, gradual emancipationists, and a wide assortment of “fellow travelers” outraged by the gag rule and the assault on civil liberties. Each added something to the process, and without their combined force there could have been no emancipation. And the South, in going to the length of starting a war, was clearly recognizing what that force had come to signify for the future of slavery, as spelled out in the election of Lincoln.

True enough—but that is hardly where the case can be left. Emancipation could almost certainly not have happened without the likes of Garrison either. The extremists—working full-time—performed multiple functions, of which straightforward instruction and enlightenment may not have been the most important. They did, however, establish a standard and kept it in view, accompanied by devices (the no-politics injunction) for seeing that the standard wouldn’t change. Garrison did see, in the case of Lincoln, that the politician could certainly help under the right conditions. But he also knew that as a rule politicians can’t ask for things very far beyond what the public is ready for, whereas the agitator can, and does. The radicals, the agitators, the extremists define the outer limits, and thus establish ground behind them that the less zealous (most of us) can occupy and still do useful work. And finally, examples of martyrdom—mobbing, stoning, beating, imprisonment—can in themselves serve as a powerful agency for conversion. Most of the martyrs, in Garrison’s time and in other times for other causes, have come from the ranks of the extremists.

This Issue

October 21, 1999