The Preeminent Agitator of the Century

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

In his definitive biography of Garrison, Henry Mayer says that during his final visit to London, in 1867, leading reformers of Great Britain honored Garrison with a testimonial dinner. On this occasion John Stuart Mill and John Bright “hailed him as the preeminent agitator of the century”.

Anyone who watches Garrison will soon discover him as “agitator”. If there was to be a revolution of public opinion, Garrison’s choice was to “concentrate the moral energies of the nation”. Agitation became a practiced method, which he pursued to perfection, and by which he pursued imperfect morality. One scholar has called him a “permanent agitator”. By moral conviction, he was compelled to “agitate” in the face of all that he saw as wrong. It is clear that he saw this as a way to confront wrong ideas and people who were wrong.

Whether the subject was a written or spoken word, the object was to stir the public conscience, to challenge its settled view, to prod both idea and motive, and thus to agitate a re-viewing of meaning. The framers of the Constitution provided Garrison with a written target for agitation. Society called it a sacred compact; Garrison “forsoothed” that claim. He called it “a covenant with hell”, “the work of the Devil”. It sustained and perpetuated slavery, and was deserving “to be held in everlasting infamy”. This singular failure of the framers led Garrison to stir public recognition of the civil wrong they had done. They had joined in an “unblushing and monstrous coalition to do evil that good might come”; theirs was “an infamous bargain which they made between themselves”. The words of agitation became fiery act when he burned a copy of the Constitution at a public meeting!

On his first visit to England, Garrison found Elliott Cresson, the American agent for the Colonization Society, recruiting money and agents for the Society. Garrison followed him, seeking an opportunity to confront the colonization scheme. He was convinced colonization was wrong in several ways, all based in color prejudice. Frustrated at many turns, finally when Cresson appeared in the audience where Garrison was speaking, he invited Cresson to comment; though Cresson demurred, the editor leveled public severe charges to undermine the pro-slavery motives of the ACS.

Garrison led a constant barrage of agitation, through the newspaper, the wide distribution of tracts, local Anti Slavery Societies, Conventions in the states, lectures, sewing circle discussions, every form of meeting. Wherever people gathered, the Garrisionian influence was in an agitational style.

It will take only a few readings of the Liberator to conclude that the editor sought confrontation, welcomed any opportunity to “agitate”. The “Slavery Department” of the Liberator, later to become the “Refuge of Oppression” column, was designed specifically as the place the editor could put ideas which he deemed worthy of attack. A reader will quickly learn to expect that any item appearing in that column would, sooner or later, be answered by the editor, often by vitriol.

Political figures felt the agitation. Charles Sumner felt it shortly after taking his seat in the United States Senate. It was sixteen months before he spoke in the Senate about slavery, and he heard the sting of Garrison, prodding him each of those months. John Quincy Adams, was not free from attack when he failed at one point to satisfy the editor by saying that it was impractical to try to end the slave trade in the District of Columbia! Gerritt Smith was hardly in Congress before Garrison publicly challenged him to move for the expulsion of Southern legislators! They, Garrison reminded Smith, had their seats because of the three-fifth clause. By demanding their removal Smith would prove that he believed that the Constitution was based on slavery, which was the point Garrison wanted him to make. By such an act, the editor said, Smith would create a “hurricane of excitement”.
No Politician felt the sting more than Daniel Webster. In his memorable speech agreeing to what became the Compromise of 1850, Webster had criticized the radical abolitionists because they treated moral standards like mathematics, advocating that there was a clear “right” and “wrong”. Webster, a politician, knew that decisions in his sphere were not made except by compromise. Garrison responded with his “mathematics of justice” attack. Those who refused to see a clear “right” and “wrong” might discuss whether 2 plus 2 is six, or maybe four; argue about it, then shake hands in compromise, and say it is 5!!!! So much for the mathematics of justice!

After Webster’s death, a statue of him was erected and placed on the spacious green in front of the Massachusetts State House, where it still stands. The Liberator calls first for the statue to be placed on its side in the frog pond! Later Garrison urges petitions to have the statue removed. Even when the man was dead, he was not free from the agitator’s aim!

Agitation sometimes created new political possibilities. Senator Charles Sumner, reading Garrison on his ideas of Disunion, while in disagreement, yet was grateful that it created a climate in which “people now talk about the value of the Union, and the North begins to return the taunts of the South.” Agitation in the form of an unrelenting propaganda barrage from Garrison created a new ethical framework for law, and became an opening for new political possibilities. If politics is the art of the possible, agitation was the art of the morally desirable.

Occasionally it seemed to my usually sympathetic eye that Garrison was unnecessarily persistent in pursuit of a person like Father Theobald Matthews, for instance. From Ireland, this priest could have been a valuable aid in convincing local Irish to join the Abolition movement. Garrison could not get him to take a public antislavery position because he claimed his priority was temperance, not antislavery. Garrison set him up for confrontation, by inviting him publicly to speak at an Abolition gathering; when Father Matthews failed to respond, Garrison announced it in the paper, and for weeks, perhaps months, Matthews was hounded by letters about his failure. Reading those attacks, week after week, in the Liberator, I found myself sometimes saying, “Give it up, Lloyd; leave him alone!”

More than once the agitator became the iconoclast. In many divergences from the institutional church, Garrison at one point scheduled a series of Sunday morning lectures, at a time to conflict with Sunday worship hours; Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the invited speakers. You can imagine that some church pews were empty on that Sunday!

When one fugitive slave case was being contested, and Garrison wanted people to turn out by the hundreds at a public meeting, he circulated a notice of the meeting among the Ministers of Boston. The week following, in the Liberator, the editor published the names of each Minister who failed to read the notice!

At the occasion when John Stuart Mill and John Bright called Garrison the preeminent agitator of the century, it was said of Garrison … “he emancipated not only slaves, but the American mind. The whole intellect of the country has been set thinking about the fundamental question about society and government”

Ponder the tactics of this remarkable agitator!