The “Oughtness” of Life was Primary for Garrison

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

Garrison was not the first to call for the immediate abolition of slavery. In his first public address he urged the establishment of chapters of the American Colonization Society, an agency which adopted a “gradualist” approach to emancipation. The influence of colored citizens in Boston, and later in Baltimore, led him to reject “gradualism”, and the ACS. One context of these changes is the religious vision of what life “ought” to be. The Christian evangelical roots of his Mother and early mentors can be seen at work on the abolitionist conscience. Garrison’s discontent when contemplating that “most atrocious villany” of slavery would not let him be satisfied with a “gradual” or partial emancipation. The seeds of his discontent grew toward “immediatism”.

The English Quaker, Elizabeth Heyrick, was among the earlier people to call for “immediatism”. She wrote in 1824 a pamphlet that Benjamin Lundy printed in his Genius of Emancipation. A later speech by W.C. Nell, refers to Heyrick in a manner that increases the probability that Garrison was affected by her pamphlet.

Heyrick wrote of the manner in which slave holders had “cajoled” abolitionists into the idea that emancipation could come only gradually, and they should be discour-aged from asking for anything more. Slave holders knew that a call for gradual emancipation “would beget a gradual indifference to emancipation.” Such “meddling” with human virtue and happiness, is the “very masterpiece of satanic policy”. Heyrick feared that “if public justice and humanity, especially if Christian justice and humanity could be brought to demand only a gradual extermination of the enormities of the slave system; if they could be brought to acquiesce, but for one year, or for one month, in the slavery of our African brother, — in robbing him of all the rights of humanity, — and degrading him to a level with the brutes; that then, they could imperceptibly be brought to acquiesce in all this for an unlimited duration.”

Heyrick insisted that the abolitionists must “enter the lists….with more of the spirit of Christian combatants, and less of worldly politicians”. She used language about “an holy war”, “an attack upon the strong holds, the deep entrenchments of the very power of darkness; in which, courage would be more availing than caution.” The “great business of emancipation” cannot be converted into “an object of political calculation”. Disappointment of defeat will be the inevitable consequence if abolitionists withdraw the struggle from its “Divine patronage”. “Truth and justice make their best way in the world when they appear in bold and simple majesty with more the spirit of Christian combatants, and less of worldly politicians.”

Bold and combatant might well be adjectives for Garrison. His call for an immediate end to slavery opened him to the charge of irrelevance. Fear of being called irrelevant in the call for an immediate end to slavery, might easily have persuaded him to call for less than what “ought” to be. That Heyrick would not do; that Garrison would not do.

Garrison charged listeners to consider the example of the threat of a fire in their homes. “You do not ‘gradually’ call for the firemen to come ‘gradually’, to ‘gradually’ put out your fire … you want it immediately extinquished”. In a public venue, someone challenged him with the fact that surely “immediate” was not going to happen. Why then advocate it? Garrison’s response: “We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow, that it ought to be we shall always contend”.

“Oughtness” dominates much of Garrison’s motivation. In an early edition of the Liberator, in 1832, Lloyd began judging actions on the grounds of conscience rather than expediency, and he specifically rejected the latter. “Nor does immediate abolition mean that any compulsory power, other than moral. should be used in breaking the fetters of slavery …there are three modes in 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 (we should visit those words later when we speak of nonresistance)… and by an enlightened and benevolent public opinion.”

The last was Garrison’s choice. In the very paper from which I quote, written actually after the beginning of the NEASS, Garrison calls for a “National” Anti-Slavery Society. Its purpose should be to “concentrate the moral energies of the nation. The people everywhere want light on this subject … nothing but light. Their hearts are all right, their heads are all wrong.”

There must be a “revolution of moral opinion”. “Oughtness” becomes a central urgency. Garrison did not say it in the magnificent cadence of Martin Luther King, Jr., but he knew that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Garrison knew that; he called for an immediate implementation of the arc’s goal.

Where does the arc begin? At that immense 1855 celebration of the ending of separate schools for colored children in Boston, Garrison said, “societal reform begins in the heart of a solitary individual,…grows strong among ‘humble men and women….having faith in what is just and true, they engage in the work….”

If this emphasis on moral “oughtness” sounds to be the edge of irrelevance, and before we succumb to expedience, consider these words from Abolitionist Hannah Webb: Think of “A world in which there would be no slavery, no king, no beggars, no lawyers, no doctors, no soldiers, no palaces, no prisons, no creeds, no sects, no weary or grinding labor, no luxurious idleness, no peculiar Sabbath or temple … no restraint but moral restraint, no constraining power but love. Shall we judge such a man because he may go a little further than we are prepared to follow?”