The Liberator

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On the first of January 1831, the inaugural issue of The Liberator was published in Boston. Edited by William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), this four-page newspaper became America's longest-running radical abolitionist periodical, appearing weekly through the end of December 1865, after a bitter Civil War had definitively ended slavery in the United States. Drawing on the evangelical and revolutionary traditions in early America, Garrison promoted his message in a strident, denunciatory manner, yet he embraced a philosophy of nonviolent resistance, believing that "moral suasion" could effect slavery's demise. Garrison's timing was auspicious. Thanks to many factors, primarily an increasingly literate population and cheaper methods of distribution, the mid-nineteenth century witnessed an explosion in periodical reader-ship; when The Liberator commenced, over one thousand daily newspapers were avidly read in America.


At the time The Liberator commenced, American slavery had been outlawed in all northern states for more than a decade. Over two million slaves, however, were still held as legal chattel in a dozen southern states. Prior to Garrison, American antislavery efforts had largely centered on religious objections. Some had called for gradually emancipating slaves, the method followed in most northern states, while others proposed relocating freed slaves to the African nation of Liberia (founded in 1830), a practice known as "colonization." Garrison rejected these proposals and demanded immediate emancipation for slaves. Even more extreme, he insisted that blacks be fully integrated into American society as the social and political equals of whites. In 1832 Garrison helped found the New England Anti-Slavery Society, followed by the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Both organizations adhered to a platform of "immediatism."

In the 1830s anti-abolition sentiment dominated the U.S. political climate, North as well as South. White readers objected vehemently to Garrison's zealous tone, but free blacks avidly read the paper, thrilled by its extremism. From advertisements for runaway slaves to lurid articles depicting slave auctions, The Liberator forced northerners to confront naked human beings bartered and bred like livestock and children sold from their families, all for monetary profit. Within five years of the newspaper's shaky beginning, hundreds of state and local antislavery societies had organized, and The Liberator significantly expanded its size and circulation.

Garrison delighted in responding to his enemies publicly. In 1835 he derided the popular Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing for his lukewarm antislavery stand; in 1850 he condemned Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster as "lick spittle" to the slave power. Not surprisingly, southerners responded furiously to The Liberator; simply possessing a copy of it would lead to arrest in some southern states. Garrison relished the hostility, regularly publishing editorials branding him a fanatic. This fury intensified when, eight months after the paper's debut, the Virginia slave Nat Turner led a bloody revolt that left more than fifty whites (including women and children) dead. Enraged legislators set a $5,000 price on Garrison's head, but the editor denied inciting Turner—The Liberator was not distributed in the South, and Turner had likely never heard of it. Still, Garrison had excerpted David Walker's incendiary pamphlet Walker's Appeal, in Four Articles, Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), which urged slaves to violent resistance; moreover, although Garrison abhorred the violence of Turner's melee, his editorials equated the slaves' right to revolt with that of the American Revolution's patriots. Further, in addition to his southern enemies, Garrison denounced northern foes of abolition.


The Liberator provided a forum for writers in several genres. It regularly published political coverage, sentimental verse and fiction, antislavery sermons and speeches, travel literature, slave narratives, epistolary repartee, and debates on women's rights, temperance, and religion. Antislavery poems ran on the last page of every issue, featuring verses by William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and most often John Greenleaf Whittier, whose poignant verses particularly evoked the suffering of slave families. Heartrending stanzas by Lydia Maria Child, Frances E. W. Harper, Frances Osgood, and Felicia Hemans also reflected Garrison's strategy of emotional appeals that specifically targeted a female audience.

Although British and European authors, including Hemans, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Harriet Martineau, and Victor Hugo, appeared in The Liberator, its literary content derived primarily from American writers, including well-known figures such as Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, James Russell Lowell, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as little-known abolitionists and former slaves such as John Rankin, Charles Lenox Remond, William Cooper Nell, Theodore Weld, and Maria Stewart. Even the southerner Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" appeared in February 1845.

The epistolary genre comprised a large segment of every Liberator. Letters from fugitive slaves announced their arrival in Canada via the Underground Railroad; correspondence from anti-abolitionists (northern and southern) ranted against Garrison while that of abolitionists deliberated various political issues. In October 1841 The Liberator published a letter from Cinque, the hero of the Amistad slave mutiny, bidding farewell to his American supporters. Additionally, fervent letters from antislavery lecturers (referred to as "agents") shared their progress in spreading the gospel to the unenlightened, correspondence that also contributed to the popular genre of travel writing. While on lecture tours, Garrison sent missives relaying details of stage travel and scenery, companions met along the way, the quality of accommodations—and always, the reception of his mission. When he encountered hostility, a common occurrence, those responsible found themselves publicly rebuked: "The orthodox clergyman here is Samuel Lee, who pretends to be an abolitionist, but whose support of our cause is a thousand times more detrimental to it than the most violent opposition. . . . He is a conceited spiritual rabbi, on a Lilliputian scale" (3:251–252).

