William Lloyd Garrison (December 12, 1805 – May 24, 1879) –

Abolitionist and Editor of The Liberator



William Lloyd Garrison
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID rbcmil scrp6013501

Introduction: In the very first issue of his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison stated, “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.” And Garrison was heard. For more than three decades, from the first issue of his weekly paper in 1831, until after the end of the Civil War in 1865 when the last issue was published, Garrison spoke out eloquently and passionately against slavery and for the rights of America’s black inhabitants

Early Years: Garrison was born on December 12, 1805, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, the son of immigrants from the British colony of New Brunswick, in present-day Canada. Under An Act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen, his father, Abijah Garrison, a merchant sailing pilot and master, had obtained American papers and moved his family to Newburyport in 1806. The U.S. Embargo Act of 1807, intended to injure Great Britain, caused a decline in American commercial shipping. The elder Garrison became unemployed and deserted the family in 1808 forcing them to scrounge for food from more prosperous families and forcing William to work, selling homemade molasses candy and delivering wood.

Garrison’s mother was Frances Maria Lloyd, reported to have been tall, charming, and of a strong religious character. She started referring to their son William as Lloyd, his middle name, to preserve her family name. She died in 1823, in the town of Springfield, Massachusetts.

In 1818, at age 13, Garrison began working as an apprentice compositor for the Newburyport Herald. He soon began writing articles, often under the pseudonym Aristides. Aristides was an Athenian statesman and general nicknamed “the Just.” After his apprenticeship ended in 1826, Garrison and a young printer named Issac Knapp bought their own newspaper, the short-lived Free Press. One of their regular contributors was poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier. In this early work as a small town newspaper writer, Garrison acquired skills he would later use as a nationally known writer, speaker and newspaper publisher. In 1828, he was appointed editor of the National Philanthropist in Boston, Massachusetts, the first American journal to promote legally-mandated temperance.

At the age of 25, Garrison joined the anti-slavery movement, later crediting the 1826 book of Presbyterian Reverend John Rankin, Letters on Slavery, for attracting him to the cause. For a brief time he became associated with the American Colonization Society, an organization that promoted the resettlement of free blacks to a territory (now known as Liberia) on the west coast of Africa. Although some members of the society encouraged granting freedom to slaves, others considered relocation a means to reduce the number of already free blacks in the United States. Southern members thought reducing the threat of free blacks in society would help preserve the institution of slavery. By late 1829–1830, “Garrison rejected colonization of blacks in Africa, publicly apologized for his error, and then, as was typical of him, he censured all who were committed to it.

Quaker Newspaper: Genius of Universal Emancipation

Garrison began writing for and became co-editor with Benjamin Lundy of the Quaker newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation in Baltimore, Maryland. With his experience as a printer and newspaper editor, Garrison changed the layout of the paper and handled other operation issues. Lundy was then freed to spend more time touring as an anti-slavery speaker. Garrison initially shared Lundy’s gradualist views about slavery, but while working for the Genius, he became convinced of the need to demand immediate and complete emancipation. Lundy and Garrison continued to work together on the paper in spite of their differing views. Each signed their own editorials.


American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, three-quarter-length, seated
Photo: Public Domain

Garrison introduced “The Black List,” a column devoted to printing short reports of “the barbarities of slavery”—kidnappings, whippings, murders. For instance, Garrison reported that Francis Todd, a shipper from Garrison’s home town of Newburyport, Massachusetts, was involved in the domestic slave trade, and that he had recently had slaves shipped from Baltimore to New Orleans in the coastwise trade on his ship the Francis. (This was thoroughly legal, although the U.S. had in 1807 prohibited the international slave trade from Africa.)

Todd filed a suit for libel in Maryland against both Garrison and Lundy; he thought to gain support from pro-slavery courts. The state of Maryland also brought criminal charges against Garrison, quickly finding him guilty and ordering him to pay a fine of $50 and court costs. (Charges against Lundy were dropped on the grounds that he had been traveling when the story was printed.) Garrison refused to pay the fine and was sentenced to a jail term of six months. He was released after seven weeks when the anti-slavery philanthropist Arthur Tappan donated the money for the fine. Garrison decided to leave Baltimore, and he and Lundy amicably agreed to part ways.

