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William Lloyd Garrison and Slavery in America

William Lloyd Garrison made a significant contribution to the anti-slavery movement through his idealism. Being one of the most notable leaders of the abolitionist movement, Garrison has been portrayed differently by many scholars. Several pieces of literature claim that he made a minor contribution to the abolitionist movement, while others agree that he was a great player in the movement. He was indeed an outspoken activist. Many scholars have sought to find a place for Garrison in the anti-slavery movement debates. Some claim that his outspoken nature considerably alienated the moderate players in the movement. However, many see that his outspokenness went to great lengths in catapulting the slavery topic to the national front.

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Garrison took both moral and practical approach to issues. On the one hand, he would let his strategy be determined by principle; while on the other hand, he would let morals define it. All in all, his approach to issues was clear and consistent. His moral standards were pegged on the natural law and relied on the Christian ethic.

One marked fact about Garrison’s life is his religious zeal. It is against this background that Garrison’s abolitionist feeling was born. He believed that slavery went against God’s law. He felt that race mattered less as the same creator made everybody. However, many scholars aver that his religious claim was not genuine as “infidelity” charges continued to follow him. However, apart from this accusation, Garrison proved to be an entirely religious man.

Many authors have also depicted Garrison in a negative light. They believed that Garrison had extreme views on sinfulness, something that eventually alienated the Northern people and the Southern ones alike. They were convinced that this alienation did no good to the abolitionist movement. He has been viewed as a zealot whose contribution to the abolitionist movement was destructive. He was considered worse than many conservative abolitionists, as well as less visible opponents (Nye 75).

At the age of twenty-two, Garrison had already known how to print. He eventually rose to be the editor of the Boston National Philanthropist paper, and later – of the Journal of the Times. From here, he would discuss issues ranging from slavery, politics, morals, and even temperance. In his first petition, there are revelations of how ignorant he was on the matters of constitutional history and anti-slavery practice.

Many scholars appreciate Garrison’s role in repudiating colonization. In his 1830 address in Philadelphia, he spoke about the abolition of slavery and the need to improve the lives of free people of color. He made several speeches in other areas, such as his hometown Newburyport, New Haven, and Boston. His talents were recognized by many. However, many noted the use of strong language in his speeches. Despite this, many appreciated his strong commitment to the abolitionist movement and gave him the necessary support (Nye 35).

Most scholars concur that Garrison was an idealist who did not compromise on anything he believed. He did not value conciliation, especially on matters he thought were noble. He saw God and conscience as the guiding factors for his resolve to end slavery. He was temperamental and a no-government activist. Most of his significant contributions are seen in his paper “The Liberator.” The revolutionary ideals he espoused were purely individual. Anything that stood in his way was immaterial. Garrison’s deity was uncompromising and a God of wrath. His main wish was to reform the whole human race against the dominion of man and brute government (Nye 75).

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There were those who felt that Garrison often deserted the main battle for minor skirmishes. These people did not know the weight that Garrison put on any matter. He believed that those small issues impeded the larger cause of abolitionism. As a man of action, his view of things as being in binary opposition did not go down well with many. He saw things as being right and wrong or black and white (Nye 55).

Garrison’s marketing prowess has been observed in how he managed to turn The Liberator to include special interest group advocacy, as well as business. According to Nye (45), Garrison took control of the abolitionist movement from the beginning to the end. He inspired many people like May, Johnson, Phillips among others. They viewed him as their hero.

It is fair that Garrison’s efforts are appreciated as they made the early phase of abolitionist agitation. This was a phase that was aggressive. He managed to publicize it in a manner that no other person could have done. By this, the main issues of the movement got embedded in the national psyche. However, it should be noted that Garrison did not start abolitionism, neither did he organize it. Other people deserve credit too. These include Tappans, Newyorkers, etc. The movement was carried to conclusion by other people. Some of the methods used could be unacceptable to Garrison.

Garrison’s historical importance cannot be ignored. He became the symbol of his generation. It is the conflict between morality and ideology as seen in his life that was eventually shaped into the Civil War (Divine 57). For the South, he represented issues that were dangerous. His pacifying intentions notwithstanding, he always stirred up resentments that at times led to violence (Stewart 24). In other words, his numerous appeals could touch on passions of the slave-keepers rather that their conscience. This is seen in the consequences that were experienced from his principle of “moral agitation.” According to many slaveholders, it is Garrison who led to more radical anti-slavery crusaders of all time. The South held Garrison responsible for all the conflicts that arose.

Garrison was a different person to the North altogether. Many felt that his agitation pricked the conscience of many. They knew that despite the rationalizations, slavery did exist. Here, Garrison smashed the conspiracy of silence that many had taken. By making men rethink their beliefs through their conscience, slavery was doomed to fail. He made many view slavery as a crime.

