Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

William Lloyd Garrison,
the Great Emancipator

On the l0th of December, 1805, at Newburyport, Massachusetts, was born one of the great leaders in the train of events that brought on the Civil War. As great a leader on the opposite side was John C. Calhoun, the story of whose life we have given. An impressive scene, well worth painting, was that in which, after the capture of Charleston by the Union army, William Lloyd Garrison, the bitter foe of slavery, stood beside the grave of Calhoun, its persistent advocate. These two men, one for, the other against, the institution of slavery, had done their utmost in bringing about the war which led to its fall, and strange and deep must have been the thoughts of Garrison as he gazed upon the grave of his former opponent.

William Lloyd Garrison, as a boy, had to make his own way in the world. His father was dead, his mother poor. At the age of nine he began to work in a shoemaker's shop; but he gave this up when the opportunity came for an education, which he paid for by sawing wood and doing odd jobs when out of school. Before he was fifteen his school life ended and he settled down to work.

After trying several things, he became an apprentice to the printer's trade. At this he not only became a good workman, but, like Franklin before him, began to write articles, which were printed without his name and attracted flattering attention. He was only twenty-one when he started a paper of his own, and after this failed he was made editor of The National Philanthropist, a Boston paper devoted to reform, and one of the first to take up the temperance cause.

Reform was in Garrison's blood. The whole current of his thoughts ran that way. A year later we find him at Bennington, Vermont, editing a little paper that advocated peace, temperance, and anti-slavery. All this was pioneer work; he was educating himself in the school of reform. His real work began in 1829, when he went to Baltimore and became editor of an insignificant newspaper called The Genius of Universal Emancipation.

This was published by a mild little Quaker named Benjamin Lundy. It advocated the gradual emancipation of slaves, but had so little sting in it that few paid any attention to its diatribes. Lundy did not like this. He wanted more vitality in his paper. He had read some of Garrison's articles, and judged they were the stuff he needed. So he trudged on foot from Baltimore to Bennington,—there were no railroads then,—called on Garrison, and asked him to go to Baltimore and edit his paper.

The new editor's touch gave it life. The wasp had found a sting. No one now thought the paper harmless. Instead of gradual emancipation, it demanded immediate and unconditional emancipation; it denounced slave-holders and slave-dealers, and this in a city in which slaves were held. Every week it had a column on the horrors of the slave system, describing many things the editor had seen or heard of in Baltimore itself. One slave called on him and showed his back bleeding from twenty-seven lash cuts. He had been thus dealt with for loading a wagon in a way that did not please his overseer.

As may be imagined, The Genius  now created a sensation. Garrison's fiery editorials were like so many bomb-shells thrown among the Baltimore slave-holders. He was sued for libel, found guilty, and fined fifty dollars and costs. As he was not able to pay the fine he was sent to jail. His imprisonment was not severe. Friends were allowed to visit him, among them John G. Whittier, the anti-slavery poet. After about a month and a half Arthur Tappan, a New York merchant with views like his own, paid the fine, and he was set free.

Garrison's imprisonment made a great stir. It was a flagrant interference with the liberty of the press. Even some Southerners, Henry Clay among them, strongly objected to it. But Garrison saw that Baltimore was not the city for his work, and he went north again, delivering there a course of lectures against slavery.

His lectures were not well received. The anti-slavery cause was then exceedingly weak, even in New England, the mass of people being opposed to any interference with the institution. At Newburyport, his native town, and at Boston, the churches were closed against him. His lecture in Boston was delivered in the hall of a society of infidels. They cared nothing for emancipation, but they cared a great deal for freedom of speech.

Garrison, finding his voice muzzled, turned again to his pen. He started a small paper called The Liberator, the first number of which appeared on January 1, 1831. That was an eventful day in the history of slavery, for with that first number of The Liberator  began a fierce campaign which was not to end while a slave remained in the land.

It was an enterprise which needed courage and intrepidity. Garrison had not a dollar in the world. His friend, Isaac Knapp, who became his partner, had little more. They worked as type-setters on The Christian Examiner, and took their pay in the use of the type and presses of The Examiner. All the work on The Liberator  was done after the regular day's work was finished, by Garrison and Knapp. In the first number they said they would publish the paper as long as they had bread and water to live on, and for a time they did live on little more than bread and milk.

The Liberator  soon made itself felt. In its opening address Garrison said: "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!" And he was heard. Some abolitionists soon supplied a little money, a small office was taken, he and his partner worked, ate, and slept there, and The Liberator  was launched on its stormy sea.