The Liberator fostered debate on a variety of politically charged topics. Controversies over women's rights, temperance, nonresistance, and religion were deliberated in its columns. When abolitionists split into two groups in the late 1830s, Garrison led those arguing for women's full participation. In antebellum America gender roles typically were structured according to the doctrine known as "separate spheres." While men handled the political and social work of governance and commerce, women reigned as moral custodians, empowered through their domestic roles as wives and mothers but usually out of the public eye. Given Garrison's belief that abolitionism was above all a moral crusade, he naturally argued that women should enter the public fray—as lecturers, agitators, and voting delegates at conventions. Thus early on The Liberator championed the feminist cause alongside abolition.

In addition to regularly reporting on women's rights, The Liberator intensified the heated debate between the abolitionist Angelina Grimké (1805–1879) and the women's advice author Catharine Beecher (1800–1878). Daughters of a South Carolina slave owner, Grimké and her sister had moved north and adopted Quakerism; together they caused a sensation, addressing mixed audiences on the volatile topic of slavery. In 1836 Grimké published An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, to which the anti-abolitionist Beecher responded with Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism (1837), a lengthy dispute of Grimké's claims that women in particular should join the abolitionists. For thirteen weeks, one letter at a time, The Liberator carried Grimké's Letters to Catharine E. Beecher, unleashing a furor that Garrison fed by printing the most scathing letters received over the controversy.

Joining Garrison for a time was another central abolitionist figure of the nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass (1818–1895). The two men met in 1841 and soon embarked on the lecture circuit together, the editor eagerly enlisting the former slave's fiery oratory in the abolitionist struggle. In 1845 The Liberator's printing office published the first of Douglass's three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, for which Garrison wrote a preface authenticating Douglass's story. Although at the time Douglass may or may not have desired the purported benefit of Garrison's words, this preface nevertheless reinscribed the black man's "need" for a white voice to authorize the slave's own text. For a variety of reasons, including Douglass's resentment of what he considered Garrison's paternalism, the two men became estranged by 1847. Thereafter Douglass appeared in The Liberator mainly as the recipient of Garrison's anger.

Despite this fallout, Douglass's Narrative tremendously enlarged the market for authentic stories of slave life. As first-person accounts of bondage and hair-breadth escape, slave narratives delivered a credibility that prevailed over Garrison's best editorials. Through the decades, The Liberator enthusiastically promoted the narratives of William Wells Brown (1849), Henry Bibb (1849), Henry Box Brown (1851), and Josiah Henson (1849), among others, helping to popularize the genre and to secure its spot in the literary marketplace. Although usually positive, The Liberator's reviews of antislavery literature evaluated works through a Garrisonian perspective. For example, when Garrison assessed the best-selling Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), by his friend Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), he praised the author's "descriptive powers" as well as Tom's "religious" character. Yet the editor disparaged Tom's groveling submission, and he censured Stowe for promoting colonization at the novel's conclusion (The Liberator, 26 March 1852).

The radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison did not apologize for the harshness of his antislavery rhetoric. The front page of The Liberator's first issue thundered the uncompromising, insistent stance for which he and his newspaper were known for thirty-five years. Southerners and northerners alike, he promised, would "tremble" when they read his paper.

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.

William Lloyd Garrison, "To the Public," The Liberator, 1 January 1831, p. 1.

One of the most frequent female contributors to The Liberator was Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880). Christened "the first woman in the republic" by Garrison, Child had enjoyed a successful literary career, publishing juvenile fiction, romantic novels such as Hobomok (1824), and popular women's advice manuals, including The Frugal Housewife (1829) and The Mother's Book (1831). Her impressive career suffered, however, when she turned to political writing with An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833). This in-depth analysis of slavery echoed Garrison's call for both immediate emancipation and complete social integration of the races; the radical activist Thomas Wentworth Higginson credited it with converting him to abolitionism. Despite having a gentler tone than Garrison, Child angered many friends and publishers with her frank discussion of slavery and race relations. From this time on she continued to write fiction but primarily directed her talents to antislavery writing and editing, which were familiar presences in The Liberator. Garrison honored their long association by running Child's poem "Through the Red Sea into the Wilderness" on the front page of the paper's final issue.

