United States 1831
Seeing slavery as an abomination to God and determined to force its immediate end in the United States, William Lloyd Garrison founded the nation's first militant antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831 in Boston, Massachusetts. The newspaper aimed to shame whites for their support of slavery by exposing northern links to bondage, by revealing the horrors of slave life, and by showing the cruelty behind the nascent movement to gradually end slave labor. Southerners banned Garrison's publication and blamed his relentless attacks on the institution of slavery for causing the violent Nat Turner-led slave revolt. Despite repeated attempts to suppress his newspaper, Garrison persevered to spark the rise of abolitionist sentiment in the North.
- 1808: U.S. Congress bans the importation of slaves.
- 1812: The War of 1812, sparked by U.S. reactions to oppressive British maritime practices undertaken in the wake of the wars against Napoleon, begins in June. It lasts until December 1814.
- 1815: Napoleon returns from Elba, and his supporters attempt to restore him as French ruler, but just three months later, forces led by the Duke of Wellington defeat his armies at Waterloo. Napoleon spends the remainder of his days as a prisoner on the island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic.
- 1818: In a decisive defeat of Spanish forces, soldier and statesman Simón Bolívar leads the liberation of New Granada, which includes what is now Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, and Ecuador. With Spanish power now waning, Bolívar becomes president and virtual dictator of the newly created nation of Colombia.
- 1825: New York Stock Exchange opens.
- 1828: Election of Andrew Jackson as president begins a new era in American history.
- 1830: Mormon Church is founded by Joseph Smith.
- 1831: Young British naturalist Charles Darwin sets sail from England aboard the H.M.S. Beagle bound for South America, where he will make discoveries leading to the formation of his theory of evolution by means of natural selection.
- 1833: British Parliament passes the Slavery Abolition Act, giving freedom to all slaves throughout the British Empire.
- 1836: In Texas's war of independence with Mexico, the defenders of the Alamo, among them Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, are killed in a siege. Later that year, Texas wins the Battle of San Jacinto and secures its independence.
- 1839: England launches the First Opium War against China. The war, which lasts three years, results in the British gaining a free hand to conduct a lucrative opium trade, despite opposition by the Chinese government.
- 1845: From Ireland to Russia, famine plagues Europe, killing some 2.5 million people.
Event and Its Context
In the years following the Revolutionary War, a small number of Americans began to agitate against slavery. To hold men, women, and children in bondage for life seemed to many to be contrary to the principles of liberty as embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Yet although a growing number of people opposed slavery, the idea of immediately ending the practice seemed absurd to all but a very few. A gradual end to bondage, antislavery forces argued, would preserve the social and economic stability of the South. Many of these reformers further expressed support for colonization, the gradual end of slavery through the immigration of blacks to Africa, in the belief that African Americans would forever be unable to compete equally with whites and that the best solution lay in the separation of the races.
In this climate, William Lloyd Garrison began to gain notoriety. In the 1820s Garrison had attempted to start several newspapers in Massachusetts and Vermont, but all of the ventures had failed, partly because of Garrison's fiery writing style and willingness to provoke conflict. Always sympathetic to the underdog and familiar with black communities from the days of his poverty-stricken childhood, Garrison was a natural champion of the rights of the oppressed, but it appears that he became an abolitionist as the result of a job offer. In 1829 the Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lundy invited Garrison to Baltimore to coedit The Genius of Universal Emancipation, and Garrison soon came to support Lundy's philosophy. A widely discussed libel suit, filed in 1830 by a slave trader who objected to being condemned for slave trading, quickly reversed the young editor's fortunes. Convicted and jailed for 49 days, Garrison publicized his martyrdom for the cause of abolition, then headed to Boston to start a new newspaper, The Liberator, first published on 1 January 1831.
Through the pages of The Liberator, Garrison pressed for equal treatment of the races, self-advancement through the acquisition of literacy and mechanical skills, united political action, and a thorough repudiation of slavery. Although Garrison shared the publishing duties with Isaac Knapp, a childhood friend and printer, the editorial voice of the paper was Garrison's alone. William Nell, an African American who would eventually write for the newspaper and become a prominent abolitionist in his own right, joined the enterprise as an errand boy. With the motto, "Our Country Is the World—Our Countrymen are Mankind," the newspaper appeared weekly without interruption for 35 years. It typically contained editorials, book reviews, poems, excerpts from the religious and temperance press, factual material on slavery, reports of meetings held to protect the slave trade or register opposition to colonization schemes, and letters from readers. The extraordinarily physical writing style employed in the newspaper made it impossible to evade the issue of slavery. In Garrison's hand, trumpets blared, statues bled, hearts melted, and slave apologists trembled as slavery became the question of the day.
Garrison wanted the newspaper to be a forum for black activists and a vehicle for a biracial political coalition. With money tight at first, Garrison worked odd jobs by day and produced the newspaper at night. Crucial support came from the black community, which provided 500 subscribers in The Liberator's initial year. Given that copies of the paper were typically passed around and posted in reading rooms as well as barbershops, the actual readership of The Liberator was considerably greater than the subscription rolls indicated. The influence of The Liberator also extended past its actual readers. The paper had no agents and few subscribers south of Washington, D.C., yet the common practice of newspaper exchange put the periodical in the hands of southern editors who reprinted material from it accompanied by bitter condemnations that were picked up by other newspapers. These comments eventually reached Garrison, who commented and began the lively circle anew.
