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

William Lloyd Garrison

Like Benjamin Franklin, William Lloyd Garrison came from a poor New England family, was apprenticed to a printer, thus developed his skills in editing and writing, and applied them to a revolutionary cause. Both also believed that human beings were capable of infinite improvement and both devoted themselves to their divergent ideas of doing good in a wide variety of arenas. There the similarities cease. Indeed, it would be difficult to find two men more unlike in temperament, habits of mind, and prose. Franklin—worldly, conscious of image, ever ready to compromise, to seize the main chance, to accept the politic bird in the hand; given a bit to fat and a bit to smugness; a man who brought others together with humor, hard work, a touch of irony. Garrison—provincial, indifferent to opinion, as uncompromising with friend as with foe, ever demanding the “last full measure of devotion”; spare, humorless in public, and self-righteous, it may be; a man who brought others together with the goad of his rhetoric and the heat of his passion. Franklin, whose final political act was to persuade the Constitutional delegates to accept the imperfect document they had created; Garrison, who came to denounce that document as a “covenant with Death and an agreement with Hell.”

Garrison’s father, an amiable sailing master somewhat given to drink, abandoned the family in 1808, three years after the birth of William Lloyd in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Reduced to poverty, Garrison’s mother sought employment as a nurse in Lynn, then in Baltimore. At age 13, Garrison secured an apprenticeship in the office of the Newburyport Herald, where he learned printing and began to write anonymously for the paper. Concluding his apprenticeship in 1826, Garrison worked as a compositor and editor of newspapers committed to temperance and political causes. In 1828, however, he met Benjamin Lundy, editor of The Genius of Universal Emancipation, virtually the only national newspaper devoted solely to the somnolent anti-slavery cause. Garrison would, they agreed, become associate editor. But by the time he took up that task, he had abandoned the position Lundy held, that slavery would be ended by gradually emancipating blacks and colonizing them in Africa. Instead, Garrison began to argue for immediate emancipation without colonization or compensation. He also denounced a Newburyport merchant for transporting slaves from Baltimore to New Orleans. Convicted of libel, Garrison was, in lieu of payment of a fine and costs, sent to jail for forty-nine days. Characteristically, he turned confinement into a platform for a stream of anti-slavery poems and letters affirming his right to free speech.

In January of 1831, he had established himself in Boston where, with Isaac Knapp, he began issuing the Liberator. Set in the few hours they could spare from their jobs, printed with borrowed type, issued from a dingy office that also served as their lodging, the paper had within a few years effected a sea change in anti-slavery sentiment. Garrison succeeded in confronting Americans with stark moral choices. Slavery, he argued, was a crime against God and man—the most heinous of crimes. Gradualism and colonization merely perpetuated that crime; indeed, compounded it by maintaining that whites and blacks could not live together in one harmonious society. Only immediate emancipation could eradicate that crime, restore the moral integrity of American society, and bring to fruition the promise of the Declaration of Independence. To this position Garrison held unswervingly, insistently, clamorously for over thirty years. If friends held out political compromises for the sake of “ultimate” progress, he rejected them; if the Constitution was interpreted as sustaining slaveholding, he denounced it. And if others could not see the moral revolution entailed in immediate, unconditional emancipation, he would enlighten them.

He was effective. Quickened by his rhetoric and by his influence in organizing the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, Southern militants began defending slavery as a positive good and arguing for its extension into new territories. In turn, Northerners came to regard the South as aggressively pushing its peculiar institution throughout the democracy. In the North, the militance of Garrison and his supporters was often met with mob actions by pro-slavery forces, which helped mobilize moderates to defend at least the right of abolitionists to be heard. Garrison was, in short, a burr under the political saddle of ante-bellum America, which no amount of careful riding could dislodge; a “practical agitator,” as John Jay Chapman later described him, keeping the issues to which he devoted himself at a boil.

These encompassed every significant reform posed in his time: temperance, women’s rights, pacifism. The American Anti-Slavery Society split in 1840, largely because the Garrisonians insisted that women could not on principle be excluded from full participation in the work of reform. Indeed, Garrison joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in the gallery at the World Anti-Slavery Congress in London because they had not been allowed to take their seats as delegates. He broke with Frederick Douglass over the latter’s espousal of political action apart from appeals to conscience, and Douglass’s growing doubts about the practicality of Garrisonian non-resistance as a means for overcoming the slave power.

These were, for Garrison, not miscellaneous positions. Rather, they were rooted in the millenial beliefs of the Great Awakening that God’s kingdom would be brought in by people actively committed to eradicating not just their own wrongdoings but sinfulness from the world. To be a Christian was, for Garrison, to carry out literally the injunctions of the Sermon on the Mount. In particular, he was committed to the principle of “non-resistance to evil by violence,” for “he denied the right of any man whatsoever, or any body of men, forcibly to coerce another man in any way,” to quote Leo Tolstoi, who was strongly influenced by him. Garrison, Tolstoi continues, “was the first to proclaim this principle as a rule for the organization of the life of men.” For coercion, Garrison would substitute what he perceived as ultimately human: the rational and loving persuasion of one person by another. He saw in slavery, in male domination, in the practice of politics, instances of forcible coercion, and thus he opposed them, not so much because they were impractical or unlawful or cruel, but because they perpetuated inhuman relationships among people. The difficulties Garrison presents for today’s readers may thus be less a matter of his alleged shrillness and fanaticism than our skepticism that non-violence, whether articulated by Thoreau or practiced by Martin Luther King, Jr., is a ground upon which we can construct peaceful and free societies.

Garrison’s “Preface” to Frederick Douglass’s Narrative is printed with that work in the book.
Paul Lauter
Trinity College

In the Heath Anthology
Editorial from the first issue of The Liberator (1885)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
Image fileNorthern Sentiments on Slavery

Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.


Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison Admits of No Compromise with the Evil of Slavery
The text of Garrison's 1854 speech.

Africans in America
Brief biography and photograph of Garrison.

William Lloyd Garrison
A hypertext biography from the National Park Service.

Secondary Sources

John Jay Chapman, William Lloyd Garrison, 1921

Archibald Henry Grimke, William Lloyd Garrison: The Abolitionist, 1969

Aileen S. Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850, 1969

Walter M. Merrill, Against Wind and Tide: A Biography of William Lloyd Garrison, 1963

William B. Rogers, "We Are All Together Now": Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and the Prophetic Tradition, 1995

James Brewer Stewart, William Lloyd Garrison and the Challenge of Emancipation, 1992

John L. Thomas, The Liberator: William Lloyd Garrison, A Biography, 1963

Fanny Garrison Villard, William Lloyd Garrison on Non-Resistance, 1924