Flight From Arrest, 1833

A view by the author / researcher / collector, Horace Seldon

This fragment of the “Garrison story” took place in less than one month, crowded with physical movement between Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and several sites in Connecticut. For those who want to reconstruct that detail, several sources are listed at the conclusion of this article.


There were at least two national contexts to this “Flight from Arrest”.  One was the  clamoring in black communities to meet a need for training young men in manual skills. In the 1830’s, as black communities developed their own institutions, this need was dominant. Responses to this need gave rise to the Canadian Wilberforce Community, and calls for similar efforts in numerous towns in the United States.  A larger national context was a burgeoning struggle over the American Colonization Society.

The need for funds to support the establishment and maintenance of manual schools, as well as for regular separate black schools inspired the Boston community to seek funding in England, where it was felt that abolitionists would be ready to send aid.  To raise that money was an original purpose for Garrison’s first trip to England. It was not until he was actually in England that competition for that aid became clear. Garrison became aware that Elliot Cresson, agent for the Colonization Society, who was barnstorming the country also seeking aid for colonization, an idea which Garrison found repugnant.

Gathering at the Meeting House, members of the black community met to wish Garrison well on his first trip to England.  After that community gathering, a few leaders had an additional “send-off”, held at the home of George Putnam, where Garrison was presented with a silver cup, with appropriate hope for a bountiful trip.

The trip is fully reported in other places, and the encounters which Garrison, Thompson, O’Connell and others had with Elliott Cresson, representing the Colonization Society are commonly described.  The competition for financial aid for the schools was trumped by the need to respond to the larger idea and purpose of colonization.  That story of the trip had long-ranging significance. Garrison’s efforts contributed to the diminishing of the Colonization Society’s success, in large part because he convinced both Clarkson and Wilberforce to renounce support for the ACS.  That effort dominated the trip.

The struggle over the Colonization effort is an exciting one, told in many other places. Here the concentration is on the “Flight from Arrest” which happened as Garrison left Boston,  to prepare for sailing from New York .  He actually had to spend a good part of a month  in flight from a pending arrest. If that arrest had occurred it is likely that there would have been no trip, and possibly an end to Garrison’s life.

Garrison left Boston on a Friday, going only as far as Providence, where he spoke to a gathering at a black church.  The next day he went to Brooklyn, Connecticut, to the home and family of Helen Benson, later to be his wife.  On Sunday he spoke at the local Unitarian Church, where his early mentor, Samuel J. May, served as Minister.  People in Brooklyn and the neighboring town of Canterbury were engaged in bitter dispute over the attempt of Prudence Crandall to enroll young black women in her Academy, in Canterbury.  May and Garrison were both open in support of her intent.  That Sunday meeting was an occasion for further conflict between people from the two towns.  Prudence Crandall was present, having gone the short six miles to Brooklyn.  The town clerk from Canterbury, Andrew T. Judson, foe to Crandall, was also present, and was disturbed at what he heard.  He hadpublicly claimed that blacks ought to be sent to Africa , or “kept as they are here”, an indication of the Colonizationist views he espoused generally.  Judson was also provoked at Garrison, because of reports of the conflict in Garrison’s Liberator. In one article Garrison used strong names to condemn Judson as utterly despised.  The offense taken by Judson is a lively part of this “Flight from Arrest”.

The next day, Monday, April 8th, a stage driver who was to  have called for Garrison, mysteriously failed to do so;  friends got him into a “common wagon”, and in a furious drive caught up to the coach, Garrison covered in mud.  Thirty minutes after Garrison left the Bensons, they discovered the reason for the coach driver’s default.  A local sheriff arrived with five writs against Garrison, sworn out by Judson, seeking to detain Garrison on a charge of libel.  The sheriff chased Garrison, but did not reach him. The Bensons sent word to Hartford and New York, warning Garrison that the writs were an attempt to capture him and ship him off to Georgia!

The days to come were crowded, Garrison one day in Hartford, the next going to New Haven, for an appointment to have a portrait painted. There were days when he moved between New York, and Philadelphia, trying to avoid the agent who carried the writs. Some of the trips were by steamboat, one a fast trip by horse, led by Robert Purvis, from Philadelphia. Letters from these crowded days indicate that Garrison was with either one or both of the Tappan brothers in New York, and with the Sharpless family in Philadelphia where he at least “consulted” with friends Forten, Cassey, Hinton, and Purvis.

In one of the letters from those tumultuous days, Garrison wrote to Isaac Knapp he feared that “no doubt the Colonization party will resort to some base measures to prevent, if possible, my departure for England”.  To friend Harriet Minot, he wrote that he had missed one boat to Liverpool, but that he was hoping to “baffle the vigilance of the enemy”, announcing that he will go to New York for another sailing.