In 1831, Garrison returned to New England, where he co-founded a weekly anti-slavery newspaper, the Liberator, with his friend Isaac Knapp. In the first issue, Garrison stated:

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, 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; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—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. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

In speaking engagements and through the Liberator and other publications, Garrison advocated the immediate emancipation of all slaves. This was an unpopular view during the 1830s, even with northerners who were against slavery. What would become of all the freed slaves? Certainly they could not assimilate into American society, they thought. Garrison believed that they could assimilate. He believed that, in time, all blacks would be equal in every way to the country’s white citizens. They, too, were Americans and entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Though circulation of the Liberator was relatively limited — there were less than 400 subscriptions during the paper’s second year — Garrison soon gained a reputation for being the most radical of abolitionists. Still, his approach to emancipation stressed nonviolence and passive resistance, and he did attract a following. In addition to publishing the Liberator, Garrison spearheaded the organization of a new movement to demand the total abolition of slavery in the United States. By January 1832, he had attracted enough followers to organize the New England Anti-Slavery Society which, by the following summer, had dozens of affiliates and several thousand members. In December 1833, abolitionists from ten states, including Garrison, Arthur Tappan, Lewis Tappan, and Theodore Dwight Weld, founded the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS). Although the New England society reorganized in 1835 as the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, enabling state societies to form in the other New England states, it remained the hub of anti-slavery agitation throughout the antebellum period. Many affiliates were organized by women who responded to Garrison’s appeals for women to take active part in the abolition movement. The largest of these was the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, which raised funds to support the Liberator, publish anti-slavery pamphlets, and conduct anti-slavery petition drives. The purpose of the American Anti-Slavery Society was the conversion of all Americans to the philosophy that “Slaveholding is a heinous crime in the sight of God” and that “…duty, safety, and best interests of all concerned, require its immediate abandonment without expatriation.”

Paid subscription to the Liberator was always smaller than its circulation. In 1834 it had two thousand subscribers, three-fourths of whom were blacks. Benefactors paid to have the newspaper distributed to influential statesmen and public officials. Although Garrison rejected physical force as a means for ending slavery, his critics took his demand for immediate emancipation literally. Some believed he advocated the sudden and total freeing of all slaves, and considered him a dangerous fanatic. Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Virginia just seven months after the Liberator started publication fueled the outcry against Garrison in the South. A North Carolina grand jury indicted him for distributing incendiary material, and the Georgia Legislature offered a $5,000 reward for his capture and conveyance to the state for trial. Meanwhile, on September 4, 1834, Garrison married Helen Eliza Benson (1811–1876), the daughter of a retired abolitionist merchant. The couple had five sons and two daughters, of whom a son and a daughter died as children.

Helen Elizabeth Garrison

Helen Elizabeth Garrison
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID cph 3a51921

Garrison was unyielding and steadfast in his beliefs. He believed that the Anti-Slavery Society should not align itself with any political party. He believed that women should be allowed to participate in the Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison’s appeal for women’s mass petitioning against slavery sparked a controversy over women’s right to a political voice. In 1837, women abolitionists from seven states convened in New York to expand their petitioning efforts and repudiate the social mores that proscribed their participation in public affairs. That summer, sisters Angelina Grimke and Sara Grimke responded to the controversy roused by their public speaking with treatises on woman’s rights – Angelina’s “Letters to Catherine E. Beecher” and Sarah’s “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and Condition of Woman” – and Garrison published them first in the Liberator and then in book form. Instead of surrendering to appeals for him to retreat on the “woman question,” Garrison announced in December 1837 that The Liberator would support “…the rights of woman to their utmost extent.” The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society appointed women to leadership positions and hired Abby Kelley as the first of several female field agents.

Garrison’s Liberator paper continued to be the leading advocate of woman’s rights throughout the 1840s, publishing editorials, speeches, legislative reports and other developments concerning the subject. In February 1849, Garrison’s name headed the women’s suffrage petition sent to the Massachusetts legislature, the first such petition sent to any American legislature, and he supported the subsequent annual suffrage petition campaigns organized by Lucy Stone and Wendell Phillips. Garrison took a leading role in the May 30, 1850, meeting that called the first National Woman’s Rights Convention, saying in his address to that meeting that the new movement should make securing the ballot to women its primary goal. At the national convention held in Worcester the following October, Garrison was appointed to the National Woman’s Rights Central Committee, which served as the movement’s executive committee, charged with carrying out programs adopted by the conventions, raising funds, printing proceedings and tracts, and organizing annual conventions.

