A Life Of Purpose

I’m pleased to introduce you to my friend…….

                                                                       William Lloyd Garrison

Horace Seldon


Years ago when I first heard of William Lloyd Garrison I had no idea how compelling his life would become in mine.  Henry Mayer’s magnificent biography All on Fire moved into my soul and I wanted to know this man better.  At the rare books room of the Boston Public Library I was introduced to copies of the Liberator, and I knew I had to read.

I simply wanted to know him on a more personal basis, so I began to call him Lloyd, permission granted by his Mother!  I turned over the pages of the sometimes musty copies of the Liberator, and let the words beckon my interest. Most frequently I copied items because somewhere in my head/heart I was told to do so, with no defined purpose. Over the many months, more clearly defined interests guided my choices. .

Many sources have guided my further study.  Letters written by or to Garrison, including the six volumes collected by Walter M. Merrill and Louis Ruchames, his story told by his sons, Wendell Phillips Garrison, and Francis Jackson Garrison, and many divergent  assessments of his life by historians.

Because I want to see the Boston African American National Historic Site, and the history it represents, elevated in public awareness, I dedicate this work to my friends and colleagues at the Boston African American National Historic Site.  I also dedicate the work to associated members of the Beacon Hill Scholars, and History “Nuts”, who have supported both the Site and my endeavors.

I give special recogniton and dedication to my sons. David Seldon is the webmaster for both of the sites used here: www.theliberatorfiles.com and readinggarrisonsletters.com. Without his effort this work could not have been done.  Gary Seldon, is the son who has managed my travels doing relevant historical research, essential to my growth in knowledge of this history.

In the context of studying the history of that black community developed on the north slope, I became convinced of the central importance of William Lloyd Garrison, a white man, not of that community, but closely identified with it and clearly working against the forces of racism which inhibited it. Those forces originated in the context of the large national history which enslaved the millions of African people whom Garrison knew to be his brothers and sisters.  His life is a Portrait of Purpose, clearly defined as the elimination of slavery.


I rely on words from Lloyd’s sometime estranged friend, Frederick Douglass, to guide the organization of the thoughts I share here. At a Garrison Memorial Meeting, in the 15th Street Presbyterian Church, Washington, on June 2, 1879, Douglass was the principal eulogist.  Robert Purvis, long-time friend of Garrison, chaired the gathering.  Alexander Crummell, minister of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Washington, opened and closed the service with prayer. Theodore Greener, Dean of the Howard Law School, also spoke.  B.D. Fleet played Mozart’s Requiem on the organ. A large crowd of blacks and whites was present. I chose to follow Douglass’s words partly because of his brilliance, but because of the significant, close relationship he and Garrison shared over many years.


Abijah, the father, left the family in Newburyport when Lloyd was so young that he had no memory of him, essentially a fatherless child.  An older brother and younger sister constituted the small family.  His mother, Fanny, struggled to keep the family together in the context of a failing economy, with the usual severe consequences for the poor.   Fanny worked as a nurse to women who had given birth, and often lived-in with them for periods of time, not at home with Lloyd.  That living separation from his Mother was common for Lloyd. The effect his Mother had in his life is remarkable, especially when we learn how little they actually shared the same living space as Lloyd grew into youth. Economic need drove Fanny to Lynn to seek better work.  Older brother, James, went with her, leaving Lloyd and the younger sister in Newburyport.  There was a short time when Lloyd was with the family in Lynn, but then returned to Newburyport.  Fanny moved the family to Baltimore, when Lloyd was almost ten, but a year later he was back in Newburyport, living with Pastor Bartlett’s family.  For a brief time he was in Haverhill, a situation from which he tried to run away. James, became alcoholic, and simply disappeared from the early scene, following the Father’s pattern. James returned to the family later in life and was cared for by Garrison.  There was little formal schooling for Lloyd; family need led him to leave school when he was eight, for work. 

Illness was common, his sister dying in Baltimore, and finally his mother also dying there, in 1823, leaving Lloyd without  family in his eighteenth year.  Lloyd saw his mother on what was essentially her death bed, visiting her in July.  She died while he was back in Newburyport, that December. The notice which Lloyd placed in the Newburyport Herald, said she died after “a long and distressing illness which she bore with Christian fortitude and resignation.”


The emphasis on poverty, labor and hardship to which Douglass refers is an accurate assessment of Garrison’s early surroundings, but one to which it is important to add more about his Mother.  The constancy of her presence was remarkable.  Miles away, yet always close, she kept touch. She critiqued, encouraged and even poked fun at his early anonymous “editorials” in the Newburyport Herald.  She shared her appreciation for the care given her by a “Negro” woman, when she was sick in Baltimore; we ever wonder of the influence that sharing may have had for Lloyd.

Dominant was his Mother’s central revivalist Baptist faith, shared and nurtured by friends Martha Farnham, and Pastor Peak in Newburyport.  That faith nurtured Garrison and beckoned him to a fuller future.   That faith was evident in Lloyd’s life-long love of singing hymns.  “Awake my soul, stretch every nerve, and press with vigor on” might well be a theme for his life. We know few details about the Bartletts, and the Allen’s with whom he lived in Newburyport, but there he clearly found a nurturing concern rooted in a similar faith. There he also became a “printers devil”, and at thirteen was set upon the trail which became his life as a printer.

The faith which Fanny shared came to Garrison in a larger context of his “early surroundings”.  Garrison grew into the world at a time in which religious conversion often occurred during large meetings which featured those who were “moved” to declare their complete change.  Conversion involved the whole person in a pledge to become a “”new” person ready to forsake any old corrupted ways of life, and to “take on” a new way of life.  For the Christian this meant a bold new total acceptance of and dedication to Jesus, seen as both a personal Savior, and upon whom new life for the world could be built.  “Immediacy” was a dominant way of life for the converted. The preacher in revivalist mood asked people to come forward with the promise that their lives would be “immediately” changed.  To the extent to which this “immediate” conversion was characteristic of the time, it may also be a measure of readiness for accepting the notion of “immediate” Abolition.  Like “conversion”, adoption of an “immediatist” position brought a demand for the total ending of slavery without any intermediate condition.

