David Blight on William Lloyd Garrison
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Q: Please describe William Lloyd Garrison.
A: William Lloyd Garrison was the real thing in the sense that he was a professional radical.... Garrison was also one of the few white abolitionists who shouldered up to David Walker and actually published parts of...Walker's appeal in the Liberator in 1831, after Walker's death. But Garrison becomes, in some ways, a kind of combination of a radical abolitionist and almost an anarchist. Some of his doctrines, like his doctrine of never joining political parties, of urging his fellow abolitionists to not vote, to not participate in the American republic, because in Garrison's view the American Constitution was a covenant with death, because it supported slavery.
Much of this doctrinaire approach by Garrison was difficult at times for other abolitionists to follow, particularly black abolitionists. Because, to many black abolitionists, the emergencies of their lives were daily affairs. They had to become, in some ways, more practical abolitionists. But what they had in Garrison, now, was a voice and a newspaper that was challenging the United States like nothing ever had before. And Garrison developed a very important following among the free black population of the North.
One of Garrison's doctrines is what he called "non-resistance"; he was a pacifist. Uh, he had roots in Quakerism. And Garrison believed, as hard as it is sometimes for us in the 20th century to fully understand, this kind of outlook. Garrison believed that through moral suasion, as it was called at the time, by an onslaught of persuasion, that Southerners, over time, could be convinced of the sin of slave holding.
It was, in many ways, the project of the radical abolition movement of the 1830s, led principally by William Lloyd Garrison, to advance this idea of slave holding as sin. It comes out of the evangelical tradition, it comes out of the second Great Awakening, it comes out of this Christian evangelical notion that if you can convert individuals to salvation, you can also convert whole societies.
In the 1830s there are many black abolitionists attracted to William Lloyd Garrison, even attracted to this pacifist persuasion. They are themselves, like Charles Remond in Boston and others, attracted to this pacifist outlook, because they are themselves deeply imbued with this evangelical tradition of Christianity. But, over time, black abolitionists living in Northern cities -- living, again, with the daily emergencies of the lives of fugitive slaves -- find it increasingly difficult to abide by a kind of doctrinaire approach to anti-slavery, which Garrisonianism represented. And, in many ways, to be a Garrisonian was to tow the line on four or five of these principles that Garrison advanced, not the least of which was non-resistance and pacifism.
In the 1830s and into the 1840s, Garrison has a broad black following, but by the middle of the 1840s the black side of the abolition movement is beginning to change, because they simply have no choice.
David W. Blight
Professor of History and Black Studies
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