Garrison on Violence, Nonviolence, and the Use of Force

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

One of the questions most frequently asked about Garrison concerns his commitment to nonviolence.  History usually leaves an impression of one who was an ultimate example of an uncompromising nonviolent spirit. He is often presented as one who believed that there was only one method of abolishing slavery; that single way was through moral persuasion.  That he supported the Civil War, and was earlier than most to urge using war as an instrument of abolition, has often left scholars with more “wondering” than conclusions about his commitment to nonviolent action.

This essay begins with the conviction that it will be most helpful if we do not try to make Garrison into a systematic thinker, whose thoughts and words and actions fit always into precisely defined categories. There is no attempt here to clarify what may seem like inconsistencies. The essay will outline some of the words which Garrison wrote and spoke in response to the questions posed by the time in which he lived.  Readers are  encouraged to draw their own conclusions about his position/s regarding the use of means other than moral suasion.   Some readers will want to add other words and actions of Garrison to the items included here; all are encouraged to do that.

The Use of Violence by the Oppressed

One of the early responses to the question about the use of violence, comes as Garrison responds to David Walker’s famous Appeal to the Colored People of the World. There has never been, Garrison claims, a better “promotion of insurrection”. He recognizes that the South is and “may reasonably be alarmed” at circulation of the Appeal, and he “deprecates” its sprit 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”.

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.”   There are three modes by which slavery can be overthrown.  It can be overthrown by physical force on the part of the free states (not a great leap to the Civil War!), by the same force on the part of the slaves(ever-present among the slaveholders), and by “enlightened and benevolent public opinion”.  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 a “National Anti-Slavery Society, which shall concentrate the moral energies of the nation.  Auxiliaries must  be formed in every State; every town and village must have an Association.”

In his initial 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 in his later speaking and writing he relaxes his nonviolence theme as he considers the possibility of 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.  His stance for nonviolence is at least ambiguous, somewhat less than the uncompromising position for sole use of moral suasion often attribted to him.

Colonial Oppression and the Use of Force

Thirty-seven years later, at a commemoration of the 1770 Boston Massacre, in a meeting chaired by William Cooper Nell, Garrison  joins other speakers, including John Rock, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, and Charles Lenox Remond.  He invokes God’s call for all people to 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; for no wrongs are like theirs … if Washington and his compatriots were justified in taking up arms, by the same inexorable 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”, the “creed” adopted by 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.

Nonresistance as Resistance to Force

Garrison’s superb biographer, Henry Mayer, finds Garrison raising the issue of questioning law by moral act, at least a decade before Thoreau.  Nonresistance was a way of resisting force, personal freedom used in the service of divine justice.  Garrison asserted that he did not care what “the law” allowed or forbade. “If I violate it, I will submit to the penalty, unresistingly, in imitation of Christ, and his apostles and the holy martyrs”, he said… if we are not to travel beyond the ‘strict line of the law’ in moral reform, then …a gag is put in the mouth, personal freedom is lost, and human improvement is at an end”.    1

The Use of Violence in Self-Defense

In November, 1837, in Alton, Illinois, 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 non-violence. Angry at what had happened to an abolitionist press and editor, there was an “indignation meeting” held at Faneuil Hall. Responses to the event made clear that the assembled abolitionists were not of one mind.  Previous to the meeting Garrison had “regretted” Lovejoy’s  action of taking arms in self-defense:  “I am shocked and filled with sorrow to learn, that he first took life before he lost his own, and that his reliance for victory in the darkest hour of the conflict was upon powder and ball.”  At the meeting Garrison was present, but did not speak. Yet at the meeting, resolutions presented by the MASS Board of Managers asserted that Lovejoy was “amply justified by the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence, by the example of our Revolutionary fathers”. and “that those who subscribe to that Declaration and who eulogize the Revolution, and then affect to be shocked at the brave and spirited defense made 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..”  Garrison’s sons believed that those words 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 and magnanimous spirit?  We will never know the answer to that conundrum.   2

With the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Garrison also raises a question about the use of violence in self-defense. Fearful that the story imposes on slaves a nonviolence which she would not require of whites, he wonders if there is a possible double standard in the thought of Mrs. Stowe.  With the character of Tom in mind, Garrison wonders “whether Mrs. Stowe is a believer in the duty of non-resistance for the white man, under all possible outrage and peril, as well as for the black man; whether she is for self-defense on her own part, or that of her husband or friends or country, in case of malignant assault, or whether she impartially disarms all mankind in the name of Christ, be the danger or suffering what it may be.”  Garrison’s question reminds one of his earlier insistence that the oppressed may be justified in using physical force.  3