What was to be changed in the individual and in society was not simply moral wrong, but was SIN.  SIN carried with it the promise of punishment. If one was to enjoy the promise of new life in this world and eternal life in the next world, SIN must go.  SIN was disobedience to God’s Word, the ultimate offense!  Behind every condemnation of slavery by Garrison was the clear conviction that the system was Evil, and to support it was not only a moral wrong, but was Sinful.


The context for these words of Douglass comes as he refers to “many heroes” in the past  who have been Bishops, Generals, Kings, Statesmen, whose “light was brilliant but borrowed”.  These great ones had Churches, Armies, Nations behind them so that their greatness was in part at least due to “circumstances beyond themselves”. Not so for Garrison, says Douglass.  He set forth “without purse, without script, without friends and without fame, to battle with a system of boundless wealth and power…..No doubt or fear as to the final result ever shook his manly breast or caused him to swerve an inch from the right line of principle.”    Garrison’s inflexible opposition to the power of the Church came early in his life as an abolitionist.

Garrison and the Church and Clergy

Garrison’s disagreement with the institutional church encompassed a number of issues relating to public positions of the church in regard to the role of women, the functions of clergymen, as well as beliefs about the Sabbath, the place of Jesus in theology, and larger doctrinal issues.  The New England Puritan, in 1848, published an article which gives a sense of what was a common church response to Garrison’s efforts.  The article cites a “multitude of reforms” which “assail the church and clergy”, and claims the “inventor of this new mode of warfare is William Lloyd Garrison”. It speaks of resistance by the church, but acknowledges that  Garrison has been “successful in doing much injury” to the church.  Characteristically, never hesitating to share criticisms aimed at himself, Garrison included the article in a subsequent issue of the Liberator.

If the mood of the conflict between church and Garrison may sometimes have felt like “warfare”, that was strongest as he focused on what was the central sin of the church. That was its failure to witness and work for the abolition of slavery. Garrison is quick to lift up for condemnation words like these from the South Carolina Presbytery & Methodist General Conference, asserting that “Slavery has existed in the Church of God from the time of Abraham to this day.  Members of the church of God have held slaves bought with their money, and born in their houses, and this relation is not only recognized, but its duties are defined clearly in both the Old and the New Testaments.”

To show that slaveholders justified slavery with Biblical references was to strike at both the church and slavery.  Another step was to publicize how some slaveholders thought it appropriate to treat the children among their slaves!  Garrison publishes this example from South Carolina.  It comes from the Southern Episcopalian, and urges use of a catechism to train enslaved children.  Here are samples of the catechism, more fully published in the Liberator:

Who keeps snakes and all bad things from hurting you? – God does.
Who gave you a master and a mistress? – God gave them to me.
Who says that you must obey them? – God says that I must.
What book tells you these things? – The Bible.
How does God do all His work? – He always does it right.
Does God love to work? – Yes, God is always at work.
What does God say about your work? – He that will not work shall not eat.
What makes the crops so hard to grow now? –  Sin makes it.
What makes you lazy? – My own wicked heart.

That view about how education of enslaved children might proceed, from the Southern Episcopalian, led Garrison into a similar criticism of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a branch of the Congregational denomination, which was the largest Protestant denomination in Massachusetts. The Board administered a world-wide program of mission and education. A dominant motive was a paternalistic desire to teach the “benighted Africans” in those other parts of the world. At one point Garrison levels a sarcastic critique at the Board’s intent to provide instruction for enslaved Africans here. The Board had previously held that such instruction should occur only “with proper safeguards” and must be done by those who “understand our institutions”.  It was clear to Garrison that the “institutions” which must be understood were those which supported slaveholding!  Garrison carried on a long-standing dispute with that American Board.

In a long Liberator article, the church critique continues: “… the Congregationalist of Boston, and the ‘Dutch (not much) Reformed’ Christian Intelligencer of New York, agree in approval of these four ideas, which they find (in substance) in Henry Ward Beecher’s late defense of the American Board at Brooklyn: 1. That a man might hold a slave, and not do wrong. 2. That immediate emancipation is impossible. 3. That a slaveholder may be a good Christian. 4. That the influence of slavery is not always evil.”  The reference to Beecher here is worthy of future research.

When Universalist ministers in 1846 were given a choice to sign a Protest Against Slavery, Garrison published a list of thirty-seven reasons which individuals gave for not signing the Protest. Here is a sample of some of the reasons cited for not signing:

”slavery is a political question , with which we have nothing to do.”
“the condition of the slaves is better here than that of the Africans, or the lower of classes all other nations.”
“because of the example of Jesus, who did not protest against Slavery, that existed in his day.”
“because the evils of Slavery were entailed by the mother country upon the Colonies against their will, and the inheriting States must bear with the evil, as irremediable.”
“because of the golden rule –If we held slaves in accordance with law, we should not wish others to interfere with the enjoyment of our rights.”
“because the Apostles left no protests against Slavery, but, on the contrary, gave full    instructions to slaves to be obedient.”
“because the Slaves cannot be benefited by freedom, but must ever be reduced below the whites, for the two races cannot live in peace on the ground of equality; and while they are in the same country, the one will be the master of the other.”
“because the protest savors too much of modern Abolitionism….”
“because Abolitionism has no piety, but is mere partyism, with selfish aims…
“because it has a tendency to unchristianize my brother at the South – the slaveholder.”

Another time the Liberator strongly condemns a “representative Body of the Congregational Churches of America”, which had been meeting during the previous week. That body had at an earlier time made a public statement which Garrison saw as an endorsement of the “Christian character of Slavery”.  At this recent meeting, the body had an opportunity to revoke that position; they not only failed to revoke it, but they had renewed it! Garrison critiques that action, indicating that “stripped of the coat of many-colored words in which its spiritual Fathers have decked it, amounts simply to this, — that the Board does not regard the act of holding human beings as property, as essentially sinful, or sufficient cause, in itself, for exclusion from the Christian church. The abuses of the institution, to be sure, it regards with all proper horror, and would have discipline exercised towards them; but the relation of master to slave, is not only not necessarily sinful, it is often innocent, and may be beneficent and virtuous”. Garrison comments: “What more do Slaver and Slaveholders ask?”

