Liberator, The

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Liberator, The

The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper, was begun in 1831 by William Lloyd Garrison (18051879) and Isaac Knapp (18041843) in Boston. Garrison used The Liberator for over thirty years to voice his scathing indictments of the slave system and of the country that allowed it to flourish. It complemented his work in the New England Anti-Slavery Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society, which he founded in 1832 and 1833, respectively. From the start, The Liberator, which was published weekly, received substantial African-American support. Of its 450 initial subscribers, roughly 400 were black. One was Philadelphian James Forten, who urged Garrison to "plead our cause" and expose "the odious system of slavery." A deeply religious Baptist and pacifist, Garrison aimed at bringing people to the cause of abolition through "moral suasion." He therefore avoided politics and called for immediate, rather than gradual, abolition. "I am in earnestI will not equivocateI will not excuseI will not retreat a single inchAND I WILL BE HEARD," pledged Garrison in the first issue. In the early years of the paper, this was a radical stance, even among antislavery advocates.

The publication of The Liberator brought furious reaction from southern politicians, who passed legislation banning its circulation. Columbia, South Carolina, offered a reward of $5,000 for the arrest and conviction of Garrison or Knapp. In October 1831 the corporation of Georgetown, D.C., forbade any free black to take The Liberator out of the post office. Offenders would be punished by fine and imprisonment, and if they did not pay, were to be sold into slavery for four months. Despite its inflammatory appeal, The Liberator 's circulation remained relatively small, particularly among the white population. In its fourth year, nearly three-quarters of the two thousand subscribers were African Americans. Knapp, whose contributions to the paper were more in terms of publishing and trying, unsuccessfully, to keep the paper financially afloat, left in 1839. Wanting to try his hand at writing editorials, he published his own abolitionist paper, Knapp's Liberator, in January 1842, but this proved unsuccessful.

The Liberator contained some of the most important writings on the abolitionist cause. Aside from Garrison's fiery editorials, it published the writings of John Rankin, Oliver Johnson, Wendell Phillips, and English abolitionist George Thompson. With these writers, The Liberator continued its fight: opposing colonization (which Garrison perceived as a plot to strengthen slavery by removing free blacks from the country) and rallying boycotts against the products of slavery. In 1842 Garrison called for a "Repeal of the Union." The U.S. Constitution, he wrote, was "a Convenant with Death and an Agreement with Hell." This quickly became The Liberator 's motto. When secession became a reality in 1861, however, it was the slaveholders who wanted to leave the Union. At first, Garrison celebrated their departure. But as the Civil War progressed, he shifted his position and used The Liberator to pressure President Abraham Lincoln for abolition. Significantly, the new motto of the paper became, "Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof." Garrison cheered the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, writing "Glory Hallelujah!," but he kept working, hoping to secure the freedom of slaves in border states. With the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, Garrison believed the mission of the paper accomplished. "Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty!" he wrote in one of the last issues. On December 29, 1865, The Liberator, the most influential and important abolitionist newspaper, ceased publication.

See also Abolition; Civil War, U.S.; Slavery and the Constitution


Grimké, Archibald Henry. William Lloyd Garrison the Abolitionist. 1891. Reprint. New York: Negro University Press, 1969.

Merrill, Walter McIntosh. Against Wind and Tide, a Biography of William Lloyd Garrison. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. 5 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.

walter friedman (1996)