Garrison, William Lloyd (1805–1879)

Raised in a Massachusetts Quaker family, William Lloyd Garrison served apprenticeships as a shoemaker, a cabinetmaker, and a typesetter before deciding that his talents and passions lay in print. Beginning during his adolescence, he was acutely aware of and offended by injustice, and he spent most of his life trying to effect reform in society; intemperance, slavery, women’s rights, and peace movements were particular causes.

In 1829, Garrison was convicted of libel after printing an editorial in which he accused a prominent businessman of participating in illegal slave trade. He spent nearly two months in a Baltimore jail, where he became acquainted with several escaped slaves who had been caught and sent to jail to wait for their masters to retrieve them. He later said that conversations with those slaves led him to believe in the intellectual and biological equality of African slaves.

After his release, Garrison began publishing The Liberator, an antislavery paper that he would oversee for thirty-five years. Although as a pacifist he eschewed violence as a means for social change, he was very much an agitator. Calling not only for the immediate emancipation of slaves, but also for the social and legal equality of African Americans, Garrison often found himself out of touch with other abolitionists, who favored gradual emancipation or believed in the inferiority of blacks. He also helped form the New England Anti-Slavery Society.

His activism was not limited to abolitionism. He supported the women’s rights movement, and he abhorred violence and war. Indeed, although he applauded the end of slavery brought on by the Civil War, he regretted that it could not have happened peacefully. Hated by southerners and supporters of slavery, Garrison nevertheless made a career out of confronting what he believed to be the primary moral failure of Americans to end slavery. His rejection of violence while he supported confrontation and agitation was influenced by his friends Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and, in turn, influenced twentieth-century activists such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

JAMES HALABUK, JR.

References and Further Reading

  • Mayer, Henry. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of American Slavery. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
  • Merrill, Walter M. Against Wind and Tide. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.
  • Thomas, John L. The Liberator: William Lloyd Garrison, A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963.

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