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William Lloyd Garrison

journalist famous for his denunciations of slavery

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1805, the fourth of Abijah and Francis Maria Garrison's five children. His father, a merchant sailing master, desrted the family in 1808, leaving his mother to raise her children in poverty. Forced to begin working while still quite young, he served apprenticeships with a shoemaker and a cabinetmaker before finding his "calling."

In 1818, Garrison began working as an apprentice compositor for the Newburyport Herald. The paper's owner, Ephraim W. Allen, was impressed enough with the young man that he soon made Garrison an editor/writer. In 1826, after finishing his apprenticeship, he borrowed money from former employer and purchased the Newburyport Essex Courant, which he renamed the Newburyport Free Press and used as a political instrument for expressing the sentiments of the old Federalist Party. His sentiments wrankled most of his subscribers, however, and the paper folded within six months. After the Free Press folded, Garrison moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he became a journeyman printer and editor for the National Philanthropist, a newspaper dedicated to advocating absolute temperance.

Crusader for Abolition

Garrison became a member of the abolitionist movement after meeting pioneer anti-slavery propagandist and organizer Benjamin Lundy in 1828. Lundy subsequently made Garrison an editor of his Baltimore, Maryland-based paper The Genius of Universal Emancipation, the first American paper dedicated to the abolitionist cause. Garrison's editorials aimed at slave dealers led to him being sued for libel by a shipper from Newburyport, and to a criminal fine being levied against him by the State of Maryland. Garrison spent seven weeks in jail for refusing to pay the fine, after which he decided to leave Baltimore.

Garrison was an early supporter of the American Colonization Society, an organization that believed free blacks should emigrate to a territory on the west coast of Africa. He dissociated himself from the movement, however, after learning that a great number of its members were actually pro-slavers who simply wanted to reduce the number of free blacks in the country.

Returning to Boston, Garrison established The Liberator, the first issue of which was published on January 1, 1831. In that issue, he declared "I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. . . . I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD." He and his paper lived up to that declaration until ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

In the 1830's the majority of anti-slavers advocated gradual, as opposed to immediate, abolition, because they did not believe that freed slaves would have difficulty assimilating into American society. Garrison, however, that they could assimilate, and that, in time, all blacks would be equal in every way to the country's white citizens. In 1832 he helped organize the New England Anti-Slavery Society, the first society for the immediate abolition of slavery, which subsequently became part of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which Garrison also co-founded. Although the members of both societies agreed with the principal of immediate abolition, there was considerable division over how to achieve the objective. While many thought the fight should be a political one, Garrison "limited" it to a "war of words." Garrison also fought to give women equal rights within the Society. In 1840 there was a major rift in the Society, which resulted in the founding of two additional organizations -- the Liberty Party, a political organization, and the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which did not admit women.

Despite almost always being in the minority, Garrison remained steadfast in his convictions. He refused to vote and openly opposed the U. S. government because it permitted slavery. On July 4, 1854, at Framingham, Massachusetts, he publicly burned a copy of the U. S. Constitution. He even called for the Northern states to secede, and was an early opponent of the Union responding to the South's secession with a declaration of war. He did come to support Abraham Lincoln's handling of the Civil War, however, after the President made slavery an "official issue."

Ratification of the 13th Amendment brought The Liberator's purpose to an end, and Garrison spent his last 14 years in retirement from public affairs. He continued, however, to openly support the Republican Party, temperance, women's rights, pacifism, and free trade. He died in New York City, New York, on May 24, 1879.

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Revolution to Civil War, 1775/1783-1861 >> Slavery in the United States

This page was last updated on February 21, 2018.