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William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass: Racism in the Abolitionist Movement?

VirginiaLynne is an English professor specializing in abolitionist literature, slavery images and the Victorian period.

Famous 1850s masthead

Famous 1850s masthead

The Liberator Started the Fight

William Lloyd Garrison's anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, was fundamental in moving the United States towards abolishing slavery. As most Americans know, the Civil War dragged on for years without Lincoln issuing an emancipation proclamation. As the years dragged on, Garrison relentlessly published his paper, urging Lincoln and Congress to make the war about slavery and free the slaves.

Influencing Government

Every week, Garrison sent a copy of The Liberator to every member of the government. Every issue of the paper laid out his clear claim that slavery was evil and should be immediately abolished with no compensation to the owners. It was the same argument he had made for over 30 years, although at the time of the war, he was not alone in believing slavery was wrong because all of the years of publishing, lecturing and organizing had changed the country.

William at the beginning of his publication of "The Liberator"

William at the beginning of his publication of "The Liberator"


So why is Garrison's important work not studied more often? I believe the answer lies in what many critics have believed to have been prejudice on his part towards Frederick Douglass, whose slave autobiography has entered the canon of American Literature and is widely read in college classrooms.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Mentor and Friend

It was William Lloyd Garrison who first heard Douglass speak and tell his story. It was Garrison who took the former slave and introduced him to wealthy abolitionists in Boston and elsewhere and helped him not only publish his book but find work as an anti-slavery lecturer. Moreover, it was Garrison who promoted Douglass and helped him gain fame as the foremost of all African-American anti-slavery speakers.

Competition Between the Two

However, both men had very strong personalities and both men liked their own way. Garrison had broken with other friends and he and Douglass had a falling out when Douglass started his own anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star, which ran in competition with The Liberator. Garrison was not happy, but it wasn't just because of the new paper. In fact, The Liberator actually published a very favorable review of The North Star, praising the reporting and the editor.

Personal Betrayal

However, personally, Garrison was very angry with Douglass at this time because he felt betrayed. What happened was that while the two men were on a rigorous anti-slavery lecture tour in the west, Garrison became extremely ill, and, in fact, thought he was dying. Just as he was beginning to recover, Douglass left him.

It isn't clear whether Garrison knew where his companion was going, but shortly afterwards, Douglass's The North Star appeared. Garrison felt betrayed and never fully trusted his former colleague again. However, in spite of the fact that the new paper threatened to take away The Liberator's always tenuous financial support, Garrison decided to take the high road and give the new paper his support in print.

Garrison towards the end of the Civil War.  He'd been fighting to end slavery for over 30 years.

Garrison towards the end of the Civil War. He'd been fighting to end slavery for over 30 years.

Was Garrison Racist?

Talking about Garrison's racism has become popular. Although these two men had a long and complicated relationship, two particular quotations by Douglass have shaped the way in which literary and historical critics have viewed Garrison’s work. The first is Douglass’s comment in his Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1845) that he was converted to abolitionism by reading Garrison's paper:

"The paper became my meat and my drink. My soul was set all on fire. Its sympathy for my brethren in bonds—its scathing denunciations of slaveholders—its faithful exposures of slavery—and its powerful attacks upon the upholders of the institution—sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before!

I had not long been a reader of the “Liberator,” before I got a pretty correct idea of the principles, measures, and spirit of the anti-slavery reform. I took right hold of the cause. I could do but little; but what I could, I did with a joyful heart, and never felt happier than when in an anti-slavery meeting" ( Life and Times 118).

Many literary critics have read this as implying a "paternalistic" attitude on Garrison's side. Other critics have leaped on this idea and suggested that the white abolitionist's latent prejudice kept him from recognizing Douglass as an equal and promoting his status accordingly.

The second quotation by Douglass comes from his later autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855):

"Tell your story, Frederick,” would whisper my then revered friend, William Lloyd Garrison, as I stepped upon the platform. I could not always obey, for I was now reading and thinking. New views of the subject were presented to my mind. It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them. I could not always curb my moral indignation for the perpetrators of slave-holding villainy, long enough for a circumstantial statement of the facts which I felt almost everybody must know. Besides, I was growing, and needed room" (Bondage 220).