In like manner Garrison disputed with other church organizations.  In one issue of the Liberator, under the title, Pro-Slavery Influence of the American Bible Society, there are two long columns devoted to tracing the history of that organization in regard to slavery. The article concludes with this editorial comment: “But, at present, whoever puts a dollar, or a cent, into the treasury of the Bible Society aids, to that extent, in the support of slavery”.

Under the Refuge of Oppression column, is a notice from the American Baptist, telling of a policy decision by The Baptist General Tract Society.  That group has heard a complaint that “one of our traveling agents has been active in promoting the views of Abolitionists while engaged in our employ”.  In response the Board now resolves that its agents shall in “no way intermeddle with that question while in the commission of this Society.”  It is a clear signal to Garrison that the Society has no intention of allowing a witness against slavery.

Garrison comments in the Liberator on an item from Southern Theology, which tells of a Rev. Dr. Bullard, of St. Louis, who had recently addressed students at the Andover Theological Seminary. He spoke of the State of Missouri as a promising and important field for missionary labor, and urged some of those candidates for the ministry to enter it. But he added that none should think of entering that field until they were sure they had grace enough in their hearts to keep them entirely silent on the subject of slavery. When he first went there he found it almost impossible to restrain his indignant feelings as he saw the workings of the system, but had now gained grace to enable him to maintain a submissive silence.  The suggestion of silence on the subject of slavery brings this prediction from Garrison: “The time cometh when such appeals will be answered by a burst of indignation, and the marching of a phalanx of Christian teachers to the land of despotism, whose tongues the grace of God shall set on fire with words that will melt off every fetter, and consume every tyrannic lash.” 

Here is a general view of the clergy from the Liberator: “The clergy generally, the deacons, and the weighty and influential brethren, as well as the Doctors of Divinity, still insist on throwing the cloak of Christianity over the abominations of slavery; that is to say, they maintain in theory and practice, that actual slaveholding, and the defense of it, and the avowal of a determination to persist in it, are no barrier to their full recognition of such a person as a Christian, a church-member in good standing, or a minister of the Gospel…”

While such was the general view held by Garrison, when a church or clerical body took positive anti-slavery action Garrison also published it. Those occasions were instances of change which abolitionists were eager to hear.  Garrison treats them as signs of encouragement for the whole movement. The fact that Garrison was so often in conflict with churches, has often led to overlooking those occasions of positive church relations.  The Liberator reports at different times news of separate anti-slavery actions by:

100 Unitarian ministers 300 Free Will Baptist ministers

100 Baptist Ministers in Maine

43 churches and a Methodist Conference

a Millbury Baptist Church

a  Baptist Church in North Yarmouth, Maine

a church in Abington, another in Dover

these church actions are all published and applauded in the Liberator.

Special attention is given to action in 1836 by the Presbytery of Indianapolis, resolving firmly against slavery:

“Resolved, That all men have a natural an unalienable right to liberty, unless the right has   been forfeited by crime.Resolved, That slavery as it exists in the United States, is a great natural,     political, and moral evil.

Resolved, That there is good reason to believe that the present difficulties in the     Presbyterian church, are in part on account of the large measure in which she    has participated in the sin of slavery.”

Further resolutions deny ministerial standing to slaveholders.

Douglass spoke of Garrison’s “bold, inflexible, defiant opposition to the mighty power” of both Church and State.  In his relation to the institutional church, that opposition led to a “comeouter” position. “Comeouters” were those who acted on Old Testament traditions by which prophets called for Jews to “come out”, move away from, for instance, an area such as Babylon , which the prophets regarded as corrupt beyond redemption.  In like manner those who took positions similar to Garrison either claimed to be or were labeled as “comeouters” from the church. Something similar happened as Garrison related to the power of the State.


Garrison and the State, Politics, Political Parties, and Voting

Here I want to avoid a conclusion to which some historians have come as they write of Garrison’s response to the State, represented in the political life of the nation.  Garrison was clear beyond question that he viewed the original Constitution as an “instrument of the devil”, and he used strong words to condemn its perpetuation and empowerment of the institutions of slavery.  A political system built on that Constitution could not be depended on for correction of the evil it created.  That system worked to make decisions through political processes which included and were dependent upon Political Parties.  Doubts about organized activities through Parties were early concerns of the young Garrison; those doubts continued.  That Garrison chose not to work in and through Political Parties has led historians too often to overlook his constant political activity apart from Parties. This common failure has often come in both explicit and implied comments by historians.  In an appended essay I have outlined some of the evidence of Garrison’s political activity.

An early stance in regard to political activity comes in an 1838 recommendation addressed to the Abolitionists of Massachusetts, signed by Francis Jackson, clearly the view also of Garrison. Here are pertinent excerpts: “There are those who disapprove of every form of political action, on the part of abolitionists…We cannot yield to this reasoning. It proceeds, we think, upon a narrow view of the subject. Politics, rightly considered, is a branch of morals, and cannot be deserted innocently…We, however, view political action, chiefly as a means of agitating the subject …Is it then our purpose to recommend to abolitionists the formation of a distinct political party? So far from this, we think such a policy would be in the highest degree dangerous, if not fatal to the efficiency of our organization….To conclude this part of the subject, our true policy is not to turn party politicians, but in politics as elsewhere to stand firm by our principles, and let the politicians come to us.”  The article tells how abolitionists might proceed in three forms of political action, petitioning, interrogating candidates, and suffrage.

An 1839 item from a “worthy abolitionist” in Western New York, anticipates a later vigorous debate over whether abolitionists should vote: “I like the views of The Liberator on political action… I do not wish to oppose those abolitionists who feel a duty to vote at the polls, although I shall probably never vote again; but I am grieved to see anti-slavery societies run (politically) mad.”

Doubts about political action were expressed by abolitionists through the Liberator, some coming as late as 1856 and 1858.

