William Lloyd Garrison

Newspaper Publisher and Orator Was a Dedicated Crusader Against Slavery

Engraved portrait of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison
William Lloyd Garrison. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

William Lloyd Garrison was one of the most prominent American abolitionists, and was both admired and vilified for his unwavering opposition to slavery in America.

As the publisher of The Liberator, a fiery anti-slavery newspaper, Garrison was at the forefront of the crusade against slavery from the 1830s until he felt the issue had been settled by the passage of the 13th Amendment following the Civil War.

His views, during his own lifetime, were commonly considered extremely radical and he was often subjected to death threats. At one point he served 44 days in jail after being sued for libel, and he was often suspected of participating in various plots considered to be crimes at the time.

At times, Garrison's extreme views even made him oppose Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist author and orator.

Garrison's outspoken crusade against slavery led him to denounce the United States Constitution as an illegitimate document, as, in its original form, it institutionalized slavery. Garrison once sparked controversy by publicly burning a copy of the Constitution.

It can be argued that Garrison's uncompromising positions and extreme rhetoric did little to advance the anti-slavery caused. However, Garrison's writings and speeches publicized the abolitionist cause and were a factor in making the anti-slavery crusade more prominent in American life.

Early Life and Career of William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison was born to a very poor family in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on December 12, 1805 (note: some sources place his birth on December 10,1805). His father deserted the family when Garrison was three years old, and his mother and his two siblings lived in poverty.

After receiving a very limited education, Garrison worked as an apprentice in various trades, including shoemaker and cabinet maker. He wound up working for a printer and learned the trade, becoming the printer and editor of a local newspaper in Newburyport.

After an effort to operate his own newspaper failed, Garrison moved to Boston, where he worked in print shops and became involved in social causes, including the temperance movement. Garrison, who tended to see life as a struggle against sin, began to find his voice as the editor of a temperance newspaper in the late 1820s.

Garrison happened to meet Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker who edited a Baltimore-based anti-slavery newspaper, The Genius of Emancipation. Following the election of 1828, during which Garrison worked on a newspaper that supported Andrew Jackson, he moved to Baltimore and began working with Lundy.

In 1830 Garrison got into trouble when he was sued for libel and refused to pay a fine. He served 44 days in the Baltimore city jail.

While he earned a reputation for courting controversy, in his personal life Garrison was quiet and extremely polite. He married in 1834, and he and his wife had seven children, five of whom survived to adulthood.

Publishing The Liberator

In his earliest involvement in the abolitionist cause, Garrison supported the idea of colonization, a proposed ending of slavery by returning slaves in American to Africa. The American Colonization Society was a fairly prominent organization dedicated to that concept.

Garrison soon rejected the idea of colonization, and split with Lundy and his newspaper. Striking out on his own, Garrison launched The Liberator, a Boston-based abolitionist newspaper.

On January 11, 1831, a brief article in a New England newspaper, the Rhode Island American and Gazette, announced the new venture while praising Garrison's reputation:

"Mr. Wm. L. Garrison, indefatigable and honest advocate of the abolition of slavery, who has suffered more for conscience sake and independence than any man in modern times, has established a newspaper in Boston, called the Liberator."

Two months later, on March 15, 1831, the same newspaper reported on the early issues of The Liberator, noting Garrison's rejection of the idea of colonization:

"Mr. Wm. Lloyd Garrison, who has suffered much persecution in his efforts to promote the abolition of Slavery, has commenced a new weekly paper in Boston, called the Liberator. We perceive he is extremely hostile to the American Colonization Society, a measure we have been inclined to regard as one of the best means of effecting the gradual abolition of slavery. The blacks in New York and Boston have held numerous meetings and denounced the colonization society. Their proceedings are published in the Liberator."

Garrison's newspaper would continue publishing every week for nearly 35 years, only ending when the 13th Amendment was ratified and slavery was permanently ended after the end of the Civil War.

Garrison Courted Controversy

In 1831 Garrison was accused, by southern newspapers, of involvement in the slave rebellion of Nat Turner. He had nothing to do with it. And, in fact, it is unlikely that Turner had any involvement with anyone outside his immediate circle of acquaintances in rural Virginia.

Yet when the story of Nat Turner's Rebellion spread in northern newspapers, Garrison wrote fiery editorials for The Liberator praising the outbreak of violence. 

Garrison's praise of Nat Turner and his followers brought him attention. And a  grand jury in North Carolina issued a warrant for his arrest. The charge was seditious libel, and a Raleigh newspaper noted that the penalty was "whipping and imprisonment for the first offense, and death without benefit of clergy for a second offense."

The writings of Garrison were so provocative that abolitionists dare not travel into the South. In an attempt to circumvent that obstacle, the American Anti-Slavery Society undertook its pamphlet campaign in 1835. Dispatching human representatives of the cause would simply be too dangerous, so anti-slavery printed material was mailed into the South, where it was often intercepted and burned in public bonfires.

Even in the North, Garrison was not always safe. In 1835 a British abolitionist visited America, and intended to speak with Garrison at an anti-slavery meeting in Boston. Handbills were circulated that advocated mob action against the meeting.

A mob did assemble to break up the meeting, and as newspaper articles in late October 1835 described it, Garrison tried to escape. He was captured by the mob, and was paraded through Boston streets with a rope around his neck. The mayor of Boston finally got the mob to disperse, and Garrison was unharmed.

Garrison had been instrumental in leading the American Anti-Slavery Society, but his inflexible positions eventually led to a split in the group.

His positions even brought him into conflict at times with Frederick Douglass, a former slave and leading anti-slavery crusader. Douglass, to avoid legal problems and the possibility that he could be arrested and brought back to Maryland as a slave, eventually paid his former owner for his freedom.

Garrison's position was that buying one's own freedom was wrong, as it essentially the concept that slavery itself was legal. For Douglass, a black man in constant peril of being returned to bondage, that type of thinking was simply impractical. Garrison, however, was intractable.

The fact that slavery was protected under the U.S. Constitution outraged Garrison to the point that he once burned a copy of the Constitution at a public meeting. Among the purists in the abolition movement, Garrison's gesture was seen as a valid protest. But to many Americans it only made Garrison appear to be operating on the outer fringe of politics.

The purist attitude always held by Garrison was to advocate resisting slavery, but not by use of political systems that acknowledged its legality.

Garrison Eventually Supported the Civil War

As the conflict over slavery became the central political issue of the 1850s, thanks to the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and a variety of other controversies, Garrison continued to speak out against slavery. But his views were still considered out of the mainstream, and Garrison continued to rail against the federal government for accepting the legality of slavery.

However, once the Civil War began, Garrison became a supporter of the Union cause. And when the war had ended, and the 13th Amendment legally established the end of American slavery, Garrison ended publication of The Liberator, feeling that the struggle had ended.

In 1866 Garrison retired from public life, though he would occasionally write articles which advocated equal rights for blacks and women. He died in 1879.