VirginiaLynne is an English professor specializing in abolitionist literature, slavery images and the Victorian period.
What Was the Paper's Mission?
In the "Declaration of Sentiments" that he wrote for the founding meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in December of 1833, William Lloyd Garrison clearly articulated the mission of the radical abolitionists: they were to transform America through the written and spoken word. They called it “moral suasion.” We might call it propaganda. These abolitionists wanted to spread the word that slavery was sinful and must be abolished.
His Call to All Americans
Having been raised in the household of a Baptist preacher after his alcoholic father abandoned the family, Garrison was steeped in the rhetoric of the King James Bible and revivalist preaching. His flair for dramatic and memorable speeches is evident even in his first issue. Here is his inspiring call to Americans to rise up to fight slavery:
- We shall organize Anti-Slavery Societies, if possible, in every city, town and village of our land.
- We shall send forth Agents to lift up the voice of remonstrance, of warning, of entreaty and rebuke.
- We shall circulate, unsparingly and extensively, anti-slavery tracts and periodicals.
- We shall enlist the PULPIT and the PRESS in the cause of the suffering and the dumb. (Liberator, Dec. 14, 1833).
The paper stated two goals:
- Immediate, uncompensated emancipation of the slaves.
- Citizenship for all African-Americans.
Although the Garrisonian abolitionists were to later develop direct action, non-violent protest methods such as boycotts and sit-ins, these other strategies were orchestrated to give opportunities for abolitionists to spread their message through:
- Symbolic gestures like burning the flag, persuasive oratory, or dramatic newspaper copy.
- Persuasive oratory by his band of anti-slavery lecturers who traveled the country in pairs in order to stir up interest in the abolitionist cause and start small groups in every town.
- Dramatic newspaper copy such as the fate of slaves when they were sold, beatings of slaves, and escapes from slavery.
Garrison launched the radical abolitionist movement in 1831 with the publication of his weekly newspaper, the Liberator (1831-65). Even though the Liberator never had a readership of more than 3000, and often much less, he used his flair for notoriety to cause his ideas to be discussed in hundreds of other newspapers. Like most editors of his time, he exchanged his paper with many others, giving them free reign to reprint anything they wanted and taking the same privilege for himself.
Remix and Commentary
On the first page of the Liberator, under the title "Refuge from Oppression," Garrison regularly printed pro-slavery articles from Southern papers. He then argued vigorously, with famously virulent language, against these articles. Garrison's vehemence made great copy, so he was frequently quoted in other papers, North and South. When those papers slandered him, Garrison reprinted their articles, labeled himself a martyr, and set off a new round of accusations.
This paper was both the longest-running abolitionist paper and the most influential. Its publication not only initiated the radical abolitionist movement but also ended it, ceasing after the emancipation proclamation became law in 1865.
Even when Garrison was mobbed and forced out of Boston in 1835, the paper did not skip a single issue. In thirty-five years, publishing a total of 1,820 issues of the four-page paper. The Liberator was always prophetic and always radical. Just as the rest of the nation began to accept its ideas, the paper moved on to making new and more extraordinary demands for social change.
Influence on Others
Most of the major figures of the abolitionist movement were converted to the cause either by the paper or by Garrison himself. Lydia Maria Child, Theodore Weld, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and many others gave their lives for the cause of the slave because of the fire that Garrison’s rhetoric lit in them.
Furthermore, the Liberator was an important source of abolitionist information not only for well-known agitators but also for those abolitionists who worked quietly in their own small towns throughout the North. It provided ammunition for discussion about abolitionism among friends and neighbors.
Free Black Abolitionist Support
The paper was particularly influential in free black communities because Garrison took much of the Liberator’s agenda, particularly in the first five years, from black abolitionists. Three-quarters of the early subscribers were African-American. It was money from free black abolitionists that enabled the editor to start the paper and keep it running from 1831 to 1835.
Many of the articles and letters in the paper were written by free blacks in the North or escaped slaves. Some of the earliest African-American literature was published in The Liberator. Ironically, literary critics have sometimes portrayed Garrison as racist because of his split with Frederick Douglass. In "Garrison and Douglass: Racism in the Abolitionist Movement?" I explain how that division had more to do with two powerful personalities clashing than race, but, unfortunately, the historical view of the editor as racist has damaged his reputation and left his work neglected.