In 1856 a letter from S. Mitchell, Cornville, Maine, is addressed to Garrison. “It seems to me the moment we begin to have any faith or trust in political action, all is lost. Can Satan cast out Satan? Will slavery ever be destroyed in this country, so long as government exists? Never! Slavery is part and parcel of it. When we lay the axe at the root of the tree, (government), then will all wrong cease, and not till then…..Our business is to preach truth, to show that man is governed by the principles of Christianity, which are Love, Liberty, Justice, Right and Truth…”

An article from the Worcester Spy, quoted in the Liberator, early in 1858, calls attention to the composition of the Senate committees. “Six great leading committees all have chairmen, and a majority of their members from the slaveholding States. The remaining committees are constituted generally with the same strong Southern aspect, one of them having every member from the slaveholding States.” The article provides population statistics to indicate that the slave holding states profit from a large discrepancy in their favor.

Much confusion came over Garrison’s view of voting. Many people believed that abolitionists should not vote; some thought it necessary that abolitionists always vote. Seeking guidance in Garrison’s life, led to sometimes angry debate. Garrison was seen by many as a “non-voter”, and some wanted all abolitionists to follow that lead.  We know that he did vote once, for pacifist Asa Walker; that was probably his only vote.  In1843 Garrison’s view became a source of contention with Alvan Stewart, when he was eagerly hoping to become a Presidential candidate.  Stewart attacked the ‘Massachusetts abolitionists’, charging that they were “No Human-Government Men'”.  Stewart claims that in a discussion with Garrison “in my own house”, Garrison had said that he would not vote or petition for the end of slavery even if it would accomplish that.  When he asked Garrison for his reason, he reports Garrison’s response was “Because that would be using our corrupt human government.”  According to Stewart, Garrison further said that he had no doubt the time would come when voting would be regarded as infamous, and “the same as visiting the gambling-table or the brothel”.  Confusion was amplified for many when Garrison declared that it would be for him a “sin” to vote. Some were led to believe that should be a signal for all abolitionists.

Sorting the debates over Alvan Stewart and what Garrison said to him, and how this related to Political Parties, it becomes clear that Garrison’s basic contention was that whether or not to vote was an individual matter of conscience, and therefore he could not support an effort to make it obligatory for members of the anti-slavery societies to be voters. As early as 1839 Garrison had publicly maintained that political reformation should be effected by a change in moral vision, “not by attempting to prove that it is the duty of every abolitionist to be a voter, but that it is the duty of ever voter to be an abolitionist”. A similar view of the role of voting for abolitionists, came later from Garrison: “let us aim to abolitionize the conscience and hearts of the people and we may trust them in the ballot box or anywhere else.”  Contentions over voting continued to separate many as the movement continued, often still unclear about Garrison’s position.

The reader today will know that a larger context for Douglass’s remarks at the Garrison Memorial, was a disagreement which he and Garrison had over whether or not the Constitution was a pro-slavery document or one that could be used against slavery.  With this and other divisions in mind Douglass says, on this Memorial occasion:  “Speaking for myself I must frankly say I have sometimes thought him (Garrison) uncharitable to those who differed from him.  Honest himself, he could not always see how men could differ from him and still be honest. To say this of him is simply to say that he was human, and it may be added when he erred he erred in the interest of truth.”


Early in the life of the Liberator, Garrison created a column titled Refuge of Oppression, usually prominently displayed so that it would gain attention. That column was reserved for news which was clearly representative of views Garrison hated.  Sometimes the column carried an immediate rebuke/response from the Editor; less frequently the item was simply published without comment.  Readers knew that any item in that column might be the subject of public rebuke at any time. Garrison’s strong statements in support of or in opposition to ideas, led to open hostility.  The most violent responses came from pro-slavery sources both South and North. This included  violent verbal threats and eggs thrown at him during lectures, a noose and gallows erected near his home, mob violence and near lynching at least once, a reward promised for his head, and at least once a chase of several days eluding a writ for arrest in an attempt to enforce a bounty. The instances of actual physical abuse of Garrison, and racially motivated threats and hatred have been told in other places. To assess Garrison’s character, his response to that vitriol should be studied.  Here I want only to indicate how strong disagreement within the abolitionist forces led to a challenge of his leadership.

An early 1837 example of a challenge to his leadership comes as one follower, John Gulliver, criticizes Garrison. Gulliver feels that remarks he (Gulliver) had made at a Worcester Convention were not accurately reported by Garrison. He complains that “followers of Garrison seem to be expected to treat him like a king….having led us right so often, we have appeared to think he can never lead us wrong”.  Garrison responds with two pages of notes, which he numbers up to a total of39!

Three years later a similar view in the American Wesleyan Observer goes beyond doubting Garrison’s leadership, to charging him with loss of integrity.  “But we must say, we lost our confidence, in great measure, even in his moral integrity! We can no longer view him as an honorable, high-minded man — not even as a man of true moral principle! Look at the  underhanded course taken by Mr. Garrison to instill his disorganizing notions upon the community!”  The article goes on to claim that Garrison wants to rule all the abolitionists of the country who oppose his notions of perfectionism.  One complaint is over Garrison’s desire to “crowd forward the women into all public stations and duties”.  This “crowding forward” of contentious issues became the basis for angry debate.

Garrison’s eagerness to include in the movement a number of contentious issues made it difficult for some abolitionists to join fully in the movement. Many abolitionists argued that the inclusion of those issues actually created divisions which weakened the movement.  This judgment has found concurrence among some historians, and ought to become a strategic discussion for any modern movement for change.

Some abolitionists felt that Garrison included so many extraneous issues in his concern that it actually “dis-organized” the movement. The blame fell often on Garrison. An example of that strong view comes from the New England (Catholic) Reporter, in an1842 article titled, “The Liberator, alias, the Disorganizer”. It calls the Liberator “that mighty advocate for the slave, whose puissant editor should be immediately transported to Ethiopia, there to dwell in all love and harmony with the wild negroes – the Liberator is the most factious and disorganizing journal that aims at the severance of the federal Union, the stake-burning of religion’s ministers, all of whom it stigmatizes.”

Another view contends for a “middle course”, but is no less critical of Garrison. Under the Refuge of Oppression column is an item from the Maine Cultivator, signed by “Xenos”. It evokes a “middle course for thought and action…..If the Garrison school remembered this, they would lead useful lives by devoting themselves to honorable industry, instead of instituting an apostleship of error, and under the pretense of reforming the public mind, endeavoring to transform it into a state of rebellion against all authority, human and divine.”  The writer advises against walking in the Garrison footsteps.