Violence and John Brown

Comes John Brown, at Harpers 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 … A word upon the subject of Peace.  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 at the South … I disarm, in the name of God, every slaveholder and tyrant in the world .. yet, as a peace man – I am prepared to say,  ‘Success to every slave insurrection at the South, and in every slave country.’   And I do not see how I compromise or stain my peace profession in making that declaration.  Whenever there is a contest between the oppressed and the oppressor, — the weapons being equal between the parties, — 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 see 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 ..”   4

Into this context comes a recently discovered letter to Brown from Garrison.  The letter is dated November 1, 1859, one month and one day prior to  Brown’s execution.  Garrison writes:

“My Brave but unfortunate friend, … Protract, to the utmost your Trial, your delivery is at hand.”

There are yet many questions to be raised about this letter; before those questions are answered, this sounds more like the Garrison who says,  “success to every insurrection”, than to the uncompromising adherent of nonviolence about whom so many historians write.

That letter was found in the records collection of Executive papers of Henry A. Wise,  who was Governor of Virginia at the time of the Harper’s Ferry Raid.  I am grateful to Lois E. Horton, Professor of History Emerita, George Mason University, who found this letter and graciously shared it.

Nonviolence and Individual Conscience

After Southern secession, and with the war, which Garrison saw as necessary, he watches his three sons struggle with the question of whether or not to volunteer or accept a draft for service.  In letters to friends he comments on how each decides.  “Wendell is in principle opposed to all fighting with carnal weapons.  So is William.  In any case they will not go to the tented field but will abide the consequences. George is inclined to think he shall go, if drafted, as he does not claim to be a non-resistant … I do not object to my children suffering any hardships, or running any risks, in the cause of liberty and the support of great principles, if duty requires it, but I wish them to know themselves, to act from the highest and noblest motives, and to be true to their conscientious convictions.”

When George actually enlists in the Union army, Garrison writes to him: “Though I could have wished that you had been able understandingly and truly to adopt those principles of peace which are so sacred and divine to my own soul, yet you will bear witness that I have not laid a straw in your way to prevent your acting up to your own highest convictions of duty; for nothing would be gained, but much lost, to have you violate these.  Still, I tenderly hope that you will once more seriously review the whole matter before making the irrevocable decision …”  With this last thought, he expresses his concern that George will incur risks at “the hands of the rebels that others will not, if it is known that you are my son.”   After George enlists, Garrison praises him for being faithful to his highest convictions.  “…I could have wished you could ascend to what I believe a higher plane of moral heroism and a nobler method of self-sacrifice; but as you are true to yourself, I am glad of your fidelity…”   5  Go then with Lloyd and Helen as they watch George train, and join Lloyd as he proudly, fearrully wathces his son march out of Boston, dominated by fear of what will happen to his son with a Garrison name, if captured by Confederates!

Violence, Nonviolence, and the Civil War

Garrison’s response to President Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address is a clear  position which sounds like the first of those 1832 three “modes” of bringing an end to slavery.  It can be overthrown by the use of physical force by the free states over the slave states. In the Liberator, Garrison prints the President’s address, and then comments on it extensively.  To Lincoln’s appeal that there be no need of bloodshed or violence, unless it be “forced upon the federal authority”, the editor has explicit objection.  “Either blood must flow like water, or Mr. Lincoln and the North must back down, and confess that the American 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”, and we hear no appeal to nonviolence or moral suasion!

In Boston’s colored community sentiment for allowing colored men to enlist in the army increases early during the War, and a local colored militia steps up its training and training.  The “irresistible conflict”, predicted by many abolitionists in the black community, seems closer and closer.

By September of 1861 the Liberator begins to quote John Quincy Adams, asserting the right and obligation of the President to use his war powers as commander in chief of the army to order universal emancipation of the slaves. Articles include references to petitions from areas “further West” which are asking the President to do that, and the suggestion is that New Englanders should join the effort.  Frequently, the words of Adams are mounted on the masthead of the Garrison Liberator.

In 1861 Garrison  published a collection of articles under the title The Abolition of Slavery and the Right of the Government Under the War Power. Included were extracts from speeches by Adams in 1836 and 1842, statements from J.R. Giddings, Fremont’s Proclamation, and articles from the New York Herald and other sources, gathered to urge the use of war power for emancipation.  A clear message is that slavery is at the “very heart and head of this struggle”.

