Garrison, The Agitator, and War Without Slavery

(Lecture by Horace Seldon, April 7, 2011, Museum of African American History, Boston, MA)

What is presented here is a response to two facts which characterize this day on which we meet:

  • First, the international news every day which describes public agitation rooted in political dissatisfactions in large areas of our world.
  • Second, the specific date of our meeting, in April, 2011, as we engage in memories of the Civil War.

Garrison was named as the “preeminent Agitator” of the century, by John Stuart Mill and John Bright.

“Agitate, Agitate, Agitate” was both method and purpose of Lloyd Garrison. As we meet “Agitation” is what we see/feel/hear every day from the news in many lands of our world!!

Henry Mayer says of Garrison: “His career is a landmark in the American dissenting tradition, and exemplifies the fault line that in democratic politics separates the insiders, who think progress comes from quiet lobbying within the halls of power, from the outsiders, who insist that only public manifestations of dissatisfaction can overcome worldly inertia.”

Howard Zinn reminded us that there is “no point in probing the role of the agitator in the historical process, unless we can learn something from it which is of use today.”

So, tonight I hope we begin to probe, to see what we can learn from Garrison, the outsider, agitator.

Because we also meet at a time when our nation remembers the Civil War, I will place Garrison in the context of a theme War Without Slavery, is Better Than Peace With Slavery.

You may hear some things tonight which contradict what you have heard before.

That may be especially apparent as I speak of Garrison, noted as an advocate of non-violence, and describe to you how I believe he moved to the position that war was necessary.

First I want you to meet my friend, William Lloyd Garrison, deeply committed to the colored community of which the thriving center was where we meet tonight.

Tonight, walk with me over the Hill, down Park Street, to the white-steepled Park Street Baptist Church. It is July 4, 1829; a young white guy, 23 years old, speaks.

Now, hear Four Convictions central to all of Garrison’s life, all of which were announced on July 4, 1829, in what is called his first public speech, at the Park Street Baptist Church.

  1. The slaves of this country, whether we consider their moral, intellectual, or social condition, are entitled to the prayers, sympathies, charities of the American people, AND their claims for redress are as strong as those of any Americans could be.
  2. The non-slave-holding, the free States, are constitutionally involved in the quilt of slavery, by adhering to a national compact that sanctions it, AND it is their DUTY to assist in its overthrow.
  3. No justification for the perpetuity of slavery can be found in the condition of its victims. There is no barrier against our righteous interference in the laws which authorize slavery.
  4. Education and freedom will elevate our colored population to a rank with the whites, making them useful, intelligent and peaceable citizens.

Walk another time over the Hill down Milk Street, to Pearl Street, just beyond Congress,nmwhere you will hear Garrison speak at the Athenaeum. After the talk watch as two colored gentlemen step forward to greet Garrison, shake his hand, and engage in animated conversation. One was The Rev. Thomas Paul, first pastor of the African Baptist Church; the other The Rev. Samuel Snowden, minister of the African Methodist Church; he lived just down the street here. The occasion was the beginning of the strong support which Garrison received in later years from the colored community of our Hill.

Or walk down Milk Street, to Julien Hall, at the corner of Federal Street. Listen to Lloyd speak. Watch as Samuel J. May, Samuel Sewall, are joined by Bronson Alcott, and they, with Garrison proceed to Alcott’s home, for a midnight conversation.

Ten days after that July 4 the African Abolition Freehold Society, gathered in the evening. During the day there was a procession in celebration of the ending of the slave trade in the British colonies, 1807. After the procession a convocation met at the Meeting House. Garrison was there. As he listened to the gathered community that evening he learned two immense lessons.

The first lesson began his understanding that there could be no moral middle ground between enslavement and freedom. The July 4th speech was an occasion partly sponsored by the American Colonization Society; on that evening he had encouraged the creation of local chapters of that Society, devoted in part to the idea that emancipation should come gradually, with a period of “apprenticeship” during which the enslaved would be prepared for freedom. Ten evenings later, he heard colored citizens strongly “murmur” against such an idea. Listening put his head/heart on notice that freedom ought to come immediately, with no intermediary time. The second lesson for Garrison that evening was simply that if he was to speak for the enslaved he must listen to the community from which they came. That central lesson was learned again from black friends in Baltimore.