Garrison also enjoyed close ties to the literary figures connected with the transcendentalist circle. The radical ministers Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson as well as the literati centered in Concord, Massachusetts—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott—counted Garrison as a friend. Despite Emerson's discomfort with Garrison's denunciatory tone, by 1850 the sage of Concord had put aside his distrust of collective reform movements and embraced radical abolitionism. The Liberator regularly published Emerson's and Thoreau's antislavery speeches, sometimes on the front page, as with Emerson's 1844 address on West Indian emancipation.

In 1854, in the aftermath of the fugitive Anthony Burns's return to slavery, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) shared a lecture podium with Garrison at an antislavery rally. His remarks soon appeared in The Liberator with the title "Slavery in Massachusetts." This address revealed Thoreau's increasing identification with abolitionism; he denounced Massachusetts officials and confessed "thoughts" that were "murder to the state." Five years later, Garrison publicized Thoreau's militant address praising John Brown's violent raid on Harpers Ferry, a speech later expanded and published as "A Plea for Captain John Brown"; likewise, a few months later The Liberator published Thoreau's eulogy "The Last Days of John Brown." Although Garrison had called Harpers Ferry a "misguided, wild, and apparently insane" mission, he tempered his censure when it became apparent that Brown's martyrdom would work to the abolitionists' advantage. As civil war loomed, Garrison maintained his long-standing pacifism but also acknowledged that bloodshed in the struggle to end slavery now seemed inevitable. When war did break out, The Liberator covered troop movements and debated battle strategies; Garrison particularly enjoyed printing letters from black soldiers serving in the Union army's "colored" units. Finally, on 1 January 1863 The Liberator achieved its paramount objective: front-page headlines emblazoned the triumphant message "Three Million of Slaves Set Free! Glory Hallelujah!"

For more than three decades The Liberator delivered Garrison's aggressive abolitionist tirade. Its pages reflect the extent to which early-nineteenth-century writers successfully engaged with social and political reform while also catering to the market's taste for sentiment and satire. In addition, the newspaper's graphic portrayals of slavery and related political debates—delivered week after week for thirty-five years—helped to transform antebellum literary taste. Readers of The Liberator were more than prepared to usher in the era of realism that would dominate the literary marketplace after the Civil War.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans;The Confessions of Nat Turner;Feminism; Harpers Ferry; Letters; Slave Narratives; Slavery; Transcendentalism; Underground Railroad; Walker's Appeal


Primary Works

Garrison, William Lloyd. The Letters of William LloydGarrison. Edited by Walter M. Merrill and Louis Ruchames. 6 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971–1979.

Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Francis Jackson Garrison. William Lloyd Garrison 1805–1879: The Story of His Life Told by His Children. 1885. 4 vols. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Moran, John Michael, Jr., ed. Collected Poems of FranklinBenjamin Sanborn of Transcendental Concord Edited with Indices and a Checklist of Literary Contributions to the "Liberator" by Sanborn, Emerson, Thoreau, Bryant, Whittier, Lowell, Longfellow, and Others. Hartford, Conn.: Transcendental Books, 1964.

Nelson, Truman, ed. Documents of Upheaval: Selections fromWilliam Lloyd Garrison's the "Liberator," 1831–1865. New York: Hill and Wang, 1966.

Secondary Works

Bacon, Jacqueline. "The Liberator's 'Ladies' Department,' 1832–37: Freedom or Fetters?" In Sexual Rhetoric: Media Perspectives on Sexuality, Gender, and Identity, edited by Meta G. Carstarphen and Susan C. Zavoina, pp. 3–19. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Blassingame, John, and Mae G. Henderson, eds. Antislavery Newspapers and Periodicals. 5 vols. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980–1984.

Cain, William E., ed. William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight against Slavery: Selections from the "Liberator." Boston: Bedford Books, 1995.

Mayer, Henry. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and theAbolition of Slavery. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Rohrbach, Augusta. "'Truth Stronger and Stranger than Fiction': Reexamining William Lloyd Garrison'sLiberator." American Literature 73 (December 2001): 727–755.

Stewart, James Brewer. William Lloyd Garrison and theChallenge of Emancipation. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1992.

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

Sandra Harbert Petrulionis

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