Insisting that slavery could not endure indefinitely in a Christian democratic society, Garrison sought to preserve the Union by removing an evil that, if allowed to grow, would inevitably produce a division of the states. He was determined to heat up the issue until the public felt ashamed of its connection to slavery and angry at granting political privileges to slave-holders. The masthead that Garrison chose for The Liberator reflected this desire to provoke as well as his ability to infuriate. Garrison pictured a slave auction in front of the nation's capitol with the flag of liberty blowing atop the building's dome. In 1838 he added to the masthead a second panel that depicted free labor and emancipation. In 1850 he combined the two vignettes with a medallion of Christ rebuking a master while elevating a slave. In response, John C. Calhoun, one of the most powerful men in the United States Senate and a die-hard proponent of slavery, attempted to ban from the mails newspapers with pictorial representations of slave labor.
Other southerners soon joined Calhoun in expressing their rage at Garrison's provocations. When Nat Turner killed men, women, and children in a slave uprising in Virginia, terrified southerners blamed outside agitators for the bloodbath. Of these agitators, Garrison received the brunt of the blame. Although southerners demanded that northerners silence abolitionists before they succeeded at rending the social fabric of the slave states, supporters of slavery also took steps to stifle Garrison. In October 1831 the town of Georgetown near Washington, D.C., passed a law prohibiting African Americans from taking copies of The Liberator out of post offices. The penalty for such an act was a fine and 30 days in jail, plus the threat of being sold into slavery for four months if the fines went unpaid. A Raleigh, North Carolina, grand jury indicted Garrison and Knapp for distributing incendiary matter, and the Georgia state legislature offered a $5,000 reward for anyone who arrested Garrison and brought him to the Peach State for trial on charges of seditious libel.
Garrison habitually attacked racial prejudice and political hypocrisy. Because Garrison held that both these qualities could be found in the colonization scheme, he reserved his harshest attacks for its proponents. He charged that colonization had been designed by slaveholders to protect their system from serious criticism, a view that added greatly to his unpopularity. Although Garrison had hoped to use the newspaper to reach reform-minded leaders, the initial apathy of these prominent men turned into open hostility as the editor increased his attacks on colonizationists. When one minister opined about the dangers of immediate emancipation, Garrison responded that this was the first time that religious men had advised the gradual abolition of wickedness.
As Garrison kept clamoring, vigorous opposition to the growing abolition movement mounted in all parts of the nation. In the slave states, abolitionists were threatened, harassed, and expelled. In cities across the North, mobs interrupted abolitionists' meetings, attacked their homes, and assaulted communities of free blacks. In Boston on an October night in 1835, an angry mob of whites threw a rope over Garrison as he left an abolitionist meeting, dragged him through the streets, and barely missed lynching him.
Later that year, Garrison assisted the Quaker abolitionist Prudence Crandall in her attempt to open the first boarding school for African American women. An improvement in the condition of black citizens formed an essential element of Garrisonian abolitionist thinking. By reading The Liberator, Crandall had been convinced of the moral correctness of abolitionism and the need for better education of black students. The school, designed to instruct future teachers, came under heavy attack by critics who charged Crandall and Garrison with promoting miscegenation. In the face of all these attacks, Garrison remained serene in the belief that he was an instrument of God doing battle with Satan's minions. As he had declared in his opening editorial, "I will not retreat an inch and I will be heard."
When the Civil War began, Garrison changed the motto of the newspaper to, "Proclaim Liberty throughout All the Land, to All the Inhabitants of the Land." He urged President Abraham Lincoln to emancipate all slaves and give compensation only to slaveholding loyal citizens. In 1865, when Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment and abolished slavery, Garrison considered his life's ambition to have been filled. On 29 December 1865 he published the last issue of The Liberator.
Crandall, Prudence (1803-1890): An educator, Crandall became the first advocate of desegregated schools when she enrolled black students at her Cranbury Female Seminary in Connecticut in 1832. In 1833 the school became a teacher-training institute exclusively for African American women. A mob attack forced its closure in 1834. Crandall left Connecticut and subsequently ran a school in Illinois before dying at her farm in Kansas.
Garrison, William Lloyd (1805-1879): An antislavery editor, Garrison sparked the abolition movement by publishing The Liberator and founding the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS). With the abolition of slavery, Garrison shut down The Liberator, resigned from the AAS, and declared his retirement from the antislavery movement.
Knapp, Isaac (c. 1800-?): A printer and copublisher of The Liberator, Knapp ran the newspaper during Garrison's frequent absences. He became estranged from Garrison over differences in abolition strategy.
Lundy, Benjamin (1789-1839): An antislavery editor, Lundy spent much of his career attempting by political means to persuade southerners to end slavery. In 1821 he founded the Genius of Universal Emancipation in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, and subsequently published it in Greeneville, Tennessee (1822-1824), Baltimore (1824-1830), and Washington, D.C. (1830-1833). Besides encouraging a boycott of slave-produced goods, the newspaper focused on the interests of whites by emphasizing the unprofitability of slave labor and the danger of slave revolts.
Nell, William (1816-1874): Nell, a free-born African American, became an errand boy for The Liberator in 1831. In 1840 he began writing articles for the newspaper and representing Garrison at various antislavery functions. He authored Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812 (1851) and Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855).
Turner, Nat (1800-1831): Turner, a Virginia slave, led the first successful slave revolt in the United States, in August 1831. In the belief that God had chosen him to end slavery, Turner organized a band of slaves who killed more than 50 whites before being overcome by local, state, and federal troops. Prior to his execution, Turner granted an interview to a journalist that became the basis of the book The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va., as Fully and Voluntarily Made to Thomas R. Gray (1831).
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 the Abolition of Slavery. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Stewart, James Brewer. William Lloyd Garrison and the Challenge of Emancipation. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1992.
Phillips, Wendell, and Francis Jackson Garrison. William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879: The Story of His Life Told by His Children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885.
Nye, Russel B. William Lloyd Garrison and the Humanitarian Reformers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1955.
—Caryn E. Neumann