Second, hear Garrison’s radical view of The Constitution. Hear him regarding the “Sacred” Compact — 1832

“There is much declamation about the sacredness of the compact which was formed between the free and slave States, on the adoption of the Constitution A sacred compact, forsooth!!! We pronounce it the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villany ever exhibited on earth. It was a compact formed at the sacrifice of the bodies and souls of millions of our race, for the sake of achieving a political object — an unblushing and monstrous coalition to do evil that good might come. Such a compact was, in the nature of things and according to the law of God, null and void from the beginning. No body of men ever had the right to guarantee the holding of human beings in bondage….By the infamous bargain which they made between themselves they trampled beneath their feet their own solemn and heaved-attested Declaration, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They had not lawful power to bind themselves, or their posterity, for one hour, for one moment, by such an unholy alliance. It was not valid then — it is not valid now. Still they persist to maintain it — and still do their successors, the people of Mass, of NE, and of the twelve free states persiste in maintaining it. “A sacred compact! A sacred compact! If that be “sacred”, what then is wicked and ignominious!!!!….

……and just a bit more about Northern complicity…. also 1832:

“People of New England, and of the free States! Is it true that slavery is no concern of yours? Have you no right even to protest against it, or to seek its removal? Are you not the main pillars of its support? How long do you mean to be answerable to God, and the world, for spilling the blood of the poor innnocents? Be not afraid to look the monster Slavery boldly in the face — the enemy of God and man. Never hope to be a united, or happy, or prosperous people while he exists…

“….. it is said that if you agitate this question, you will divide the Union. …You must perform your duty, and leave the consequences to God … that duty is clearly to cease from giving countenance and protection to kidnappers … Be assured that slavery will speedily destroy this Union, if it be left alone….

“We, of New England, are lamentably ignorant of the subject of slavery, but even our ignorance is exceeded by our apathy …. In its origin slavery was a common crime; it is equally in its continuance a common curse …In its removal we are all bound to assist. The foundation of the system was laid in Mass and Virginia .. For 32 years after the Declaration of Independence the ships of New England were actively engaged in stealing victims on the coast of Africa by the desire and authority of the nation…. and even today many of its vessels, manned with American officers and seamen, are undoubtedly in the horrid trade. ..”

Third, Garrison’s clear conviction that the oppressed slaves are justified in using force to gain freedom.

One of the most frequent comments about Garrison concerns his commitment to nonviolence. He is often presented as one who believed that there was only one method of abolishing slavery; that single way was through moral suasion. That he supported the Civil War, and was earlier than many to urge using Presidential war powers as an instrument of abolition , has often left people with more “wondering” than conclusions about his commitment to nonviolent action.

One of the early responses to the questions about the use of violence, comes as Garrison publishes David Walker’s famous Appeal to the Colored People of the World. Garrison recognizes that the South “may reasonably be alarmed” at circulation of the Appeal, and he “deprecates” its spirit of vengeance. He nevertheless comments that the people as a nation should not denounce it, since Walker simply “pays them in their own coin”, “follows their own creed”, “adopts their own language”. “Every time we complain about foreign oppression is a call for the slaves to destroy us; every 4th of July celebration must enflame the minds of the slaves.” Here is the seed of thought calling upon a nation which has been quick to glorify the insurrection at its founding, to not be hasty in denouncing what Walker may advocate. Here Garrison stands on the brink of a possibility for the enslaved which he could not at that time allow himself.