An instance of strong denial of Garrison’s leadership comes from a town known as a center of abolitionist activity. The Northampton Democrat greets Garrison’s 1843 visit to that western Massachusetts town:  “It is already known to our readers that this bold reformer has come to spend the summer in Northampton.” He has spoken near the town hall on the ‘glorious Fourth’.   “He began with a lie in his mouth by asserting that he was refused admittance to the Town Hall.  Every citizen of Northampton knows that the hall is free to all sorts of lecturers….. he made a ‘long harangue against the town’ , thanking heaven that he was allowed to speak in the open air. A band began to play, a number of people left the scene…..this was a perfect test of the feelings of our citizens.” With Garrison’s remarks “the clergy came in for the greatest share of abuse….but with all this disgusting balderdash, Garrison has great power as a speaker… townspeople gathered for the day and most ignored Garrison. “ The town paper concludes, satisfied that the “unhappy Garrisonians withdrew to their unsocial home to plot mischief, and try to undermine the happy constitution, laws and institutions of our common country”

Garrison’s opposition to the Death Penalty drew this response from Brother Kurtz, clergyman and editor of the Lutheran Observer: “A number of individuals, with Mr. Garrison at their head, have been petitioning the Massachusetts Legislature to abolish capital punishment, and, in case their prayer should be denied, they ask that the gallows be erected near a meeting house, that the execution take place on the Sabbath day, and that the minister be the executioner.  We give the foregoing to show where this notorious individual has got to. What will be his next step, time alone will tell.”

From the Putney (Vermont) Perfectionist …. “Garrison is a bigot on the subject of slavery. Any deviation from his views of the morality of that and certain other outward acts, calls forth from him anathemas like those hurled from Rome. But he is unspeakably ‘liberal’ on the subject of religion, tolerating, and complimenting in various indirect ways, everything from Sabbatarianism to infidelity….it becomes all who advocate the cause of human liberty, to beware of these men, who, while professing to aim a blow at slavery, are stabbing Christianity at the heart, and thus crushing the hopes of the oppressed.”

There were many who expressed anger at Garrison with suggestions about how he and his supporters might better spend time. Under the Refuge of Oppression column, is an item from the Ashland, Ohio Standard, dated Sept 2, 1847. It names three abolitionists as holding forth to the good people of the Western Reserve, advocating the cause of Abolition and Dissolution of the Union.  That Standard has advice for each of the abolitionists: Garrison had better be at home, tending to his business.  Foster should be looking after Abby and her responsibility, and Douglassought to go to Mississippi or Louisiana, and hire himself out to a cotton or sugar planter.

From the Boston Post, there is an 1848 item, which expresses a dominant Bostonian view of Garrison’s willingness to name the complicity of the North with slaveholding states.  It gives space to recent speeches at a hearing on Disunion. Garrison spoke, after the eloquent Wendell Phillips.  “Mr. W. L. Garrison followed, but in a few moments he was obliged to speak either to the Committee or to empty benches; for the audience dispersed as suddenly as if a contribution had been passed around. Mr. G. was more violent than his friend…. said Massachusetts was more guilty in respect to slavery than South Carolina or Alabama; called the whigs hypocrites and liars in just so many words and said other words about as equally flattering….”

Douglass knew Garrison well. He “courted criticism”, then published it, rebuked its source.   A preeminent Agitator, always!


This is probably the finest single-sentence tribute that could summarize and measure the significance of Garrison.  There is a sense of “assurance” about the phrase which I much appreciate; Garrison stood for a truth which he confidently knew would bring an end to slavery.  That confidence was rooted in a faith which led him to believe that because slavery defied God’s will it would be ended.  That assurance led to the “calmness” attributed here by Douglass. Yet I would like to amend the final phrase, “calmly await the result”, which seems much too passive to describe Garrison.  There was nothing “passive” about Garrison’s “waiting” for the results of his work.  While he “waited”, he acted to shape the result!

The very fact that the Liberator was produced for thirty-five consecutive years without missing a single weekly edition is a testimony to action.  Garrison was frequently absent and yet administered the help to make that continuous production possible.  Done without any Email or cell phones, or modern methods of fast communication over distances!  A quick look at almost any of the seven thousand pages of the paper, will provide evidence of Garrison action.  There was constant alertness to what people were doing either to oppose or support slavery:

The Liberator is a witness to Garrison’s awareness of the importance of political dynamics. The Liberator is a witness to Garrison’s determination to shape those political dynamics.

The pages of the Liberator are crowded often with news about what politicians are doing and saying, with a focus on what they are not doing or not saying!

News comes from local, national, and international sources. The functions and roles of those within the parties are watched and reported regularly.  Early in his political life when John Quincy Adams fails to support action to curtail the slave trade in D.C., the Liberator is quick to criticize.   When Sumner goes to the Senate, the Liberator moans that it takes him much too long before he speaks against slavery on the Senate floor!  There is news from practically every state, often from other nations.  Always the intent is to encourage and organize abolition forces.  There was one continuous message for the readers of the Liberator.  That single message was a command for action to end slavery!

The calm “assurance”, which Douglass knew in Garrison, was deep in Garrison’s soul. Feel both that assurance and call for action in these words in the Liberator , January 4, 1861, titled, Thirty Years Completed:

“We commence a new decade with the same confidence in the principles we espouse, the same assurance of success in the cause we advocate, that we felt at the commencement of our labors, only greatly strengthened by the experience gained, and the progress made toward the goal of final victory. It has been a long, desperate, and (humanly speaking) most unequal struggle with the organized religious sentiment, the political power, the combined wealth, the recognized respectability, the popular feeling, the business selfishness, the satanic malignity, and the universal brutality and ruffianism of the country; but, from the hour the bugle of freedom first sounded its notes in favor of immediate and universal emancipation, the movement has advanced with slow but irresistible power, under Divine guidance, confounding the wisdom of the wise, contemning the might of the strong, taking the cunning in their own craftiness, unmasking the hypocritical, swallowing up all the rods of the magicians, breaking sects and parties into fragments, vanquishing all opponents, its poverty more than a match for all the wealth of the land, its spirit sublime and unconquerable , its truths self-evident, and its results glorious in the annals of historic achievement; and still,  ‘Against the wind, against the tide, It steadies with upright keel’ outstripping all competition, and with the haven of righteousness and peace full in view.”

