Iconic Americans: Meet William Lloyd Garrison “The Great Liberator”


Introduction

William Lloyd Garrison is not a household name, like say, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, or Harriet Tubman. However he was a colossal figure in his time. The ultimate humanitarian, a giant of a man intellectually, a vicious fighter literally and orally, he was the goto guy for his fellow abolitionist. Garrison is most known for his newspaper, the Liberator, which he used as a launching pad to bring the evils of slavery to the forefront of the American Public. He was a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society and spent the majority of his life demanding an end to slavery immediately. He was unwavering in his conviction against the people who participated in the slave industry.


Childhood

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Downtown Newburyport in the 1800’s.

William Lloyd Garrison was born on a cold December day in a small town in northern Massachusetts shortly after his father, Abijah Garrison, moved to America from Canada in 1805. Abijah, the pilot of a merchant ship, was able to get his family to America through an act by Congress that was intended to help disabled seamen. In 1807, hostilities with Great Britain continued to escalate. As a result, President Thomas Jefferson called for the Embargo Act of 1807.  Prior to the American Revolution embargos on British trade had greatly impacted the mother country and caused her to repeal many of the damaging acts on America. However, in 1807, times had changed, Britain no longer depended on American Colonies for trade and the embargo hurt the American economy much more than the British economy. This put Abijah out of work, now humiliated he could not feed his family by his trade, Abijah took off and abandoned the baby William and his mother Frances Maria.

William grew up in poverty, in an era where Churches provided the welfare for single women like his mother. Frances, a very religious, babtist women, struggled mightily to raise her son on her own. As a result, William moved in with a Baptist deacon for a good part of his childhood where he learned his morals and an elementary education. In 1814, at the age of 8, he moved back in with his mother and apprenticed in trades like shoe and cabinet making that proved to labours for the young boy. When he was 13 years old he found his trade and his calling in life. He was appointed to a seven year apprenticeship under the writer and editor of a local paper, the Newburyport Herald. In this position he started writing under the pseudonym Aristides. As Aristides he was able to express himself, and the strong moral character he learned from his mother and the deacon growing up. Through this apprenticeship William learned the skills he would need to take care of himself when he reached adulthood. His mother passed away during his apprenticeship in 1823. When his apprenticeship was finished, and he become a free agent, an interesting thing happened.


 Journalism 

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When Garrison become a freeman, the world finally worked in his favor. Not only was he a newspaper man looking for something more meaningful to do with his life, there was now also a local newspaper up for sell. Of course Garrison must have  been ecstatic about the idea of operating his own paper. He would have the last say on content, he would now reap the rewards and profit. How would he pay for such an enterprise though? He had not a dollar to his name. William decided to partner with another young printer named Issac Knapp and for Garrisons half he would to get the nerve together and goto his former employer to ask him if he could borrow the money.  Surprisingly–considering he just lost an apprentice and would be financing competition–the former employer obliged. So Knapp and Garrison bought the paper The Newburyport Essex Courant and renamed it the Newburyport Free Press. Both being young and inexperienced, they allowed the paper to be used as a propaganda tool for the aging, dying, Federalist party.

The Republican-Democrat party now held the views most reflective of the populace. Unfortunately for them, subscribers unsubscribed one at a time, and their political based paper caused them to go out of business in just 6 months. Not all is bad with the Free Press though, it allowed them both to grow into men, understand the ambition and virtue it takes to succeed and the two forged friendships that would last forever. Garrisons first newspaper is also noted for being an early publisher of the famous poet John Greenleaf Whittier. It was also in this time Garrison read a book that profoundly impacted him. The book was called, “Letters of Slavery”, it was written by an acclaimed Presbyterian Reverend named John Rankin. During this time he also joined the “American Colonization Society” which supported the relocating of all slaves to Liberia. After the Free Press went under, William turned his eye to the big city. He moved to Boston in 1828 and landed a job as an editor at the National Philanthropist, a paper noted for its progressive values, devoted to temperance and reform. The National Philanthropist was the first American Journal to promote legally-mandated temperance.” In other words, they were the beginning of the prohibition movement, a movement that would reach its peak almost exactly a century later.



Abolitionist

benjamin_lundy_newspaper_genius_universal_emancipationWhile working a National Philanthropist, Garrison met a Quaker man named Benjamin Lundy. Lundy was the editor of the Genius of Emancipation, a paper dedicated solely on the abolition of slavery, not relocation. After meeting Lundy Garrison and realizing the Colonization movements real goal was to minimize the amount of free slaves in America not give people the rights he felt god had given us all, he become enlightened. Rather than support the cause of shipping all blacks back to Africa, he publicly apologized for ever having supported the idea and then began lambasting anyone who still did.

