Monday, December 14, 2015

William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery, William E. Cain, editor

After reading a 700-page biography of William Lloyd Garrison, which chronicled his part in the struggle to end slavery in the United States, I was curious to read Garrison's own words. I was not however ready to commit to the entire 35 years of his pioneering weekly newspaper The Liberator, especially since it's only available on microfilm or in distant archives; or even to the six volumes of his published letters (yet). I was happy to find this book of "Selections from The Liberator," drawn from the first issue in 1831 to the last at the end of 1865. It begins with a biographical essay on Garrison by the editor William Cain and an overview of slavery in the United States, which accounts for almost a third of the book. Dr. Cain also wrote a brief introduction to each selection from the paper, giving some background on the topic being covered and noting related articles in other issues of the paper, for further reading.

Naturally the main focus of the selections here is Garrison's own: his call for immediate emancipation of all enslaved people, and the full acceptance of African Americans as citizens with all the rights enjoyed by white Americans. There were frequent explanations of why slavery was wrong, why human beings could not be held in bondage or denied their rights just because they were black. The language used was simple and clear:
No man has a right to enslave or embrute his brother - to hold or acknowledge him, for one moment, as a piece of merchandise - to keep back his hire by fraud - or to brutalize his mind by denying him the means of intellectual, social and moral improvement. . . Every man has a right to his own body - to the products of his own labor - to the protection of law - and to the common advantages of society. ("Declaration of the National Anti-Slavery Convention," 1833).
That these points were repeated so frequently made me realize how hard it must have been to get even these basic ideas heard, let alone accepted. The selections also show Garrison's commitment to social and political equality for African Americans, and to pacifism and non-resistance. And as early as 1838, Garrison was writing in favor of equal rights for women. This issue would lead to schism among the abolitionists, but Garrison never wavered. He introduced a resolution at the Fourth Annual National Woman's Rights Convention, in 1853, which is amazingly broad in scope for its time:
Resolved, that woman, as well as man, has a right to the highest mental and physical development - to the most ample educational development - to the occupancy of whatever position she can reach in Church and State, in science and art, in poetry and music, in painting and sculpture, in civil jurisprudence and political economy, and in the varied departments of human industry, enterprise and skill - to the elective franchise - and to a voice in the administration of justice and the passage of laws for the general welfare.
I found the selections informative and interesting. I enjoyed reading Garrison's own words, which convey the passion he felt in the fight against slavery.  His language was sometimes violent, particularly when calling people north and south to account for their sins. I appreciated the background information that Dr. Cain provided, especially on slavery itself. It was chilling to read that in the 1850s, slave owners in the eastern states were selling 25,000 slaves each year to the western slave states. That really underlined the abolitionist argument that slavery destroyed families - so many families torn apart in those years.

However, after reading the Meyer biography, I took issue a couple of points in the biographical essay. First, Dr. Cain stated that whatever Garrison said about women's rights, he expected his wife Helen to play the traditional home-bound role of wife and mother. Henry Meyer quoted a letter from Helen to Garrison before their marriage, where she wrote that she did not want to play a public role in abolition or other reform works. Garrison respected her decision, and in fact she did sometimes join in the work (for example helping to organize an annual antislavery fundraising fair). As their children grew up, she also took on a more active role - again, her own decision. Second, I disagree with Dr. Cain's dismissal of Garrison's role after the Civil War: his "main activity in the postwar years was performing the role of abolitionist hero." Yes, he took his share of the honors belatedly given to the abolitionists. But he wasn't just sitting around waiting to be given awards or promoting himself. He was out working on behalf of the freed people, women's rights, immigrants and Native Americans. In a biographical essay of 57 pages, of course there isn't the scope for a full biography. But I think these two points are important. I would never argue that Garrison was a saint, but on the evidence he was at least innocent of these two sins.

Next up in my abolitionist reading course is the second autobiography of Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom. I understand it covers his break with Garrison over tactics and strategy, as well as Douglass's decision to start his own abolitionist newspaper, in competition with The Liberator.  As a bonus, published in 1855, it will fill another year in my Mid-Century of Books.


  1. In list of most influential people of the past couple of hundred years, William Lloyd Garrison has to be in the top ten. It takes passion, work, and energy to accomplish what he did, and like most people, he was complex. I'm not sure I'm up to this kind of in-depth bio of the man, but I applaud your delving into the subject with such rigor.

    I imagine My Bondage and My Freedom will prove fascinating as well.

    1. Jane, I am finding this all so fascinating. It's a part of the Civil War - and American history in general - that I've never really understood. And there are so many aspects of it to explore. I'm particularly interested in the role it played in the women's rights movement, and also the involvement of African Americans, both free and freed.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!