It was certainly Garrison’s “glory” that he stood with the truth, often alone. The result was essential for the goal Garrison knew to be ordained by God.  He observed, he thought, he acted based pragmatically on what was happening around him. The pragmatic Garrison is often overlooked by historians, captured by the magnificence of his moral conviction. He preferred that the end would come based on moral conversion.  He also clearly said that the central goal was that slavery end.  Though the preferred way was by moral suasion, at numerous times he insisted that it was the right of the oppressed to use force to overcome the oppressors; the central issue always being that slavery must end. At several times Garrison also acknowledged that patriots had justified the use of force.  He does so in a way which this writer believes indicates that he had not fully “discarded” the possibility that antislavery states might be justified to use force against the slavery states. The pragmatic Garrison saw, early in Lincoln’s first term, that the Union could not be maintained with slavery, and that war powers could and should be used to bring its end.  Peace with slavery was wrong; War without slavery was the better choice.  That opens another part of the Garrison story.

Here I give thanks to Douglass, who helps us to see that the “waiting” for Garrison was an active assurance that the goal would be achieved.


On the masthead of the Liberator was that quite remarkable, “My Country, the World, My Countrymen, All Mankind”, serving as a constant reminder of the editor’s “internationalist” sensitivity. A glance at the categories of items listed in the liberatorfiles, will indicate how carefully Garrison noted actions in other nations which either encouraged or discouraged his hope for the elimination of slavery. That sensitivity was rooted also in his view of life as found in Biblical admonitions that all people should be treated as each would like others to treat themselves.  That “Golden Rule” was at the base of abolitionist reminders in symbol and substance that the enslaved were men and women like themselves.

Abolitionist emblems frequently included an appeal for empathy with both enslaved men and women. “Am I Not a Man and a Brother”, then became “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister”, usually with an enslaved man or woman in a kneeling position.  Today we may see these pictures of the enslaved and reject the paternalistic view they represent, but the idea which encompasses the symbol is clearly a noble one. To be reminded to see the humanness of the enslaved was a fundamental appeal to human rights.

In London at the 1840 international Convention called by the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, Garrison, Remond, Rogers, and Harris “sat-out” and refused to participate because women in the American delegation were not allowed to do so. It has been said that this was the first time in England when the “woman question” was publicly debated. Through his refusal, Garrison, as leader of the American delegation, had in fact dominated the Convention without saying a word!  Garrison “rejoiced” that the question was broadened into the larger issue of human rights. Garrison said, in 1853: “I have been derisively called a ‘Woman Rights Man’. I know no such distinction. I claim to be a HUMAN RIGHTS Man; and wherever there is a human being, I see God-given rights inherent in that being, whatever may be the sex or complexion.”

Here is a simple listing of some of the article headings in the Liberator which demonstrate an expansive view of rights for all groups of people, and at least once a concern for “humane” treatment of animals.  This is only a bare beginning list which indicates the breadth of Garrison’s human rights concerns:

Abolish capital punishment
Support an Employment Office
Capitalism profits/labor suffers
Colored Support of Orphanage
Equal School Rights for Colored Children
Support woman suffrage
Vassar Female College incorporation
Article About Cooperative Living<
Interracial Marriage supported
Interracial military supported
Training for midwifery
Lawrence tragedy kills 700 workers
Racist Treatment of Indians
Public Safety and Police
Poor treatment of domestic servants
Poor Conditions for Animals
Warns of prejudice toward Irish
Assistance for “street girls”
Lectures by Mechanics
Alcoholism/Smoking both to be avoided

The large issues of what it means to live as a human being beckoned Garrison’s concern.


The great Douglass here remembers his first meeting Garrison on the isle of Nantucket, when Douglass was there during his first year of freedom.  Reflecting on that in 1879 he knows that by some force Garrison stepped into a “moment” in history which was ripe for him. “The hour and the man were well met and well united.”  “This man and his cause were one.”   The designation of Garrison as the “chief apostle of emancipation” is a recognition that he was the leader of a movement.

Early in 1832 Garrison calls for organizing a National Anti-Slavery Society, “to concentrate the moral energies of the nation.  Auxiliaries must be formed in every State; every town and village must have an Association.”  Just four years later, in 1836, the Liberator Includes a two-page insert, in which it lists names of those who have indicated they will attend an up-coming  NEW ENGLAND ANTI-SLAVERY CONVENTION. The names are listed by states and towns.  There is a P.S. to the insert:  “Many more names were received, but not in time to be published, more than a hundred from the town of Weymouth, Mass.”   There are over 3000 names!!

Just six years after calling for local auxiliaries there is evidence of remarkable progress. In 1838, the Liberator includes a Listing of Anti-Slavery Societies in Massachusetts. There are 232 Societies shown by towns and counties, with the President and Secretary of each Society named, plus the number and names of people in each Society.  Nationally the AASS claimed 350 new local groups between 1837-38. The new movement had 600,000 pamphlets in circulation; 400,000 petitions had been forwarded to Congress with close to a million signatures, protesting the gag rule, the annexation of Texas, and calling for an end to the slave trade in the capital. Garrison knew that abolition sentiment must be nurtured in the hearts and heads of people far beyond the city where he lived and worked. While the Abolition Movement was nurtured in urban centers, it was dependent on smaller organized AA Societies in towns, villages, hamlets across the states.

Signs of the growth of a movement come as the Liberator lists agents in towns, including Newburyport, Salem, Nantucket, New Bedford, Bangor, Providence, New York, Rochester, Philadelphia, Newark, Baltimore, and Washington.  By August of 1831 there are 23 agents listed, by mid-September there are 29 agents in 27 locations, as distant as Cincinnati and  Port-au-Prince.  By early 1832 the list of 47agents includes people in 10 states, and the District of Columbia,  Hayti, and London!   In another year there were some fifty groups in northern states, from Bangor, Maine to Point Valley, Ohio.

