William Lloyd Garrison & Black Abolitionism

“You need no more to begin with. Four men may revolutionize the world.”[1]

William Lloyd Garrison


Popular History of Black Rights in North America

Popular history often centres around two main political and social figures with reference to championing the rights of blacks in North America over the past 150 years – Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.

The research conducted initially explored those who helped Lincoln and King in attaining their milestones moments i.e. the Emancipation Proclamation (year) and the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech given at the March on Washington in (year) respectively. Through this exploration, it became evident that there were many people who aided the progression of black rights prior to the Emancipation Proclamation’s signing.

So, given that there were people championing black rights before Lincoln who were they and how did they go about it? Did they make a significant impact in North American black abolitionism?

Given the sheer volume of citizenry willing to participate in the black abolitionism movement, I have considered one, William Lloyd Garrison, a white, middle-class man, to be the most influential in the years approaching the United States Civil War (the years 1831 to 1860). The question then remained, how did my research into Garrison lead me into arguing that he was the most influential?

William Lloyd Garrison: A resume

Through further investigation of his name, William Lloyd Garrison appears in most black abolitionist books (I cannot argue all books as I undoubtedly have not read them all!) which peaked my interest in learning more about him. From here I presented an argument that encompassed the following:

  • He created the most successful black abolitionist newspaper in American history called The Liberator that allowed people of all races, genders and education to talk about abolitionist matters.
  • He successfully garnered the support of fellow citizens in the abolitionist movement with numbers that were unprecedented.
  • He produced many literary works that were highly influential in manifesting a culture of empathy for African Americans most notably in his Address Delivered before the Free People of Colour (which was distributed in three editions over the span of two years) and his Thoughts on African Colonization.

 Love him or hate him? –Why can’t everyone just get along?!

Garrison was often a polarizing figure, although he and his publications were predominantly in the northern or Union/’Yankee’ states of North America, he encountered opposition within these states in addition to the southern Confederate states. Like most controversial historical figures, Garrison earned his stripes quite literally through his arrest and imprisonment in Baltimore for defaulting on a fine payment after he slandered the use of slave vessels in the north (Baltimore was a centre for slave trading).

It is interesting to note the paradox in the opposition to Garrison’s movement. Garrisonians and Tappanites held contrasting views as to how to best approach abolitionism. Garrison’s views on abolitionism were viewed as radical for two reasons: he was strict in only supporting a government that forbade enslavement in its constitution and he would only pursue a movement that was non-resistant in nature. Lewis and Arthur Tappan, originally members of the Garrisonian wing of abolitionism, split from Garrison in belief they could best serve the movement by converting a government party to be known as the ‘Liberty Party’.

Does this remind you of 20th century black civil rights contrasts? It should!

More recent history such as the differences between peaceful progression presented by Martin Luther King Jr. and the aggressive progression as witnessed by the actions of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, suggests that black civil rights and how to achieve them have always been controversial, even with those in support of the movements.

They could surely trust the Churches..? WRONG!

Garrison was devout to the Christian faith and in turn imparted Christian teachings in his addresses and publication promoting an entirely peaceful movement (non-resistance) as he believed in order to eradicate aggressive behaviours such as slavery, one could not react with violence themselves.

Unfortunately, those ordained to preach the Christian faith did not necessarily preach the good work of Garrison… Believe it or not, they actually preached in favour of slavery!

The influence of Garrison soon took its toll on church communities which saw its memberships withdrawn in protest. Their voices are eloquently encapsulated by this poem by Anne Warren:

No true communion cans’t thou find, –

The helpless slave forgot;

For where no love for Man is found,

Worship of God is not.[2]

Put simply, how can God be in a church where those who suffer are forgotten about during prayer?

A burning passion

The passion that Garrison held for black abolitionism cannot be understated, all that has been mentioned above identifies with this desire for equality that so many Americans wanted to speak of but did not have the means to do so. Garrison managed to inspire the public through actions that spoke loudly in the face of government in hope for change.


After all, not everyone has the stomach to burn the American Constitution…



[1] Goodman, p.132. [July 1832, Garrison pressed Henry Benson to organize an anti-slavery society in Providence.]

[2] The Liberator, August 13, 1841, p.130.


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