InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Henry Highland Garnet

Less well known than Frederick Douglass or Charles Lenox Remond, who were his contemporaries, Henry Highland Garnet was early identified as a radical within the abolitionist movement because he argued for active resistance to slavery. Prior to Garnet, the prevailing strategy adopted by black abolitionists had been to oppose slavery by appealing to Christian morality and to conduct that opposition largely within the bounds of law: thus, for example, Charles Lenox Remond focused his attention on social conditions in Massachusetts and Frederick Douglass made a point of purchasing his own freedom. Although Garnet’s position, reflected here in An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America (1843), was initially rejected as extreme and dangerous, enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, the Dred Scott case, the Mexican War, and the general political climate which led to the Civil War eventually made Garnet’s advocacy of civil disobedience, indeed resistance, appear appropriate, if not also moderate or mainstream, as a response to slavery.

Garnet had known slavery. Born in 1815, on the Maryland estate of Colonel William Spencer, he escaped with his father, the son of a Mandingo chieftain, when he was nine years old. The family fled to Wilmington, traveling by night, and then, aided by Quakers in the Underground Railroad, escaped to New Hope, Pennsylvania, and finally settled in New York City. Garnet attended the New York African Free School on Mulberry Street, a school of some three hundred black students, between 1826 and 1828. But education did not bring Free School students better jobs in New York, so in 1828 Garnet went to sea as a cabin boy, making at least two voyages to Cuba. The following year, when he returned to New York, he found that the family home had been looted by slave-hunters and that his sister had been arrested as a “fugitive from labor.” Although his sister was eventually released, the experience had a permanent and radical effect on Garnet. He bought a large knife, which he wore openly, and stalked up Broadway, looking for the men who had invaded his home. Fearing for his safety, friends persuaded him to go to Long Island, where he remained for a few years, working and studying. During that period, Garnet suffered a knee injury which left him permanently crippled and eventually required the amputation of his leg. Hobbled, dependent on a crutch, he turned his attention fully to study.

For the next several years, Garnet attended school in New York, went briefly to a school in Canaan, New Hampshire, where he and other black students were driven out of town by angry citizens, and finally to the Oneida Institute in upstate New York. Following his graduation in 1840, Garnet married, taught school, and began to study theology. In 1843, the year of his ordination as a Presbyterian minister, Garnet attended the Negro national convention in Buffalo. Although Garnet was by this time well known in abolitionist circles, this was his first direct encounter with Frederick Douglass, and the meeting marked the beginning of a rivalry which persisted until the 1850s. Douglass, who embraced William Lloyd Garrison’s approach to abolition and who endorsed women’s rights as well, was opposed to supporting the Liberty Party, to which Garnet belonged, and believed that the use of violence was contrary to Christian teaching. In Garnet’s view, abolition of slavery was vastly more important than any other cause, and in An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America he argued that it was sinful not to use violence if it were necessary to end submission to slave owners.

Garnet’s speech took a set of ideas earlier and more radically expressed in David Walker’s Appeal. Walker had said that slaves should wait for an opportunity and then “kill or be killed” to restore their natural rights. Garnet, subtly adapting Walker’s entreaty, claimed that the condition of servitude effectively made it impossible for slaves to obey the Ten Commandments. Thus, it was their Christian obligation to resist, and resist violently if necessary: “You had far better all die—die immediately, than live slaves and entail your wretchedness upon your posterity.” Garnet’s many detractors feared that he was encouraging actions which might lead to a blood bath, and in fact, John Brown, who in 1859 led the raid on Harpers Ferry, had the speech printed and widely circulated.

Garnet’s disagreements with Douglass and the Garrisonians were not limited to the use of violence, for he later became a supporter of voluntary emigration to Africa, and Douglass found occasion to argue with him from the pages of his newspaper, The North Star. But in 1850, Garnet removed himself from the American scene, going to Germany and Britain to lecture, and finally to Jamaica as a Presbyterian missionary. Yet, after his return to America, political sentiments had shifted, and many of Garnet’s ideas seemed less alien and threatening. By 1863, Garnet and Douglass were united in recruiting Negro troops for the Union Army, and they later joined in efforts to raise funds for Mary Todd Lincoln. In February, 1865, when Congress enacted the bill which became the Thirteenth Amendment, President Lincoln invited Garnet to deliver a sermon in the House of Representatives. He was the first of his race to speak before that body, the first black to enter the House except as a servant.

Garnet’s address, widely and favorably reported, brought him national fame. For the next several years, he continued to lecture on economic subjects and on civil rights, and in 1881, having been appointed Minister Resident and Consul General, he traveled to Liberia, where he died. Throughout his life, Garnet was drawn to ideas which were received with suspicion by centrist abolitionists. Before Frederick Douglass founded the North Star, Garnet had recommended establishment of a national printing press. His support of voluntary emigration, which was vehemently opposed by the Garrisonians, arose from his interest in opposing slavery both in the United States and abroad. He argued that the Christian Church, through its silence, had supported the institution of slavery. Although he worked to end slavery in America, he looked to Cuba and Haiti and Jamaica and Africa to understand the international character of the “peculiar institution,” for his perspective was always global in scope. His intellectual independence set him apart from others equally dedicated to his cause, and his passion sometimes frightened even those who agreed with him in principle, but he broadened and deepened the debate over slavery, and he deserves to be better remembered as a genuinely radical black voice for abolition.
Allison Heisch
San Jose State University

In the Heath Anthology
An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America, Buffalo, N.Y., 1843 (1848)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.


Africans in America
PBS site offering a photograph and a brief biography.

Bright Moments
Scanned drawing and a short biography.

Secondary Sources

Robert Haynes, Blacks in White America Before 1865, 1972

Martin B. Pasternak, Rise Now and Fly to Arms: The Life of Henry Highland Garnet, 1995

Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists, 1969

Joel Schor, Henry Highland Garnet, 1977

Sterling Stuckey, Going Through the Storm: The Influence of African American Art in History, 1994