The role of the paper in creating a movement is evident as Garrison, in May, 1831, writes a Prospectus for the Liberator, and urges “Editors of newspapers, who are friendly to the cause of man, to give this Prospectus a gratuitous insertion in their columns.  The favor will be gratefully reciprocated.”   Throughout its existence the Liberator becomes a depository of news from the nation and the world, providing information, inspiration, and agitation to anti-slavery action!

Here are a few other headline items from the Liberator, showing by year the concern for creating a movement:

1837 – Juvenile Anti-Slavery Societies, an article calling for a youth component of the movement.1850 – One Hundred Conventions, listing where they will be held.  100 Conventions!

1852 – Anti-Slavery on Nantucket, a base for local action.

1852 – Anti-Slavery in Maine  —  Examples of expansion of the movement in Portland, Bath, and         Biddeford.

1854 – New Movement  — Anti -Slavery Tracts, urging people to read them, and distribute to others.

1856 – Anti-Slavery at the West, a letter from Michigan gives spirit to people in New England.

A movement requires appeals to a spectrum of individuals and groups, organizing events and methods of work to utilize divergent interests and skills.  Here is a short list of some of the ways in which the Abolition movement appealed widely:

Fairs and bazaars were often annual events, involving weeks of planning.
Celebratory events were planned on important historical dates, like July 4.
Anti-slavery Choirs were formed, such as the Hutchinson Family Singers.
Abolitionist music united people at many large gatherings.
People were urged to raise or sell only Anti-Slavery Produce.
Some gathered around a Peace Pledge, with an anti-slavery theme.
Anti-Slavery Wafers were used to attach to mail, each with an Abolition theme.
Anti-Slavery Sewing Circles gathered, and read Abolition literature.
Cent-a-Week Societies formed, providing a way for modest contributions.

A Movement Requires a medium of Communication to spread News

Garrison knew what any organizer today knows; to build a “movement” it is necessary to “communicate”, “communicate”, “communicate”.  “Disseminating light” became a primary movement function for the Liberator.  It was not the only Abolitionist paper of the time, but it was clearly a major part of the movement.   The many references to the Liberator by people of its century, and the subsequent constant references to it by historians today are a primary testimony to its central role in the movement.  Emphasis here is on two factors which made the Liberator so significant.  First is its dependence on communities of color. Second is Garrison’s willingness to learn from those communities.

Garrison had early support from Thomas Paul, founding  Pastor of the African Baptist Church. In one of Garrison’s first 1828 appearances as a speaker in Boston, Paul was present. Paul shook hands with Garrison on that occasion, and a common devotion to abolition was clear. Thomas Paul, Jr. became an apprentice printer to Garrison in February, 1831, and another son, Nathan Paul, journeyed with Garrison often as an anti-slavery speaker. Of similar importance was the support of Rev. Samuel Snowden.  Before the forming of the New England Anti Slavery Society,  Snowden and  Paul had enthusiastically applauded when Garrison spoke at the prestigious  Athenaeum. Support from these two prominent black leaders was crucial in those early years for Garrison.  Other members of the African Baptist Church, including John T. Hilton, Coffin Pitts, were influenced to add their support as Garrison began his Liberator.

An assessment of the role of the Liberator, and of Garrison in the Abolition Movement must show his dependence on communities of color.  Before the first edition of the paper came there was support from the Boston community of color; a group of women led by Elizabeth Riley and Bathsheba Fowler began to gather money. Early support which came from James Forten and other friends in Philadelphia, remind us that the Liberator could not have existed without the early support of the communities of color.  Later, in 1837, a committee including James Forten, Jr., Jacob White and James McCrummill, write to Garrison, “for the colored citizens” of Philadelphia, sending three resolutions in support of the Liberator and Garrison.  That dependence for support and guidance was in the beginning financial, but always rooted in the soul of communities of color.

One month before the first edition of the Liberator, December 10, 1830, Garrison spoke to a gathering of “colored citizens”; among those present was James Barbadoes, who writes to Garrison in a February 12 edition of the paper.  The Editor is addressed as “Esteemed Friend”, and his speech is commended.  Barbadoes says,  “.. nothing was ever uttered more important and beneficial to our color ….full of virtue and consolation, perfect in explanation, and it furnished a rule to live by and to die by.”

Early support for Garrison and the Liberator, comes in a letter from “A Man of Color”, in which the writer cautions Garrison that the road he must travel is “steep and dark, and pregnant with deep-rooted prejudice of long duration …”  He hopes for Garrison that, “by the force of truth, sound and mild reasoning many will come up to your assistance in this great work of human rights, of which we are not so ignorant as many have supposed …public opinion is a masterly engine, and I hope you will secure it in your present enterprise…”   In mid-August of the first year of the paper, there is a letter from three leaders of the Boston black community, John T. Hilton, Robert Wood, and J. H. How, in which they commend the Liberator, and address Garrison:  “Go on, then, friend and patriot of our cause; and whatsoever aid we can render you, shall be promptly tendered; and may you long live to see the glorious accomplishment of your noble undertaking…”   The editor responds, acknowledging a donation: “I am unworthy to loose the latchet of the shoes of these philanthropists.  All I claim is sincerity of purpose and independence of character, but not the smallest degree of praise…”

An example of Garrison’s aim to provide a voice for the community of color, comes in an October, 1831 issue of the Liberator.  Included in the paper are the Minutes and Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of People of Color, held in Philadelphia, June, 1831, and notice of a follow-up meeting to be held in Boston by Robert Roberts, Rev. Samuel Snowden, and James Barbadoes.  In the same period Garrison includes in the paper the Constitution of the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society of Boston.  An alert attention to the developing Boston community of color, brings positive response from its leaders.

A noted Massachusetts black voyager, Paul Cuffee, writes words early in the Liberator. His words call upon blacks to “awake from your lethargy”.  He cautions them against thinking that “all that is needful for the betterment of your condition will be effected by your benevolent white friends …. there is a great deal more to be done, and you can do it by putting your shoulders to the wheels.”   Looking back from the perspective of a 20th century organizer, there was a lesson here for Garrison. Much too frequently white work in support of the oppressed has been motivated in an attitude of “ benevolence”, against which Cuffee warned.   Garrison listened, heard, knew Cuffee was right.

