In This Article William Lloyd Garrison

  • Introduction
  • Literary and Media Studies
  • Garrisonianism and Women’s Rights
  • Garrison and African American Abolitionism
  • Garrison and Atlantic Abolitionism
  • Garrison and Europe

American Literature William Lloyd Garrison
by
Enrico Dal Lago
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0186

Introduction

William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) was the most prominent white advocate of immediate abolition of slavery of his generation; he was a journalist, a radical social reformer, a pacifist, and a supporter of racial equality and women’s rights. Garrison was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts. On 1 January 1831, in Boston, he began publishing his own abolitionist paper The Liberator, largely with the financial support of the African American community. He called for the immediate emancipation of American slaves and declared slavery a violation of the Declaration of Independence and a sin, manifesting all the religious fervor of the most influential Evangelical reformers. In 1833, together with New Yorkers Arthur and Lewis Tappan, Theodore Weld from Ohio, and others, Garrison founded the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), which promoted both abolitionism and racial equality. For six years, the AASS attempted, and failed, to convince Americans, through “moral suasion,” to abolish slavery, flooding the United States with abolitionist publications and petitions. Within the AASS, Garrison’s followers, or Garrisonians, believed that American society was fundamentally corrupt and supported other causes besides abolitionism, such as temperance and women’s rights, while they rejected politics and advocated pacifism through the doctrine of non-resistance. Conversely, the anti-Garrisonians believed that slavery was the only real problem with American society, and they disregarded the cause of women’s rights, while they sought to engage with politics. In 1840, the anti-Garrisonians formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (AFASS), largely controlled by the Tappan brothers, and left the Garrisonians in control of the AASS. In the 1840s and 1850s, Garrison increasingly embraced “perfectionism” by abstaining from corrupt political life, while he also rejected the slaveholding American Republic. Initially critical of Abraham Lincoln, after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Garrison supported him wholeheartedly. In 1865, with the end of the American Civil War and of slavery, Garrison closed down The Liberator, while the AASS, under Wendell Phillips, criticized Garrison for abandoning racial equality, though not women’s rights. Nowadays, Garrison retains his importance as the initiator—through The Liberator (1831–1865) —of a new type of journalism, proactive on issues of social reform and able to have an impact on public opinion, and of tactics of non-violent confrontation, which influenced greatly civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. Garrison remains also a controversial figure, because of his harsh and uncompromising attitude, which many of his contemporaries found too extreme, as well as for his radical rejection of governmental institutions, which made him ideologically close to anarchism.

Primary Sources

Scholars working on Garrison are fortunate, since the two main repositories of primary sources related to him are easily available. The first of these is The Liberator, the abolitionist newspaper, which Garrison edited for thirty-five years, writing a number of articles on it, and which is available for consultation online. The second important primary source is constituted by the six-volume critical edition of Garrison’s letters, published by Walter Merrill and Louis Ruchames. In addition to these sources, there are also several published speeches and writings by Garrison and a number of critical editions of selected works by him, some of which are included in collections of American abolitionist writings, also easily available.

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