The new paper speedily made a sensation. Never had the slave system been so vigorously assailed. Emancipation of the slaves, without delay, without conditions, without compensation, was its doctrine. Slavery was an utter wrong and sin, and it was the duty of every Christian and every man to fight it with all his might. Such sentiments, strongly expressed week after week, were not long in raising a breeze. The Liberator  soon found readers, alike among friends and foes. It met with much opposition in the North, where the great bulk of the people were at that time in sympathy with the slave-holders. In the South it aroused a torrent of rage.

It had at this time only a small circulation, and even if the slaves had happened to see it, they could not have read it. But there was a pictorial heading with its story for all, the picture of an auction where "slaves, horses, and other cattle "were offered for sale, and a whipping post, where a slave was being flogged. Back of them was the Capitol at Washington, on its dome a flag with the word "Liberty "upon it.

Editorials in the Southern papers hotly denounced Garrison. Threats of lynching were made. The law was appealed to, to prevent The Liberator  from circulating in the South. The grand jury of North Carolina indicted Garrison for publishing "a paper of seditious tendency," and the Assembly of Georgia offered a reward of five thousand dollars to any one who would bring him to Georgia, prosecute and convict him.

Garrison's response to this was to found an anti-slavery society in New England. In 1833 this society sent him to England, where he spoke so vigorously about American institutions that on his return he was accused of libeling this country. A mob threatened The Liberator  office. The Mayor of Boston was called upon to suppress it, as an agent of mischief. A meeting which Garrison attended in New York to found an anti-slavery society was driven from the hall by a mob. Going from there to Philadelphia, he founded in that city the American Anti-Slavery Society.

The most perilous moment in Garrison's life came in 1835, in consequence of the arrival in Boston of George Thompson, a noted English lecturer against slavery. His arrival and his attempt to speak led to a riot, not of the rabble, but largely made up of "men of property and standing," who were determined "to put a stop to the impudent, bullying conduct of the foreign vagrant, Thompson, and his associates in mischief."

A meeting of the Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society, at which Thompson was expected to speak, was raided by this mob of the genteel of Boston. Luckily for Thompson, he was not there. But Garrison was, and the rioters laid violent hands on him, pulled him from the hall, tore the clothes from his back and dragged him through the streets with a rope around his body. Their rage would probably have ended in a lynching if Mayor Lyman had not rescued their victim and sent him to prison as the safest place he could think of.

This was not the only time in which Garrison was threatened and molested in Boston, but nothing stopped him in his work. The Liberator  continued to appear, and not for a moment did it change its tone. Its effect was great. The anti-slavery cause grew. The societies he had formed began to flourish. In all they did he was the leader, his name was on all lips, the growing army of emancipation hailed him as its general, almost as its martyr.

In 1840 he went to England again, to attend there the world's Anti-Slavery Convention. Others from America came, among them Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other women delegates. But England was innately conservative, and all women were refused admission to the hall. As a consequence Garrison, the most distinguished abolitionist in the convention, refused to enter. Some years after this he was made president of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and held that position for twenty-two years, giving it up only when slavery had ceased to exist.

The Liberator  hammered away persistently at the fetters of the slave, and they began to yield before its blows. It even opposed the Union of the States, with slavery as one of its institutions, saying that such a Union was "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell." He came at length to the conviction that slavery could be abolished only by a dissolution of the Union. He did not then see clearly what was coming, that an attempt to dissolve the Union would be made and would fail, but that slavery would perish in its failure.

The Civil War came. The Liberator  was still published. Its former tone of denunciation now became a tone of appeal to the President, a demand for freedom. When emancipation was decreed it became a hearty supporter of President Lincoln. In April, 1865, Garrison was one of the party that went to Charleston to raise the Union flag over the ruins of Fort Sumter, from which it had been pulled down four years before. It was on this occasion that he stood in brooding silence _over Calhoun's grave. Both these men had fought strongly for what they thought the right. The one whose cause had fallen did not live to see the end; the other survived to behold the triumph of his cause.

Soon after this the last number of The Liberator  appeared. It had finished its work, and its mission was at an end. About the same time a welcome tribute was made to the editor, in a purse of thirty thousand dollars, to which many distinguished men had contributed as a mark of their deep appreciation of his services in the cause of human freedom.

The remainder of Garrison's life was passed peacefully. Part of it was spent in Europe, where he was received with high respect: In America he was paid the highest attention. He was a frequent writer for periodicals on political and other subjects, and was especially interested in all matters affecting the black race. He died in New York City on May 24, 1879.