Finally, May 1, Wednesday, Garrison was board ship, embarking for Liverpool. The last evening, before his departure, he spoke to a “large audience”, in the Methodist African Church, in New York.  In his letter to Minot, Garrison commented,  that the value of my labors in their behalf bears so small a proportion to their unbounded gratitude and love!”  He also reported  that “Mr. Finley, the General Agent of the Colonization  Society, was present,  and witnessed a tremendous assault upon his darling scheme”.

What I have reported here so far is commonly known, and I never expected to have any other information which would expand our understanding of these momentous days as Garrison prepared to go to England.  With all of this in my head one day I was visiting in
Philadelphia, at the Library Company, where I met Phil Lapsansky, librarian-researcher-historian.

In conversation with Phil Lapsansky, he showed me a couple of pieces of paper with writing clearly in the hand of Garrison.  One was labeled, “Sonnet”, and the other, “The Abolition Cause”.  What startled me immediately was the date on the sonnet.  It was dated “April 18, 1833, Philadelphia”.  These two were written during those days recorded above when Garrison was trying to board a ship to England, at the same time running back and forth at least between Philadelphia and New York, evading the threatened arrest!  To me here was writing by Garrison which might illuminate some of his actions and thought during those difficult days.

The Sonnet and a summary of the essay are included on a page after the notes for this essay.

So ended that one “Flight From Arrest”.



  1. A “Sonnet” , written by Garrison, in Philadelphia, April 18, 1833, during the time of his “Flight from Arrest”, below.
  2. Notes from  “The Abolition Cause”, written at the same time as the “Sonnet”, excerpts quoted below.
  3. A listing of the primary sources of this story.
  4. The story is told in a least two places: in Henry Mayer’s All on Fire, 148 fll., and in the Garrison biography by his sons, Vol I., pages 334 fll.


My heart is lonely as a mateless bird,
When melody no more shall charm the ear;
Once high above earth’s tallest mounts it soar’d,
Rejoicing in its unrestrained career;
It nestled in the downy clouds at even,
And wooed a brilliant star, that warmed its breast,
With such expressive notes, the drowsy heaven,
All thrilling with delight, forgot its rest.
But now it mutely broods in solemn sadness —
Soiled is its plumage – broken are its wings –
Nor shall bright Spring call forth its wonted gladness,
Nor joyous summer soothe its sufferings : –
The fowler Disappointment (wo the day!)
Hath taken fatal aim, and seized it as his prey

W. L. G

Philadelphia, April 18, 1833

A copy of this sonnet, with an essay, “The Abolition Cause”, by Garrison, signed the same date in Philadelphia, was made available by Phil Lapsansky, at the Library Company, Philadelphia

According to Lapsansky,  “Garrison wrote this sonnet and essay in the personal album of Amy Matilda Cassey,  daughter of NY black leader Peter Williams Jr. and wife of Philadelphia black activist Joseph Cassey, associate and friend of Forten & the younger Purvis.  Cassey was the local agent for the Liberator.

In the essay Garrison wrote of the difficulties to be suffered by those who contend “for the immediate abolition of slavery…..they knew that slander would blacken their characters with infamy; that their rebukes and entreaties would be received with ridicules, anger and reproach; that persecution would assail them on the right hand and on the left..”…The reward for the abolitionist, he wrote,  is “the gratitude of the suffering and the oppressed  — the approbation of a good conscience – the blessing of the Most High…”

The spirit which animates the abolitionist “can never burn out, nor can many waters extinquish it. … firmer than the foundations of the earth – it is strong as the throne of God…… neither reproach nor persecution – neither wealth nor power – neither bolts nor bars – neither the gibbet nor the stake, shall be able to subdue it…..Numberless as may be the enemies who surround them, they will not retreat from the field, for He who is mightier than legions of men and devils is the Captain of their salvation, and will give them the victory.”

The “Sonnet” is open to divergent interpretation, and I invite each reader to enter that divergence.  It begins with a “mateless bird”. In “lonely” mood, and speaks of “soiled plumage” and “broken wings”, a lack of summer to “soothe its sufferings”.  The fowler, who is the one who seeks to shoot the bird, is represented in “Disappointment”, yet has his “prey”, in “fatal aim”.


Place the two writings in the context of Garrison’s wild days of flight, running from the enemy, wildly moving from place to place to avoid detection and arrest.  The confident faith of Garrison is the ultimate note he sounds.  It is worthy of pondering.

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