“Little boldness is needed to assail the opinions and practices of notoriously wicked men; but to rebuke great and good men for their conduct, and to impeach their discernment, is the highest effort of moral courage. The great mass of mankind shun the labor and responsibility of forming opinions for themselves. The question is not — what is true? but — what is popular? Not — what does God say? but — what says the public? Not — what is my opinion? but — what do others believe?” – Thoughts on African Colonization : Or, An Impartial Exhibition of the Doctrines, Principles and Purposes of the American Colonization Society

He signed on with Lundy and co-edited the Genius of Emancipation. This made him an official abolitionist. This allowed Lundy to go around speak for the cause more often then previously, and it gave Garrison an outlet to express his opinions on the great evil. He did this for a few years before he decided to return to New England and rejoin his old friend Isaac Knapp in a new project.


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In 1830, William moved back to his old home and co-founded a new abolition based weekly newspaper called “The Liberator.” Garrison had much to speak about in the papers first edition:

“I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? 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. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.”

With Garrisons matter-of-fact writing, with his strong moral principles combined with his black and white opinions on slavery, readership took off for the newspaper. Garrison was the first to come out and publicly demand to an end of slavery… NOW! Not 2o years down the road, not gradually, the Liberator called for abolition immediately and would not settle for anything less coming from counterarguments. Though its subscribers were not many at first, over the next several years it would grow. People shared this paper with another and by 1934 the paper grew to over 2,ooo subscribers. Still even with that many paid subscriptions, subscribers were far smaller than readers as the paper seen great circulation. Patrons paid to have the paper delivered to important statesman and influential public officials. Of course, Garrison made such bold demands because he understood the art of negotiation. This did not persuade his enemies from deeming him a fanatic.

When Nat Turner’s rebellion took off just 7 months from first edition, many people, especially in the south, pointed to William Lloyd Garrison as the popular influence behind the slave revolt. Garrison used this newfound success as a platform to organize a very scattered abolition movement. If laws were ever going to change, people to needed join together and fight for their cause. He formed the New-England Anti Slavery Society in 1832 and as head member of that organization he joined with abolitionists from 10 other states to create the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. The Liberator and the American Anti-Slavery Society formed the platform for which William Lloyd Garrison would catapult the abolition movement into the popular for decades to come.


Fame and Tribulations

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William Lloyd Garrison impacted many people with his unique style of writing and his incredible speeches shared throughout the world.

He become one of the most famous abolitionist in America as he traveled from town to town giving speeches and spreading literacy. In 1841, Garrison argued that free states should secede from the United States of America and it’s pro-slavery constitution. In 1847 he discovered and joined forces with Frederick Douglass for a series of some 40 speeches against the Union. He helped Douglass buy his freedom and build an abolition paper of his own. In 1854, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This allowed states to choose rather or not they wanted to be pro-slavery and was considered a big step backwards for abolitionists. Just a year following this Garrison and Douglass had a difference in opinion. Douglass took the opinion that the constitution was not necessarily pro-slavery. They would remained estranged from one another until after the Civil War. In 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney made an unconstitutional ruling in the Dred Scott case that all but ensured the nations Civil War. The decision said that a runaway slave could not infact gain his freedom by entering free states. In combination with the Fugitive Slave Act, this meant that any man born in slavery would likely die into slavery.

In 1861 the Civil War broke out. Garrison continued to criticize the American Constitution in the Liberator. Despite being renowned as a pacifist completely against war altogether, Garrison supported Lincoln and his war policies in the paper.  He used the fighting as an opportunity to support other famous abolitionist like Harriet Tubman in areas he might not be able to help himself. Finally at the end of the Civil War and the passing of the 13th Amendment, William Lloyd Garrison witnessed a lifetime of work pay off. Slavery was outlawed in both the North and the South. In May of 1865 he announced he would be stepping down the president of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He declared the 13th Amendment a victory in the struggle against slavery. After returning home to Boston, he also ended the publication of his famous abolitionist newspaper the Liberator. In 1870 he joined the Women’s Suffrage Movement and in 1873 at and event for the Americans Woman Suffrage Association, he rekindled his affection with Frederick Douglass. Garrison maybe considered the most influential citizen–not to have run for any office–in all of American history. He most assuredly was the most influential newspaper editor of the 19th Century.  On May 24th, 1879 at the age of 73, William Lloyd Garrison died in his daughter’s care.

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