The Angry Abolitionist – William Lloyd Garrison

By Dick Crews
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2001, 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the winter of 2001.

Prior to the Civil War, and indeed during the war, people continually talked about the Abolitionists. Southerners of course hated them and made it clear if they caught one he would be hanged. It is less well known that a majority of people in the North did not like them either.

However, it’s strange that for all the reference to abolitionists even students of the Civil War could not name one. Yes, they might say John Brown. However, before the takeover of the Arsenal at Harpers Ferry most Americans never heard of John Brown. John Brown was financed by abolitionist’s money but was never accepted as a leader.

William Lloyd Garrison

The abolitionist that most people knew in 1860 was William Lloyd Garrison.

Garrison was born when Thomas Jefferson was President in 1805 in the Massachusetts seaport town of Newburyport. His father was a seaman who favored strong drink. After one drunken episode his wife threw his drinking buddies out of the house. Garrison’s father soon followed and the family would never see him again. William was then three years old.

His mother could not raise the family and Lloyd was sent to live with the family of the local church deacon. He received a grammar school education. However, young Lloyd grew up lonely and in poverty.

At thirteen he got a job as a printer’s devil for a semi weekly newspaper. This was a seven year apprentice program. He also had some success writing articles for the paper. At twenty when his apprenticeship was completed he decided to start his own newspaper. His newspaper would fight injustice. Something he felt had been done to him all his life. The big injustice he saw in the world was Slavery.

His first newspaper, the Free Press, failed. He worked at print shops for two years before he was made editor of a Quaker-owned newspaper Genius, in slave owning Baltimore. He wrote a story of terrible conditions on a certain slave ship. The owner went to court and had Lloyd sentenced to six months in jail for slander. Lloyd could have paid the fine instead, as an abolitionist offered him the money, but he refused.

The Liberator newspaper

Garrison returned to Boston to start the weekly newspaper the Liberator for which he is famous. A big event came in 1831 that would change his life – the Nat Turner slave insurrection in Virginia.

Slave owners, looking for scapegoats, blamed Garrison’s newspaper the Liberator as “hatching” the slave violence. There is no evidence that Nat Turner ever read Garrison’s paper and the paper was not sold to slaves for the simple reason that slaves could not read. Southern newspapers however accused the Liberator of being the evil propagandist behind the uprising.

Sales of Garrison’s rag-tag publication soon tripled. Garrison himself became well known as Southern newspapers were making death threats on his life. Far from being intimidated by threats of stabbing, poisoning, and abduction, Garrison was delighted. His life as an abolitionist was set.

Undaunted, Garrison flooded both North and South with anti-slavery propaganda. A Massachusetts bible salesman traveling in Tennessee was caught with a copy of the Liberator. He was tied to a post in the public square of Nashville and flogged. In 1835, a mob of 3,000 broke into the Charleston, S.C. post office and seized all abolitionist publications including the Liberator.

Garrison was not safe in Boston either. An angry mob came to an anti-slavery lecture and attempted to lynch him. He was dragged through the streets, his clothes being torn off. He was finally rescued by the Boston Police who took him to jail. The crowd followed and demanded he be turned over to them. The police were finally able to sneak Garrison out of town.

Riots followed him and his fellow abolitionists everywhere: New York, Philadelphia, Utica, Albany, and Providence, Rhode Island.

He had a strange relationship with Abraham Lincoln. First, he was the only abolitionist leader to support Lincoln. Second, Lincoln rejected his support as Garrison was in favor of letting the Southern States leave the Union. “Let them go,” he said. Third, when other abolitionists condemned the Emancipation Proclamation, he supported it.

One of the great highlights of his life was when his oldest son George, an officer of the Massachusetts 55th, a black regiment, led the regiment through Charleston, South Carolina in March of 1865.

William Lloyd Garrison died quietly in 1879. His life was spent convincing Americans that the same chains that bound their slaves would imprison their conscience until they were removed.