Garrison  believed that the U.S. Constitution was a pro-slavery document and therefore illegal. Garrison and his supporters called for the creation of a new government that would forbid slavery. Many within the Society differed with these positions, contending that Garrison’s views were too radial. 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. Later, in 1851, the once devoted and admiring Frederick Douglass stated his belief that the Constitution could be used as a weapon against slavery. Garrison, feeling betrayed, attacked Douglass through his paper. Douglass responded, and the attacks intensified.

The Liberator gradually gained a large following in the northern states. By 1861 it had subscribers across the North, as well as in England, Scotland, and Canada. It was received in state legislatures, governor’s mansions, Congress, and the White House. Although Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a government decree, Garrison supported it wholeheartedly. After the end of the Civil War in 1865, Garrison published his last issue of the Liberator. After thirty five years and 1,820 issues, Garrison did not fail to publish a single issue. In the final issue, on December 29, 1865, after reviewing his long career in journalism and the cause of abolitionism, in a “Valedictory” column he wrote:

The object for which the Liberator was commenced—the extermination of chattel slavery—having been gloriously consummated, it seems to me specially appropriate to let its existence cover the historic period of the great struggle; leaving what remains to be done to complete the work of emancipation to other instrumentalities, (of which I hope to avail myself,) under new auspices, with more abundant means, and with millions instead of hundreds for allies.

Post Civil War Career: After his withdrawal from AAS and ending the Liberator, Garrison continued to participate in public reform movements. He supported the causes of civil rights for blacks and woman’s rights, particularly the campaign for suffrage. He contributed to write columns on Reconstruction and civil rights for The Independent and The Boston Journal.

In 1870, he became an associate editor of the women’s suffrage newspaper, the Woman’s Journal.  He served as president of both the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association. He was a major figure in New England’s woman suffrage campaigns during the 1870s.

In 1873, he healed his long estrangements from Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips  affectionately reuniting with them on the platform at an AWSA rally organized by Abby Kelly Foster and Lucy Stone on the one hundredth anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. When Charles Sumner died in 1874, some Republicans suggested Garrison as a possible successor to his Senate seat; Garrison declined on grounds of his moral opposition to taking office.

Later Life and Death: Garrison spent more time at home with his family. He wrote weekly letters to his children and cared for his increasingly ill wife, Helen. She had suffered a small stroke on December 30, 1863, and was increasingly confined to the house. Helen died on January 25, 1876, after a severe cold worsened into pneumonia. A quiet funeral was held in the Garrison home. Garrison, overcome with grief and confined to his bedroom with a fever and severe bronchitis, was unable to join the service. Wendell Phillips gave a eulogy and many of Garrison’s old abolitionist friends joined him upstairs to offer their private condolences.

Suffering from kidney disease, Garrison continued to weaken and he moved to New York City to live with his daughter Fanny’s family. In late May, his condition worsened, and his five surviving children rushed to join him. Fanny asked if he would enjoy singing some hymns. Although he was unable to sing, his children sang favorite hymns while he beat time with his hands and feet. On May 24, 1879, Garrison lost consciousness and died just before midnight.

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

For further reading and research:

Boston Public Library. Collections of Distinction.  Anti-Slavery Collection. http://www.bpl.org/distinction/featured-collections/anti-slavery/

Genius of Universal Emancipation.


Ohio History Central http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/William_L._Garrison

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Lloyd_Garrison

PBS Online, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p1561.html

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2016). William Lloyd Garrison (December 12, 1805 – May 24, 1879) – Abolitionist and editor of the Liberator.  Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/woman-suffrage/16082/



One Response to Garrison, William Lloyd

  1. Norberto Heffernan says:

    In the decades before the Civil War, anti-slavery sentiment sparked an abolitionist movement that employed risky and radical tactics to bring an end to slavery.

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