Although Garrison did not write all of the copy for the paper, most contemporaries thought of the paper as mostly his ideas because he firmly controlled the content. In fact, he ferociously defended his right to control the content of his paper, even when the Abolitionist Societies who supported the Liberator disagreed with him.
Furthermore, the editor seems to be linked more strongly to his paper because, unlike many abolitionist newspaper editors, he was a professional newspaperman who actually set the type for each issue and often helped print it. When Garrison was sick or traveling on lecture tours, his friends Edmond Quincy or Oliver Johnson would edit and print the paper in his absence. Except for occasional letters from Garrison about his trips and an absence of his editorial comments, these issues are generally indistinguishable from his own.
Changes in Paper's Influence
Between the start of the paper and 1850, The Liberator was the primary voice in the American anti-slavery movement. However, as more and more Americans began to believe the message of anti-slavery, The Liberator's influence became less because there were many more anti-slavery papers, along with books and speakers.
Two events marked a turning point in the abolitionist movement after 1850: one political, the other literary.
- Fugitive Slave Act: The political event was the Compromise of 1850, which sought to end the sectional division over slavery by admitting California as a free state; creating Utah and New Mexico as territories where popular sovereignty would decide the slave issue; settling the Texas-New Mexico boundary dispute in favor of Texas; ending the slave trade in Washington D.C.; and, in the most infamous part of the compromise, making it easier for southerners to capture fugitive slaves in the north.
- Uncle Tom's Cabin: This last provision, often called the Fugitive Slave Act, motivated Harriet Beecher Stowe to write what became a literary turning point for abolition: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or; Life Among the Lowly (1852). After the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, abolitionist literature entered the mainstream of American thought and letters. While the Liberator continued to play a role in shaping the representation of African-Americans after that time, it was as one of many competing voices!
Questions & Answers
Question: When did William Lloyd Garrison die?
Answer: William Lloyd Garrison was born on December 10, 1805, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He died on May 24, 1879, in New York City at the age of 74. He began publication of The Liberator in January 1831 at the age of 26 and had to wait until he was 60, living through a brutal Civil War before he saw the freedom of the slaves become a reality. In today's climate of concern about racism, it is important to remember that from the very first day Garrison published his paper, he was dedicated not only to freedom for slaves but for racial, social and economic equality for people of all colors. He was also a champion of equality for women. Moreover, his first issue seems very prescient in declaring that the only way for real equality to take place is by persuading everyone, especially those in positions of social and economic power, that equality was both necessary and desirable. He sought to appeal to logos, pathos, and especially ethos, the idea that complete equality is the morally right thing for people, especially Americans committed to being a democratic people, to aspire upward.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on February 05, 2018:
Venusrising, I think that Garrison would have strongly believed in the idea that it is only through moral suasion that any real change can happen in a nation or group of people. What I think he would disagree with is that this moral suasion should be done through government and the political process. He believed that individuals of all races should seek to persuade through nonviolent means the path of equality for all. Garrison was equally committed to equality for women and started off as part of the temperance movement. Today, we think of prohibition as being a wrong idea. However, Garrison and his contemporaries saw a terrible world of substance abuse, similar to our "opiod epidemic" of today. They sought to change people's hearts and minds about drinking and to help them understand what they were doing to their families. They asked people to take a "temperance pledge" of not drinking.
I greatly admire Garrison (and the other abolitionists) for their creativity, boldness and willingness to take a stand at great personal cost for decades.
Venusrising_2000@yahoo.com on February 04, 2018:
Racism will never heal until a strong united program of apologies and constant educational initiatives and economic equality between all Americans who participate in a dogma that is as old as the conflict itself are aggressively pursued by those in power and by public decree. We must heal our country and turn the tides of hate in order to strike a balance that will remain in the hearts of all peoples through constant vigilance and to serve the cause that will give us a stronghold in the Freedom of our united country. This concept can and will achieve by virtue of just a few people who are strong enough to have the courage of their convictions. Ignorance is of great consequence when coupled with anger and violence, and will surpass Godly efforts when utililized as a last effort to enforce the wheels of change. Must we delve into the same pools of failure decade upon decade? Or shall men and women share the burden together and find moral grounds that allow us to avoid these things that spur generational hate?
Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on November 15, 2013:
Excellent informational Hub, VirginiaLynne. Garrison and his newspaper were a key early influence on the abolitionist movement. He helped to grow this movement and galvanize it into an effective force in American politics.