When is “who?” a Garrisonian?

By Horace Seldon

Long before I had any real interest in history, somewhere in theological studies, I was taught that “Calvin was not a Calvinist”, “ Luther was not a Lutheran”, and then as a sort of joke, “John the Baptist was surely never a Baptist” !

On the surface that is all so obvious that it is almost unnecessary to assert. Yet I find myself reciting those words when I find competent historians writing about “Garrisonians”.

The term is used so casually, frequently without definition, that it sounds as if the reference is to some entity, some group, which identified itself as “Garrisonian”, with a clear statement of mission, purpose and program. I have yet to find such a body of people, so the term always raises suspicion about its accuracy. I have read of at least one Juvenile Garrison Society, active for a few years in the 1830’s in Boston’s north slope black community. I’m also confident that history may include several similar society’s which bore the “Garrison” name, in numerous towns in several other places. The adoption of the Garrison name is mostly just an acknowledgment of his importance to its members.

Often I have heard discussions of the Abolition movement, in which there is quick and easy reference to this person, or some other as a “Garrisonian”. While there may be an indication that said person believed or acted in a way which is sometimes considered to be a reflection of Mr. Garrison, there is often little which indicates any particular belief, program supported, or activity which characterizes that person as “Garrisonian”. The term, “Garrisonian”, in such circumstances is not helpful in defining either the person, the movement, and clearly not Mr. Garrison. As a matter of historical “accuracy”, I find it difficult to put Garrison himself into the ill-defined concept of “Garrisonian”. It may be the “contrarian” nature which I may have adopted from Garrison, which then leads me to claim that the term, as frequently used, has little real meaning.

Back to my early learning in theological studies, it was actually a lot easier to use the term “Calvinist”, “Lutheran”, “Baptist” with a degree of accuracy when discussing the beliefs or actions of a person as part of said group, than it is to use the term “Garrisonian” with a similar accuracy. In each of those three cases there is a historically named group, with carefully defined theological positions, making it helpful to say in particular ways, particular instances, so-and-so was a part of that group. There is no such historical group, claiming to be “Garrisonian”,with a history such as constitutes those denominations.

A concern that the designation of “Garrisonian” is not generally a helpful way to understand any abolitionist, begins with Garrison himself. It is easy to find ways in which Garrison was not a “Garrisonian”. If Garrison himself was not a “Garrisonian”, the term itself becomes at least cloudy.

One common reference to “Garrisonians”, builds on an error made about Garrison himself. The confusion began as folk learned that Garrison chose not to be involved in any political party. There is good evidence to support that; there is also good evidence to show that Garrison was involved in “politics”. It is amazing to read the many times/places/writings when his dis-engagement from political parties has led to claims that he was not involved in or with “politics”. To any who make that claim I invite them to choose any ten pages of the Liberator from any of its 35 years, and to sit with me and review the content of those ten pages. Mr. Garrison was clearly involved in “politics”, writing about , commenting on the political stances of individuals, taking positions on “politics”, which clearly belie any statement that he was not involved in “politics”. With that error in mind, too frequently other abolitionists who also chose not to engage in “parties”, have been put in a “non-political” “Garrisonian ” category. Thus the too common assumption that “Garrisonians” were people who were not “political”. If the assumption is that being non-political in concern is one definition of what it means to be “Garrisonian”, it is clear that Garrison was not “Garrisonian”. It is also clear that Garrison was in other ways not what many regard as “Garrisonian”.

Garrison’s commitment to nonviolent moral suasion is a cornerstone of his method to abolish slavery. Calling for the organizing of a national Anti-Slavery Society Garrison is adamant that the slave chains must be broken. Two ways in which that can happen is by the use of force on the part of the free states, or on the part of the enslaved themselves. He “discards” those two modes as “revolting and disastrous”. He wants to provide “light” on the issue, particularly to the people in the free states.” “ Their “heads are all wrong”. He calls for organizing to concentrate on the moral energies of the nation. My own study of Garrison leads to a conviction that he had not quite as thoroughly “discarded” the use of force as he thought. At several points in his speaking and writing he relaxes his nonviolent theme as he considers the possibility of the use of force by the oppressed; he finds it impossible to hold the slaves to his uncompromising standard.

With great consistency historians have put into the “Garrisonians” many abolitionists who claimed adherence to nonviolence. If a “Garrisonian” is one who will not use violence, then I will claim that, there are clear moments when Garrison was not a “Garrisonian”.

When speaking about the Boston Massacre,Garrison said that if Washington and his compatriots were justified in taking up arms, by the same logic the enslaved would also be justified in “breaking their chains over the heads of the oppressors”.

Was he a “Garrisonian” then?

When people in Boston asserted Elijah Lovejoy’s right to take up arms in his own defense, Garrison did not object.

Was he a “Garrisonian” then?

After Harper’s Ferry he says, “as a peace man, I am prepared to say, ‘Success to every slave insurrection at the South….”

Was he a “Garrisonian” then?

Comes President Lincoln’s Inaugural Address. In it, Lincoln hopes that there will be no need of bloodshed or violence unless it be “forced upon the federal authority”. Garrison objects: “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, for Garrison the alternative to dissolution is that “blood must flow like water”, and we hear no appeal to nonviolence or moral suasion!

Was Garrison a “Garrisonian” then?

During the War, as Garrison insists on the use of war powers to free all slaves, some began to ask him “what of his peace principles”? Garrison replied: : “Our reply is that the peace principles are as beneficent and glorious as ever…. Then 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.

If “Garrisonians” are those who are commited to nonviolence, is Garrison a “Garrisonian” ?

Just as action through political Parties became an issue on which many divided, there was division about whether or not voting should be obligatory for members of an Anti-Slavery Society. Contention over the issue itself was joined with disagreements regarding Garrison’s leadership. We know that Garrison did vote once. In 1848 he voted for the pacifist, Amasa Walker. The fact that he did vote that once, was often used as a way to challenge his consistency, and to demand that he support a requirement that all members of the AAS be pledged to vote. Garrison’s response was that wisdom had changed his views, and he refused to say that voting was obligatory for abolitionists. In the context of that argument he insisted only that if one were to vote they vote for abolition! Whether or not they voted was a matter left to individual conscience. It was not a position which makes it easy to define was a “Garrisonian”.

To continue this argument I could site numerous times when particular ideas and ways of acting were thought to represent a group of people called “Garrisonians”, and also indicate ways in which said persons did at some time or other, some way of other defy those definitions. I’ll not do that for fear that my attention to the concept of “Garrisonians”, will give it a time I do not intend.

If William Lloyd Garrison was not a “Garrisonian” , who was ?