In 1832, calling for the organizing of a National Anti-Slavery Society, Garrison is adamant that slave chains must be broken. Shall those chains be broken by physical or moral power? ….”at some period or other, in some way or other, our slaves must be free.” Garrison lists three modes by which slavery can be overthrown:

  • by physical force on the part of the free states
  • by the same force on the part of the slaves
  • by an enlightened and benevolent public opinion

Garrison says he discards the first two modes as “revolting and disastrous”. He wants to provide “light” on the subject, particularly to people in the free states. ..”their hearts are right …. their heads are all wrong”. He calls for organizing and concentrating the moral energies of the nation … Auxiliaries must be formed in every State, every town and village….”

In this statement about the three modes by which slavery can be overthrown, Garrison is willing to allow a standard for slaves, different from his personal commitment to using only moral suasion. …. At several points later in his life Garrison relaxes his nonviolent theme as he considers the possibility of the oppressed groups using violent means. He finds it impossible to hold the slaves to his uncompromising standard. He searches for some compromise, or at least a willingness to apply a different standard for the enslaved. The search becomes more explicit in later years.


Thirty-seven years later, at a commemoration of the 1770 Boston Massacre, in a meeting chaired by William Cooper Nell, Garrison joins other speakers. He invokes God’s call for all to be people of peace, slaveholders and slaves alike. “Nevertheless, I admit, that if any men have a right to fight for liberty with deadly weapons, they are to be found on the Southern plantations;… if Washington and his compatriots were justified in taking up arms, by the same logic … those who are enslaved in our country today would also be justified in resorting to armed resistance, and in breaking their chains over the heads of their oppressors…” This is the language of Walker. Garrison does not like the spirit of vengeance, but it is the spirit of colonial revolutionaries who used the language of enslavement to justify force.

In November, 1837, Elijah Lovejoy was killed while defending his printing press against an angry mob. Accounts of the mob indicated that Lovejoy took up arms in defense, and this raised problems for those who espoused nonviolence. There was an “indignation meeting” at Faneuil Hall. The abolitionists there were not of one mind. Previous to the meeting Garrison had “regretted” Lovejoy’s action in taking up arms in self-defense. At the meeting Garrison was present, but did not speak, even when resolutions were passed which affirmed Lovejoy’s action. Those resolutions asserted that Lovejoy was “amply justified by the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and by the example of our Revolutionary fathers”, and “that those who subscribe to that Declaration of Independence, and who eulogize the Revolution, and then affect to be shocked at the brave and spirited defense by Mr. Lovejoy”, express a view which is “nothing better than base hypocrisy … it is certain that no body of men have ever had a better right to use arms in self-defense.”

There is no minute of the meeting which indicates that Garrison objected to the resolutions, which express a view contrary to his earlier criticism of  Lovejoy’s action. For Garrison to sit quietly and not object to public resoutions with which he disagreed would have been out of character. Garrison’s sons believed that those resolutions were written by Garrison. If Garrison did write those resolutions, it leaves one wondering why the difference in those two sets of responses to the same event? Does the difference represent an internal conflict in Garrison, or does the difference between his previous “regret”, and the resolutions, represent Garrison’s recognition that a larger public may differ from his personal view, and the resolutions are an example of his open spirit? We will never know the answer to that question.

Comes John Brown, at Harper’s Ferry, and Garrison seeks a way to acknowledge the significance of Brown’s action, while allowing him to state his belief in non-violence. Hear him at Tremont Temple, the day of Brown’s execution:

“Was John Brown justified in his attempt? Yes, if Washington was in his; if Warren and Hancock were in theirs. If men are justified in striking a blow for freedom, when the question is one of a threepenny tax on tea, then, I say, they are a thousand times more justified, when it is to save fathers, mothers, wives and children from the slave coffle and the auction-block, and to restore them to their God-given rights ….. I am a non-resister- a believer in the inviolability of human life, under all circumstances; I therefore, in the name of God, disarm John Brown, and every slave of the South… yet, as a peace man — I am prepared to say, Success to every slave insurrection at the South, and in every slave country….Whenever there is a contest between the oppressed and the oppressor,…. God knows that my heart must be with the oppressed, and always against the oppressor. Therefore, whenever commenced, I cannot but wish success to all slave insurrections. Rather than seeing men wearing their chains in cowardly and servile spirit, I would, as an advocate of peace, much rather see them breaking the head of the tyrant with their chains…”

