The Role of Garrison in Society

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

“Our Country is the World; Our Countrymen are all Mankind”

As an introduction to William Lloyd Garrison, I cite the words which appeared regularly on the masthead of the Liberator. There they are on every front page. “Our Country is the World; Our Countrymen are all Mankind”. While I do not recall the editor commenting on those words as an overarching theme for his thought, I offer them as a way of organizing the truths which encompass Garrison’s uncompromising vision for society. Henry Mayer has said of Garrison that he was not “a systematic thinker, he had no bent for introspection. He was not a philosopher, but a journalist and polemicist who improvised variations on a few grand themes as the moment required, caring less for logic than for effect…”

I think that Lloyd will not mind my using those masthead words as an organizing theme of his visions, at least for this moment. “Our country is the World; Our Countrymen are all Mankind”. This universal statement encompasses every cause which conceives fair, just treatment of all persons. Rooted in the Biblical injunction that God has made of one blood all nations to dwell on earth, it is a faith-statement. For Garrison that faith was an injunction, a command explicit for all people for all time, in every circumstance. Extended to the inherent logic of that conviction, there is no room for any justification of any act which denies that fundamental unity. There can be no argument of substance.

Of the numerous principles which can be attributed as guides to understanding Garrison, this is the one which might be bedrock. Here is a foundation which undergirds all else that he believes in and lives for.

  • Color Prejudice, as the root from which the institution of slavery was grown defies this human, God-given unity, and is wrong. It is SIN.
  • Slavery is a system of the “most atrocious villany ever exhibited on earth, because it defies this human, God-given unity, and it is wrong.
  • The Constitution, is the document by which the nation’s founders strengthened, sustained, and perpetuated that “villainous system”, and therefore must be seen as a “covenant with hell, the “instrument of the devil”. The nation is founded on a fundamental denial of this human, God-given unity.
  • Women, with men, have identical claims to equal rights; any belief, or action which defies that human, God-given unity, is wrong.
  • Physical coercion, used by individuals or groups to limit any other person or group, defies that human, God-given unity, and it is wrong.
  • Political Parties, when acting to empower party-interests, are in defiance of that human, God-given unity, and they do not often provide a vehicle for justice.
  • Churches, as institutions, are subject to corruption; statements of faith, are in the service of the churches, rather than churches in the service of faith, and they fail to fulfill that human, God-given unity.
  • Class is seen by Garrison as an aristocracy of the few, encouraging idleness and profligacy, as individual instances of sin deny that human, God-given unity.

The editor believed that he was a man “of the whole world”, that “his countrymen were all of humanity”. He cares about what happens to human beings throughout the world. He is saddened when there is weeping anywhere in the world; he takes joy and hope from any news of moral progress anywhere in the world. The pages of the Liberator are crowded with news from every corner of the world. He calls the attention of the world to news of despair and news of hope anywhere.

In our age discussion has often centered on a distinction between Civil Rights and Human Rights. Sometimes it is assumed that to talk of Human Rights is an expansion of the Civil Rights struggle. That distinction would be needless and irrelevant for Garrison.

When Garrison spoke of the abolition of slavery, he spoke of human rights. The enslaved were human beings, subjected to inhumane treatment by other humans. Of course it was a human rights issue; it would have been impossible for him to see Abolition in any other way. The London Convention , which had degraded women by its refusal for their active participation merely gave him the opportunity to say the obvious: “human rights, that is the great question which agitates the age”. Not recognizing women as entitled to all the rights of men, was to fail to treat them as human beings; that failure was the same failure as slavery, the failure to recognize all people of a dark color as entitled to the rights of all, was the human rights question. It was also the sign of human sin!