Any organizer who seeks to change conditions which oppress any group knows that it is essential to seek support from the oppressed; it is also essential to listen to the oppressed, seeking guidance about where to focus action. Garrison learned this central lesson of organizing in 1829.  His first public address was on July 4th, of that year, at the Park Street Church, Boston. an event partially sponsored by the American Colonization Society. In that speech, while it was not a primary focus, he suggested to listeners that it would be good to organize chapters of the American Colonization Society. The following week, attending a meeting at the African Meeting House as a reporter, he heard a speaker who praised the Colonization Society.  From the congregation that evening came a disapproving “murmur”, and subsequent discussion which showed the negative feeling about colonization in that community.  Garrison heard that “complaint” from the black community.  Later, in Baltimore, he listened to black folk among whom he lived; the important thing is that the listening led to change, and he became a leader in efforts to defeat the idea of colonization internationally.

When Garrison made his first trip to England, in 1833, the black community gathered in March to provide a proper send-off for his trip. Twenty-five dollars were given in support of the trip, and resolutions affirmed Garrison, and recorded opposition to Colonization.  Leaders of the black community who were present included Rev.Samuel Snowden, John T. Hilton, James Barbadoes, and George Putnam.

Garrison spent much of the time in England chasing Elliot Cresson, the American agent of Colonization, who was there raising money to support the cause.  The stories from that time indicate considerable success in securing from abolitionists a condemnation of that movement.   In England Garrison joined Nathaniel Paul, son of Thomas Paul, Minister of the African Baptist Church, who was already there on a similar mission, furthering his connection to the Boston black  community.

Listening to, learning from the black community became a pattern for the Liberator.  In it Garrison gave “voice” to the printed words of David Walker and Maria Stewart, unusual and offensive to some.

A Voice from the Colored People of Boston is the title of an item in the June 7, 1839 Liberator.  The meeting at the Abiel Smith School included resolutions offering support of Garrison after the recent withdrawal of some abolitionists from the MASS, “for reasons which appear to us groundless”  … ‘” we denounce every colored person who is an enemy to Garrison (if any there be) as a foe to liberty…”  John T. Hilton is Chairman of the occasion; William Cooper Nell is the Secretary for the evening.

Less than a year later, “a very large body of colored citizens” gathered on March 19, also at the Smith School, voting strong resolutions in support of Garrison and the Liberator.  The report in the Liberator indicates that “when opportunity was given for people to present their objections, none were offered”.


In early 1843, the Liberator has an account of a February 1st meeting of colored citizens where actions gave support of laws supporting the right of intermarriage, of the Latimer petitions, and of the Liberator.

During a July 27, 1849 meeting in the black community when Garrison is presented a pitcher, a speaker says of him: “We cannot compensate him, nor will the present generation award to him the credit due. But the pen of history will meet out to him ample justice; and to an impartial posterity we shall safely commit his memory.”  William Cooper Nell presents the pitcher.  John T. Hilton was present, and though the article is not clear, given the prominence of Hilton in many similar meetings, it is probable that these words are from Hilton.

In July of 1853 there is a report of a “large and spirited meeting”, chaired by Cooper Nell. When Garrison is called upon to speak, “three hearty cheers were given to him by the assembly on his rising.”  He spoke in “encouraging terms as to the signs of the times, and invoked his colored brethren to display a still deeper interest in the anti-slavery cause, which he characterized as the cause of the whole human race.” The presence of Nell at so many of these meetings is an indicator of Garrison’s close relationship to this man, who became the key leader in the Equal School Rights effort of Boston’s black community.

The Garrison Association, meets in the Belknap Street Church for its second annual meeting, January, 1854.  Speakers from the colored community speak of Garrison as the “unflinching Advocate of Immediate Emancipation.”

In New Bedford, an early 1863 meeting is held under the auspices of the colored clergy.  Resolutions are passed in support of the Emancipation Proclamation.   One resolution includes:  “we would also remember, with heartfelt gratitude to God, the name of William Lloyd Garrison, whose unwearied exertions and self-sacrifices, with those of his noble coadjutors, have been chiefly instrumental in bringing about the present hopeful crisis in the cause of human freedom.”


This evidence of the wide and continuing support of both the Liberator and of Garrison personally, from a large part of the developing black communities is primary to understanding Garrison’s leadership in the larger Abolition movement.  There was an Abolition Movement.  Garrison was a major leader of that Movement.  He knew that such a Movement depended largely on the goal.  Defining the goal meant listening to the oppressed people. He listened! He spoke!  He acted!  He led!


The life of William Lloyd Garrison is A Portrait of Purpose.  My hope is that you will continue to explore life and purpose with Lloyd, and that you might do so with these words in mind:

Garrison was working  for “a world in which there would be no slavery, no king, no beggars, no lawyers, no doctors, no soldiers, no palaces, no prisons, no creeds, no sects, no weary and grinding labor, no luxurious idleness, no particular Sabbath or temple .. no restraint but moral restraint, no containing power but love. Shall we judge such a man because he may go a little further than we are prepared to follow? Let us first consult our consciences and our testaments.” Hannah Webb

It has been a pleasure to introduce you to my friend…….

                                                                                                          William Lloyd Garrison

Horace Seldon



Here are two websites which can help you.

I. www.theliberatorfiles.com

Here you can access information from items selected for inclusion from Garrison’s  Liberator, published from 1831 -1865.

There are over 1800 posted items with 368 categories from which you can continue your  search.

You can search any one of the years of publication, 1831-1865.

You can search any one of the listed categories, for chronological listings.

You can search specific Liberators by date published, i.e. January 6, 1834

You can search by typing the name of a person, place, date, or event.

You can view over 50 Photographs on the Liberator Photo Gallery — persons/events/sites relevant to Garrison’s story

2.   readinggarrisonsletters.com

Here you can read comments on items selected from the magnificent

Six volumes of letters collected by Walter M. Merrill and Louis Ruchames

There are 265 entries which appear under 7 large categories.

You can also search by names of persons addressed in the letters.

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