Abolition’s First Wave

The seal of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery
The seal of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, circa 1789

William Lloyd Garrison stands in history alongside Frederick Douglass as the preeminent leader of the American abolitionist movement. According to his close coworker Wendell Phillips, there was barely a ripple of antislavery excitement anywhere in the country when Garrison, with miraculous acumen, became “the first man to begin a movement designed to annihilate slavery.” Thereafter, as the editor of the premier abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, which he founded in Boston in 1831, Garrison struck at what he called the root of American slavery’s evil: in 1854 he publicly burned a copy of the US Constitution, which he denounced as a proslavery “covenant with death.” Only by renouncing the nation’s evil politics and repudiating any union with slaveholders, Garrison declared, could America hope to eradicate slavery and the more general oppression of blacks.

Garrison’s legend survives among historians of the Civil War era, some of whom regard him as the model American radical whose condemnations of racist American democracy were historically accurate as well as morally admirable. Lionizing Garrison in this way, though, exaggerates his influence, distorts the chronology of abolitionist agitation, and misconstrues his most important political insight—an insight not his alone—about the need to transform a struggling antislavery effort into an all-out militant campaign.1

Despite his fame, Garrison and his so-called Boston clique of devotees represented a decided minority of the abolitionist movement. His version of what became known as “immediatist” abolitionism, which emphasized moral suasion and condemned electoral politics as inherently corrupting, did not command the larger following gained by rival abolitionists. Neither did Garrison’s insistence on instantly abolishing racial discrimination as well as slavery, nor his push to agitate over other injustices, notably the subordination of women. Although Garrison’s rivals were closely allied with him through the 1830s, they proposed an urgent but more gradual emancipation, within the limits of the Constitution, and they wanted, as Garrison did not, to concentrate strictly on ending slavery. Their efforts in the 1840s focused on mounting third-party political campaigns that Garrison denounced, and that led, in the 1850s, to the creation of the Republican Party and the political crisis that brought the Civil War and Emancipation.

Garrison’s renown did make him, until his death in 1879, the personal embodiment of the abolitionist movement. Understandably, he was beloved by African-Americans, including the throngs of black South Carolinians, among them thousands of newly freed slaves, who hailed him as a hero when he visited Charleston shortly after the Civil War ended. Still, by the 1850s, Garrison’s increasingly scathing antipolitical perfectionism had become counterproductive, and his authority within the growing antislavery movement declined. Garrison’s denunciations of American political institutions led to a particularly bitter break with Douglass, who came to regard the Constitution as an…

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