Literary critics and historians have often used this quote in to show that Garrison was both paternalistic and racist. They imply that Garrison was unwilling to believe that Douglass could or should speak anything outside of his own story. Garrison, in other words, was putting Douglass down. Moreover, they confirm this assessment by pointing out that Garrison objected to Douglass’s plan to start a newspaper and that the two men eventually “broke” their relationship when they disagreed on the interpretation of the Constitution.

1800s printing press similar to the one used to print both newspapers.

1800s printing press similar to the one used to print both newspapers.

Literary Criticism

The use of the quote from Bondage in one collection of essays, Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, edited by Eric J. Sundquist, is illuminating. In his introduction, Sundquist says, “The condescending instructions Douglass received from William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists required that he stick to the ‘facts’ and leave the ‘philosophy’ to others” (4). Similarly, Wilson J. Moses, in “Writing Freely? Frederick Douglass and the Constraints of Racialized Writing,” uses this quote to formulate his thesis that Douglass was confined by the Garrisonian insistence that he remain in the “literary box” of the slave narrative (67). In yet another instance, Jenny Franchot, in “The Punishment of Ester: Douglass and the Construction of the Feminine,” uses this section of the later autobiography to contend that Douglass’s relationship with Garrison went from hero-worship to appropriation of “charismatic patriarchal authority” (150).

However, the most damaging evaluation of the relationship comes from John R. McKivigan. In “The Frederick Douglass-Gerrit Smith Friendship and Political Abolitionism in the 1850s.” McKivigan contends “Douglass soon tired of repeating personal anecdotes about his years of a slave and began to offer a more ideological denunciation of the institutions. His white coadjutors, however, warned Douglass that his true asset to the movement was not his rhetorical skill but his status as a fugitive slave. Even though this advice might have been well-intentioned, it revealed a paternalistic attitude that many white abolitionists from all factions displayed toward their black colleagues” (207).

Is the Charge Fair?

Are these charges of racism fair? Perhaps. Garrison may not have been completely immune to the ideas about differences between races that pervaded the air of the nineteenth century. However, the whole tenor of his life was to fight against not only slavery but also the idea that the races should be separate. For example, from the very first issue of his newspaper, he fought strongly for four concepts that were utterly unique:

  • Social Equality Between Races: He not only preached this, he also practiced it, even when it lead to contention and even rioting. He deliberately had his lecturers travel in mixed-race groups and insisted on them being treated equally everywhere they traveled.
  • Blacks and Whites Should Work Together Against Slavery: He deliberately integrated his Anti-Slavery Societies at a time when that was seen as scandalous. Anti-slavery societies let not only black and white men but also black and white women work together for a common cause.
  • Talents of Black Men and Women Should Be Sought and Developed: He solicited black men and women to write articles for his paper in the very first year of its publication. Garrison frequently found and trained black men and women as lecturers and workers for abolitionism, giving them access to education, information and promotional opportunities for their businesses and writing.
  • Black Men and Women Should Speak and Whites Should Listen: Whether it was articles in his newspaper, anti-slavery meetings or lectures, Garrison made sure that black voices mattered and were given a chance to be heard. He not only encouraged former slaves to tell their stories, but he also helped them to publish their stories and tried to get white audiences to really listen to what they heard by having his lecturers and articles instruct white audiences to imagine themselves in the place of a slave.
Early copy of the paper when financing came from Black abolitionists in the North.

Early copy of the paper when financing came from Black abolitionists in the North.

What Is the True Story?

Many critics argue that the reason Douglass left Garrison was because the newspaperman's racism caused him to not allow his friend to fully develop as a writer and speaker. A leading proponent of this argument is James Olney, who led the canonization of Douglass’s Narrative and seems at the same time to have sunk the reputation of Garrison. In “The Founding Fathers—Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington,” Olney says: “I believe that it was his insistence that he was and would continue to be the author of the narrative of his life that caused Douglass’s quarrel and ultimate break with William Lloyd Garrison and the Garrisonians” (5). By implication, Garrison is the villain who attempted to wrest control of Douglass’ life away from him.

