On July 4, 1854, William Lloyd Garrison publicly burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Far from honoring the document commemorated on that day of national celebration, with his act Garrison declared the Constitution to be a symbol of degradation, sin, and most relevant to his cause, slavery. “To-day, we are called to celebrate the seventy-eighth anniversary of American Independence. In what spirit? With what purpose? To what end?” he asked. Calling the Constitution “the source and parent of all the other atrocities—‘a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell,’” Garrison watched as it burned, finally exclaiming, “So perish all compromises with tyranny!” (Yacavone).
As one historian notes, Garrison was “hot” in a “cold age” (Chapman 34 ). On his way south to Baltimore, Garrison stopped in Boston and delivered the address that marked the beginning of his mission. At the Park Street Church on another July 4—this time in 1829—Garrison railed against the complacency of government, Christianity, and the American people, arguing that they were all complicit in the perpetuation of slavery. Upon his arrival in Baltimore in August and given the somewhat cool reception of his oration at Park Street, Garrison determined that a more radical platform was needed. He began to call for immediate emancipation. Though his time in Baltimore was short-lived, Garrison made a lasting impact. He managed to incur a bounty on his head by Georgia officials after his support of the Walker Appeal. David Walker, a freed Boston slave, attacked the idea of colonization as a curative to slavery, which echoed Garrison's unapologetic commitment to immediate, uncompensated emancipation. Garrison also spent seven weeks in prison for slandering a fellow Massachusetts native, Francis Todd, whom he had accused of participating in the domestic slave trade. Arthur Tappan, the famed New York antislavery reformer, eventually paid his bail.
The Liberator remained in publication from that first issue until January 1, 1866, and the newspaper stopped publication following the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. Though it had only 3,000 subscribers (nearly three-quarters of whom were African American), the paper gained both national renown and derision and made the name William Lloyd Garrison synonymous with the slavery debate. The primarily proslavery South reviled the publication, as did many northerners. Though the North was generally more friendly to the idea of emancipation, most people, even those with pronounced antislavery tendencies, were concerned with the fallout of what they saw as hasty Garrisonian abolitionism. Furthermore, being associated with Garrison during this time brought with it the threat of violence. Garrison was often the subject of threats and plots, all of which he welcomed for the sole reason that it meant his ideas were being heard and were generating debate.
In addition to The Liberator, Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832. Then in the following year, he, along with Arthur Tappan, founded the American Anti-Slavery Society. The two men would part ways in 1839, with Tappan founding the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society with his brother Lewis. The source of their split was the fact that Garrison desired to admit women—including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott—to the American Anti-Slavery Society, whereas Tappan wished to keep the Society men-only. This is indicative of Garrison's general attitude. He believed that reform, particularly that which dealt with civil liberties and human rights, should be universal. To seek to bring about one type of reform while shunning another was the height of hypocrisy. During his lifetime, Garrison worked with the woman's rights and temperance movements, particularly after slavery was officially abolished in 1866.
After slavery was abolished, Garrison resigned his post at the American Anti-Slavery Society and dissolved The Liberator. He continued to work for causes that inspired him, like the civil equality of freed slaves and women. He participated in several speaking tours and continued to write for newspapers around the country. On May 24, 1879, Garrison, who had long been suffering from kidney disease, died peacefully in his home. Abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld and the new president of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Wendell Phillips, both delivered eulogies at his memorial service. His legacy lived on in his children, who pursued reform after his death, and in the millions of freed black slaves who benefited from his refusal to compromise with tyranny.
Lydia Eeva Natti Willsky
See also: Abolitionism ; Emancipation Proclamation ; Prohibition (1919–1933)
Chapman, John Jay. William Lloyd Garrison. New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1913.
Frederickson, George M. William Lloyd Garrison. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.
Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Francis Jackson Garrison. William Lloyd Garrison, 1805–1879: The Story of His Life Told by His Children. 4 vols. New York: Century Co., 1889.
Mayer, Henry. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Merrill, Walter M. Against Wind and Tide: A Biography of William Lloyd Garrison. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.
Swift, Lindsay. William Lloyd Garrison. Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs & Company, 1911.
Yacavone, David. “A Covenant with Death and an Agreement with Hell.” http://www.masshist.org/objects/2005july.cfm . Accessed January 3. 2013.