After the President’s 1862 Message to Congress, the Liberator urges that the President “has now the Constitutional Right, Power and Opportunity to “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof”. “Neither the President nor Congress must be allowed to evade this solemn duty by any dodge ….”  The newspaper then gives honor to General Hunter, for his emancipation order, and “shame and confusion of face to the President for his halting, shuffling, backward policy.”

President Lincoln is tortured by the decisions which he has to make during the months of 1862, when he contemplates an Emancipation Proclamation.  Many have remarked on the genius by which he carefully gauged the political effect of its announcement.  During those months, Garrison’s Liberator is occupied in part with discussions of the difference between “Non-Resistance” and “Peace” men.  In those discussions, Garrison rejects any thought of granting a right to avoid the draft by “hiring a substitute”, because it would be the same as “going to the battlefield”.   His response to the question of whether or not to pay taxes, would have disappointed many “resisters” today.  He advocated that paying a tax was a matter to be decided individually, believing that it was justifiable for a non-resister to pay the tax, because, if the government should then proceed “to apply it to war purposes, the responsibility will rest with the government, not with” the tax payer.

With the September announcement of the Proclamation, Garrison believes it to be “an important step in the right direction, and an act of immense historic consequence”, but he is “not so jubilant over it as many others”.  Some of it is a “characteristic jumble of words”.  Its proposed announcement, to be delayed for  three months is “a time sufficient to enable Jeff Davis and his traitorous confederates to anticipate that measure themselves, and thus secure their independence by foreign intervention..”  In addition, Garrison’s uncompromising view of colonization leaves him fearful that the President’s intention included “absurd and proscriptive devices to expatriate the colored population from their native land”.

Garrison, during the early year of the war, recognizes that Abolitionists are taking differing positions about joining the ranks of the Union as volunteers.  Some volunteer, feeling justified by the nature of the rebellion and “altered relations of slavery to the government”; others are precluded from entering the conflict “so long as the government refuses to proclaim liberty throughout the land, and unto all inhabitants thereof”.   He holds a standard that “every obstacle to constitutional emancipation” must be taken away. If that were to happen “Such a government can receive the sanction and support of every Abolitionist, whether in a moral or military point of view..”

A Presidential message in December, 1862 brings Garrison’s astonished 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 there is a clear sense that the two men have measured differently the significance of changing public opinion.

“The Emancipation Proclamation Three Million of Slaves Set Free! “Glory, Hallalujah”… So the Liberator announces the great event.    Days later, the Liberator quotes an address by Wendell Phillips saying that to leave slavery in the border states is “criminal” , “revolting”, “unendurable”, and that liberty must be proclaimed for all the inhabitants of the whole land.

During the War, as Garrison’s insists on the use of war powers to free all slaves, some began to ask him “what of his peace principles”?  “Our reply is that the peace principles are as beneficent and glorious as ever, and are neither disproved nor modified by anything now transpiring in the country, of a warlike character.  If they had been long since embraced and carried out by that people, neither slavery nor war would now be filling the land with violence and blood.  Where they prevail, no man is in peril of life or liberty; where they are rejected, and precisely to the extent they are rejected, neither life nor liberty is secure.  How their violation, under any circumstances, is better than a faithful adherence to them, we have not the moral vision to perceive.”  Garrison   goes on to assert that he gives support to the Government against the secession movement.  “As between the combatants, there is no wrong or injustice on the side of the Government, while there is nothing but violence, robbery, confiscation, perfidy, lynch law, usurpation, and a most diabolical purpose, on the side of the secessionists.  The weapons resorted to, on both sides, are the same; yet it is impossible not to wish success to the innocent, and defeat to the guilty party.  But, in so doing, we do not compromise either our anti-slavery or our peace principles….”

It is clear that as the War proceeds, Garrison moves to the point where he urges that the war must become a war to end slavery.   Finally he sees an antislavery war as a better choice than peace with slavery.  This stance is not the early choice to “discard” the use of physical force.  Combined with consistent justification of the use of force on behalf of the oppressed, it makes a reader wonder if Garrison had ever really “discarded” that original thought that the one way to end slavery was for the free states to use force against the slave states.   Garrison sees in this war, supported by free state public opinion, the sign of ultimate redemption.

1 Mayer,  All on Fire, page 224

William Lloyd Garrison, The Story of His Life, told by His Children, Vol  II, see pages 190-192

3– Liberator, March 26, 1852

4- Liberator , Dec 16, 1859

5     Letters of William Lloyd Garrison,  Vol  V   June 11,  Aug 6, 1863,


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