This same attitude is pervasive in the history of African American literature. In his history of slave narratives, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865, William Andrews contends that in Bondage Douglass presents his rupture with Garrison as similar to his rupture with his slave master.

A Complex and Evolving Relationship

Similar descriptions of Garrison’s villainy have become commonplace in most discussions of Douglass's work. Unfortunately, few descriptions indicate the complexity of the relationship. Their friendship went through several stages, as might be expected between two such charismatic and opinionated individuals.

  1. Partnership: At first they had an intense and intimate partnership and support during lecture tours. In fact, they gave supportive encouragement to one another when other abolitionists disagreed with them.
  2. Mutual Support: Garrison supported Douglass’s acceptance of money to buy his freedom while Douglass supported Garrison during his battle against the militarism of some sides of the anti-slavery party.
  3. Rivalry: During the time they were running competitive newspapers, they had a bitter rivalry which was well known in abolitionist circles.
  4. Political Disagreement: At the same time they disagreed strongly over whether or not the Constitution supported slavery, as well as differing in their approach to abolitionist tactics.
  5. Reconciliation: Finally, after the war, they reconciled and came to peace with one another. In his eulogy for Garrison, Douglass said, “It was the glory of this man that he could stand alone with the truth and calmly await the result” (Mayer 372, 431-33, 631).
Former Slaves

Former Slaves

How Did Douglass Feel?

His Respect Grows: Using the Douglass quote from Bondage as proof of Garrison’s poor treatment of his friend is not an accurate representation of how Douglass presents Garrison and his newspaper in that work. As a matter of fact, Douglass significantly expands his tribute to Garrison and The Liberator in Bondage, keeping the two paragraphs from Narrative and adding three more long paragraphs which describe his appreciation of the editor and his paper in glowing terms.

He Remembers the Overall Picture: In Bondage, Douglass adds a significantly deeper description of how he felt. He notes that “I not only liked—I loved this paper, and its editor,” noting that for Garrison “The bible was his textbook,” and that this text made him believe “Prejudice against color was rebellion against God. Of all men beneath the sky, the slaves, because most neglected and despised, were nearest and dearest to his great heart” (216). Though this section is somewhat shortened and re-written in Douglass’s third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” these sentences remain intact and the overall tribute to Garrison’s work as an abolitionist is undiminished (213-214).

Views of Others

The accusation that Garrison was racist and did not allow African-Americans to lead in the movement ignores the fact that many other African-American leaders, such as Charles Remond, William Nell and William Wells Brown, had successful and multi-faceted careers as abolitionist speakers, agitators and writers while remaining in the Garrisonian camp. Brown was also a fugitive slave, but according to Brown’s biographer, William Edward Farrison, Garrison never seems to have attempted to prevent him from lecturing on various subjects or from writing literature, history, and drama along with his narrative.

Result of Misrepresentation

Perhaps as a result of this misleading representation of Garrison, no book-length manuscript has been published dealing with The Liberator as a work of importance to American literature. When I began studying Garrison in 1994, the paper was only available on microfilm. Now that they are published online and are even indexed, I hope that literary critics and people interested in American history will examine this newspaper more closely to find out how the abolitionists used moral suasion to begin the process of unraveling the sin of slavery.

Questions & Answers

Question: How did William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass fight against slavery?

