I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject [slavery] I do not wish to think or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm . . . but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - AND I WILL BE HEARD. - William Lloyd Garrison, in the first issue of The Liberator (January 1, 1831)The subtitle of this book is "William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery." I knew something of Garrison from studying the Civil War. I knew that his newspaper, The Liberator, was one of the first in the United States to call for the abolition of slavery, and the most influential. I knew that he was hated and feared in the South, where he and his radical ideas, published in his paper, were blamed for the Nat Turner slave insurrection, which came just months after his first issue in 1831. (The State of Georgia put a price of $5000 on his head.) I knew that he refused to vote in elections, because it would mean participating in a government that condoned slavery. I thought of him as a John Brown figure, a man of violent words (if not deeds), fueled by deep anger at the injustice of slavery.
From this massive biography, I discovered that what I knew about William Lloyd Garrison just skimmed the surface of a complex and compelling man. I came to agree with what the author wrote of him in his Preface:
William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) is an authentic American hero who, with a biblical prophet's power and a propagandist's skill, forced the nation to confront the most crucial moral issue in its history. . .He inspired two generations of activists, female and male, black and white - and together they built a social movement which, like the civil rights movement of our own day, was a collaboration of ordinary people, stirred by injustice and committed to each other, who achieved a social change [abolition of slavery] that conventional wisdom first condemned as wrong and then ridiculed as impossible. . . Garrison did not shrink from the realization that the assault upon slavery would require a direct confrontation with American assumptions of white supremacy. He boldly coupled his demand for immediate emancipation with an insistence upon equal rights for black people, a principled stand that eluded every prominent political figure of his era.
The people of his own time understood his role in ending slavery - some loved and honored him, others continued to despise him. He was a polarizing figure, even in the northern states. But somehow in the 20th century, Garrison got pushed to the sidelines of history. Henry Mayer, an independent historian, wanted to right that, to put him back at the center of the story where he belongs, while recognizing the activists who worked alongside him in the decades of struggle.
I found this book mesmerizing (to the point that I was dreaming about it). Garrison himself is such an interesting character, with a childhood miserable enough to rival Anthony Trollope's. He was apprenticed in a printing shop, where like Benjamin Franklin he began writing as well as setting type. Despite a pugnacious personality in print, he was a sweet-tempered man, a little shy, a loving husband and father to seven children (two of whom died young). And he was a cat person. As a young man, he met in Boston Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker working to free individual slaves, and to open people's eyes to the evils of slavery. Lundy found a ready convert in Garrison. The disciple went forward faster and farther than the teacher, however. He saw clearly, and preached tirelessly, against the virulent racial prejudice in the northern states. Unlike many, he believed that African Americans were citizens, entitled to the same rights and privileges as whites (and therefore he opposed attempts to remove free and freed persons of color by "colonization" in Africa or Central America). He had close ties to the black community, who supported The Liberator in the first difficult year of publishing. African Americans also frequently wrote for the paper, as did women (black and white).
I don't think I ever understood before how deeply the abolitionists were hated in the beginning, in the north. White Americans did not want to hear about the wrongs of slavery - they didn't want to hear about it at all - and they did not want to hear that they were to blame in any way for it. That abolitionists held mixed-race meetings was another strike against them. In 1835, a crowd in Boston gathered to harass a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. When they found out that the hated Garrison was in the building, they tracked him down, with calls to lynch him, and he had to be jailed for his own protection. Another anti-slavery editor, Elijah Lovejoy, was murdered in Illinois, in 1837, and his printing press destroyed. The next year, a white mob in Philadelphia burned a hall in Philadelphia where black and white abolitionists had been meeting, while firemen stood by. Yet through all this, Garrison kept publishing, and the abolitionists kept organizing, handing out tracts and copies of The Liberator, speaking out on the sufferings of the enslaved people - and slowly, a consensus began to develop in the northern states that slavery was wrong. I also feel like I never fully appreciated the role that the abolitionists played in rousing the conscience of the north against slavery, and in advocating for equal rights. Once this consensus grew strong enough, politicians began to act on it.
I did not know, or had forgotten, that Garrison was also an early supporter of women's rights. Women in the United States first found their voice in reform movements like temperance and abolition. Garrison welcomed them to abolition work from the start. His concept of natural rights wasn't limited to one race or one sex. Others in the movement were less tolerant, and the movement would split into two groups over the participation of women. After the Civil War, with emancipation and black suffrage guaranteed by constitutional amendments, Garrison would turn to the fight for women's suffrage. He joined the American Women's Suffrage Association, headed by Lucy Stone, an old colleague from the anti-slavery campaigns. Drawing on his decades of experience, he helped them edit and publish a journal. (Susan B. Anthony was another anti-slavery campaigner, who was close friends with Garrison's wife Helen and "Aunt Susan" to their children.)
The fight over women's participation in the movement was not the only one, and Mayer covers the issues in great detail. He also spends considerable time exploring Garrison's very unorthodox spiritual life. He grew up in the evangelical Baptist faith of his mother, which shaped his language and in many ways his vision. But he moved away from organized religion, in part because the churches condoned slavery. I didn't know that in the 19th century, "coming out" meant leaving the institutional church, and the "come-outer" was a recognized religious identity. I was sometimes a bit lost among all the details of the different religious movements, and with the conflicts that frequently broke out among the abolitionists - leading to schisms in both groups. Mayer tracks them in exhaustive detail, in relation to Garrison. That detail accounts in part for the bulk of the book (over 700 pages with notes and index).
This book has inspired me to some additional reading, including a Penguin edition of essential abolitionist writings (from Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott and other leaders). I also have my eye on a six-volume biography of Garrison, written by two of his sons in 1885. Mayer used it extensively in writing this book, and he says that "the personal reminiscences that dot the pages are invaluable." Perhaps that is what gives this book such life, despite its bulk. Henry Mayer manages (in the words of historian Paul Murray Kendall) "to elicit, from the coldness of paper, the warmth of a life being lived." And what a life.