And we must see how Garrison moves toward the Civil War

Response to Lincoln’s first inaugural address, 1861

To Lincoln’s appeal that there be no need of bloodshed or violence, unless it be “forced upon the federal authority”, the editor explicitly objects: “Either blood must flow like water, or Mr. Lincoln and the North must back down, and confess that the Union is dissolved beyond the power of restoration”. While this is a statement about the Union, the alternative to dissolution is that “blood must flow like water”, — no appeal to moral suasion there.

In Sept of 1861 the Liberator begins to quote John Quincy Adams, asserting the right of the President to use his war powers to order emancipation.. In that same year Garrison publishes a collection of articles under the title The Aboliton of Slavery and the Right of the Government Under the War Power. A clear message that slavery is at the “very heart and head of this struggle”.

Garrison is moving very quickly to the conviction that war without slavery, is better than peace with slavery.

During this period, Garrison is strong in his criticism of Lincoln; at various times he says of the President that “there is not a drop of anti-slavery blood in his body”, or, making fun of his physical stature, “he is 6 ‘ 4″ tall, but a moral pygmy”.

After the President’s message to Congress, 1862, in the Liberator, (Mar 14 ), Garrison is astonished that Lincoln still speaks of gradual and compensated emancipation. “The President is at war with common sense, sound reason, and the lessons of history. Garrison urges that the President “has now the Constitutional Right, Power and Opportunity to ” proclaim liberty throughout the land to all inhabitants thereof.” “Neither the President nor Congress must be allowed to evade this solemn duty by any dodge… “Shame and confusion of face to the President for his halting, shuffling, backward policy”.

A Presidential message in December, 1862, brings Garrison’s response to the President’s continued willingness to provide for compensated emancipation. “The President is demented — or else a veritable Rip Van Winkle, who, for the last thirty years, has been oblivious to everything going on in the country.” Here is a clear sense that the two men have measured differently the significance of changing public opinion.

The President’s slow, deliberate, politically calculated movement toward the final Emancipation Proclamation was agonizingly slow to Garrison. He waited, watched hopefully……..

In the Liberator, January 9, 1863….”however effectual may be the President’s Emancipation Proclamation in breaking the chains of the bondsmen in such rebellious sections of the country as he has designated, — and Heaven grant that it may be as potent in operation as it is comprehensive in its scope: nevertheless, nothing at this hour is settled so surely as the continued enslavement of four millions of the inhabitants of the land; and while any of these remain to wear the yoke, the primary object and specific work of this Society will not have been accomplished. Slavery, in the so-called loyal Border States is as inexcusable, as criminal, as revolting, an unendurable, as pregnant with evil and ruin, as in the rebellious Confederate States, and must be as vigorously and as uncompromisingly assailed, until liberty is proclaimed ‘throughout all the land, to all the inhabitants thereof’.”

Just over a year later, in March, 1864, Garrison endorses Lincoln in his bid for a second term, convinced that there will be further movement to bring citizen rights to African people. The reasons for that movement are the subject of another lecture. Here I have had a more modest aim.

My purpose has been to indicate the route taken in the mind and heart of William Lloyd Garrison from the early moment when he says that he “discards” the use of physical force as the mode by which slavery is to be overthrown. That choice he regards as “revolting” and “disastrous”. I’ve traced some of the times in which Garrison responds to the events of the time, motivated by his supreme purpose that the slave chains must be broken. “At some period or other, in some way or other our slaves must be free…” The “discard” of the use of physical force, conflicts with the “some way or other”. The Park Street statement that it is the duty of the free states to assist in the overthrow of slavery conflicts with the “discard” of the use of “physical force on the part of the free states”. To recognize that conflict in Lloyd is not a measure of failure, but is to know the greatness of the one single conviction of his life, that slavery is worse than a moral wrong; it is Sin, that it must end, and all the enslaved must be free.

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