Answer: In 1835, Garrison wrote in his first paper that his goal was to use words to move hearts and minds (he called it "moral suasion") to make people believe slavery was wrong. He did not believe in politics or in violence in any form. Garrison felt that no lasting change would happen unless people were persuaded to change their minds and believe not only that slavery was wrong, but that racial prejudice was wrong too. He would not have used the term "racial prejudice," but he strongly believed that there should be a social equality between the two races. Moreover, he put that belief into practice by doing all he could to have both races involved in his meetings, lectures and business enterprises. As a disciple of Garrison, Douglass also believed that the fight against slavery was first in battling against belief and prejudice. They fought through lecturing, writing, speaking to people in small groups, organizing "anti-slavery" societies where people could go to learn more, and doing non-violent activities that drew attention to their cause. For example, they would stand up in a church and start talking about anti-slavery until someone came to throw them out. Garrison was famous for burning a copy of the Constitution and the American flag as a demonstration that those symbols were corrupted by slavery. They distributed literature in the South until that literature began to be burned and banned everywhere. Even though Garrison was completely against violence, he reluctantly accepted the need for the Civil War (even accepting his son's enlistment). What he then wanted to do was to make sure the war became the instrument for freeing slaves. He sent his paper to every member of Congress throughout the war and made sure all of his anti-slavery activists remained dedicated to pushing the agenda of anti-slavery.

Question: Why would William Lloyd Garrison have asked Frederick Douglass to speak in support of ending slavery?

Answer: Garrison gathered many people to be speakers on the anti-slavery tours he organized throughout the United States. In fact, most of the tours had at least 3 people, and one of them was usually a freed slave. Garrison heard Douglass tell his story and immediately recognized that Douglass was going to be a powerful and effective speaker for the movement, and so he helped him to get established, get speaking engagements, and publish/promote his narrative.

Question: What personal and societal barriers did Douglass break in his split from William Lloyd Garrison? What risks was Douglass taking?

Answer: Douglass did risk losing the support of other Garisonian abolitionists, but by the time of the split, he was a famous speaker in his own right, and probably felt he did not need Garrison's support. It was actually Garrison who broke many personal and societal barriers in order to champion Douglass as a speaker and writer. The website which has digitized parts of The Liberator includes an article which cites the articles in The Liberator which mention Douglass both before and after the split:

Question: How did William Lloyd Garrison help the slavery movement to freedom?

Answer: In reality, I'm not sure that slavery would have been abolished as soon as it was without William Lloyd Garrison's tenacious willingness to be a lightning rod for this cause. See my other article about this:

Question: What did William Lloyd Garrison ask Frederick Douglass to do?

Answer: After hearing Douglass tell his story, Garrison asked Douglass to join his abolitionist lecturers. The lecturers traveled in pairs or small groups all around the North, giving talks in every town they could get a crowd, telling about the realities of slavery and arguing that slavery should be abolished immediately. Often, one of the lecturers was a former slave who could tell their story. Douglass was by far one of the most effective speakers. Garrison also asked Douglass to write for his newspaper, The Liberator. On one of their regular tours, Garrison got very ill and thought he was dying. Apparently, Garrison asked Douglass to stay with him, but he didn't.

Question: What national movement were Garrison and Douglass a part of?

Answer: Garrison and Douglass were a part of the abolitionist movement.

Question: When Douglass broke from Garrison to set out on his own, how did this affect the role of African-Americans in the abolitionist movement? Did this have any effect on their roles in society following the Civil War and their initial push for civil rights?

Answer: Garrison worked very closely with the African-American abolitionists even before he started The Liberator. In fact, that community's support helped to keep him safe and in business, especially in the first ten years of the paper (they often sent people to guard Garrison, who was a passivist and refused to carry arms, when he was going home from meetings). Of course, Douglass also became a leader in the movement but I don't know whether his break with Garrison significantly affected their role in society or helped after the civil war. The Black Abolitionist Project on ProQuest has gathered together the writing of 300 of the African American abolitionists who were active in publishing during the years of 1830-1865. That would be a good place to research these questions.


Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on April 20, 2020:

Hi Paul--I'm glad to hear you are writing a novel about Garrison. He was imperfect, as we all are, but without him, I think our world would have taken longer to understand the deep evil of slavery. I think that the hardest part about understanding this time period is that the writing from all of the abolitionists has so transformed our thinking that we have a hard time imagining the world view that they were fighting against.