Scholars who have argued that Garrison made a minor contribution to slavery claim that his attack on colonization came slowly. However, this came with the needed finality. For instance, he condemned colonialists in Philadelphia for treating Negroes harshly. He particularly cited issues to do with employment and education. He saw such discrimination as a way of driving away the Negroes out of the country. He pointed out the prejudice that Negroes were unable to raise to the level of the whites. At one point he urged the Negroes to go back to Liberia, a free state. However, two years later, he said that any right-thinking man of color opting to leave for Liberia should be considered a traitor. With such an open shift in opinion, many people disliked him.

Later, Garrison started advocating for non-violence as the best strategy for the movement. The controversy surrounding his stance would be seen in his soldier son. He did not reject his son for joining the army. Though Garrison idealized peace, he often empathized with others. He felt that for slavery to end, people needed to be morally persuaded. In other words, the people themselves needed to be changed, not laws and political institutions. This was a perfectionist belief that could not work out entirely. Thinking that the divine righteousness was the only means to make people change was a serious flaw in Garrison’s thinking.

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Another crucial role that Garrison played in the abolitionist movement was the incorporation of women in the petitions. Just by their sheer numbers, the American Congress would be moved to act. His support for women populist drives led to several abolitionist fairs raising huge amounts of money for the movement. He urged women to play key roles in the abolitionist movement. Initially, many women had occupied auxiliary functions in the movement.

Garrison’s ideology was not without controversy. Looking at most analyses done, one realizes that many people interpreted his ideology in different ways. For example, it can be seen in Henry Wilson’s History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America and James Rhodes’ History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 Volume I 185-184, which both best illustrate Garrison’s ideology. These two writers’ perspectives clearly illuminate the ideology better than other writers who came later. They are better placed since they experienced the Civil War. The authors represent two views of Garrison (Barnes 68).

According to Wilson’s view, Garrison is seen as somebody who was idealistic as well as radical. Wilson shows that though Garrison had the two qualities, his influence was limited. According to Wilson, the abolition movement stemmed from Christian religion. Those who adopted Garrisonian philosophy remained connected to the ecclesiastical and political thought of the land (Thomas 77).

In Gilbert Barnes’ The Anti-Slavery Impulse, Garrison is portrayed as a self-centered zealot who was widely hated by everyone. However, Garrison remained a hero to his followers. He further argues that Garrison was just a legendary icon to the abolition movement. One wonders how somebody who has appealed to few can gain legendary status in history.

In Russell Nye’s biography William Lloyd Garrison and the Humanitarian Reformers in 1955, Garrison is depicted favorably. He says that Garrison should be seen as any other human being who has got strengths and weaknesses. According to Nye, Garrison was a prominent abolitionist like many others and not just an underpinning of the abolitionist movement. Garrison is further extensively reviewed in Aileen Kraditor’s Means and Ends in American Abolitionism. She feels that Garrison was a pragmatic thinker. Her argument is that it is the other abolitionists who had unrealistic goals of wanting to transform the movement into a political party, but not Garrison and his followers (Kraditor 97).


Several books have been written about the abolitionist movement since the 1970s. In most of the books, Garrison has featured prominently. He is depicted as a leader of enormous capabilities. It is therefore wrong to take him as a secondary player of the movement. He should be judged according to his ideas and not by events that occurred during his lifetime. His ideology was simple and straightforward. He vouched for a non-violent approach to slavery and equality for all people. He also advocated for equality of gender. All in all, Garrison braved criticism to provide a platform in his paper for Negroes to express their views. He refused to recognize differences in races. He argued that all human beings were the same (Cain 11).

Looking at Garrison’s life, one sees both positive and negative aspects. One area that he excelled in was writing. He used his writing skills to advocate for slave-trade abolition. It is from his bold and brilliant writing that slave owners hated him. On the other hand, moderates who would have supported the cause felt alienated by his writing.

Many scholars believe that Garrison elevated himself to deity status by looking down upon the rest. This self-magnification did well to retard the abolitionist movement. Though others did things to help slaves, such as helping them escape, Garrison has been said to be an idea person only. He also got criticized for labeling the constitution a pro-slavery document when, in reality, it was not (Nye 195). In fact, it provided the basis upon which the anti-slavery legislation could be enacted. There are many things that others did to benefit the slaves directly. For instance, people built schools for them, helped them master arts and agriculture, etc. Instead of helping the slaves financially, Garrison has been accused of relying on them for sustenance. For instance, he had to rely on people to buy his papers to sustain himself and his family.

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Barnes, Gilbert H. The Antislavery Impulse 1830-1844. n.p.: The American Historical Association, Gloucester. 1933. Print

Cain, William E. William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery : Selections from The Liberator. Boston Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1994. Print

Divine, Robert A. The American story. Boston: Pearson. 2013. Print

Nye, Russel B. William Lloyd Garrison and the Humanitarian Reformers. ed. Oscar Handlin. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company. 1955. Print

Stewart, James B. Abolitionist Politics and the Coming of the Civil War. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008.

Thomas, John L. The Liberator: William Lloyd Garrison. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963. Print

Kraditor, Aileen S. Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850. n.p.: Pantheon Books, 1969. Print

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