Paul Ward on April 18, 2020:

Hi Virginia,

I just read the article and I thought it was fantastic. I showed the complexities between two bright, powerful and headstrong men who were also the best of friends. It also showed me that as humans, we possess feelings and differences that are not defined by race but rather by past life experiences and expectancies. I'm saddened to read that Garrison could be a racist and I don't believe that he was. I feel that he had his own point and theory of how to abolish slavery and didn't leave any "wiggle room". As an African American, I still consider him one of my heroes and is grateful for his life work. Also, I'm currently writing a novel about him and I hope that it can be read by many.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on October 30, 2018:

Hi Richard, I completely agree with you. The reference to "racism" in the title is in response to many critics who have accused Garrison and other abolitionists of being racist. My intention in this article and others I've written is to give a more nuanced understanding of the time period. I don't believe we can understand our own times. Garrison was a pacifist and did not believe in political solutions or war. However, he was practical enough to realize that if his movement could not stop the political events, they could try to influence them. Although he was against war, he realized that if the country was going to go to war, it should at least result in the freedom of the slaves and he advocated strongly for their Emancipation. I don't think he wanted his son to join the war, and he was not really wealthy (although some of his friends were) but he was willing to allow his son to follow his own conscience. I think that in regards to Douglass, Garrison was much more concerned and critical of Douglass's abandonment of his wife for a wealthy white woman than he was of anything else. Garrison believed in loyalty, and while he was probably upset about the competition with Douglass's paper, I think he was more hurt by the feeling that Douglass had abandoned and betrayed him.

Richard H. Henkle on October 29, 2018:

Hi Virginia. I was taking a break from essay study. While you obviously have studied more on Garrison than I have, it seems to me a bit inappropriate for us to refer to him as a racist. The leaders of the Abolition movement of that time were trying first to tend the sinful practice of slavery, then would have to deal with the aftermath of those consequences. The very fact that Garrison permitted the enlistment of his own son into the Union Army must show a willingness to sacrifice above and beyond what was required, especially since the wealthy could actually buy their way out of service.

Rather than a racial or racist feeling of difference between the 2 men, I think we must look at the financial and attention jealousies which arise in the hearts of many people in all endeavors. There is also a difficulty in any organizational leadership, especially in such an emotionally charged matter as to how to end the sin of slavery.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on November 17, 2017:

Hi Kim-You have a good point. This article comes out of my research for a book on Garrison, which is why the focus was on him. I actually think that this charge of racism has kept Garrison from being regarded more highly among scholars, something I think is unfortunate. Like many lifetime friendships between very powerful people, this one was complicated and I wanted to show that.

kim on November 17, 2017:

wish their was a bit moe about Douglass, everything seemed to tie back to Garrison which i enjoyed but i think background and more information about Douglass himself would be useful. on July 04, 2017:

Great job on this article!

Loveofnight Anderson from Baltimore, Maryland on October 02, 2013:

You did an awesome job with this hub, although I have knowledge of both these men you have given me even more to digest. Being left hungry for more I believe that I will be looking for the online book to finish what you have started. Thank you so much for a well detailed hub. Be well

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on March 22, 2013:

RonElFran--You are absolutely right Ron. I was so interested to read through the documents of each of these complex and powerful personalities. How easy it is to label someone else's relationship and yet most relationships are full of mixed feelings as they pass through different stages of life. Thanks for stopping by.

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 22, 2013:

Great hub! I suspect that Douglass himself would be surprised and dismayed at the interpretation some have put on his comments about Garrison. I also wonder if what seems like paternalism wasn't built into a relationship that started with hero-worship, regardless of the race of the participants. And that there would be tensions as Douglass grew and became his own man was entirely natural. Thanks for an informative hub.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on February 21, 2013:

Thanks so much ajwrites. I agree that this relationship between two very powerful personalities was complex. Both men had many stormy relationships with other people. I think that is inevitable with a person who has a great vision for a future that many people can't see. Thanks for your comments.

AJ Long from Pennsylvania on February 21, 2013:

VirginiaLynne--Tremendous discussion about two of the most influential and effective leaders of the abolition movement. I studied and wrote papers about abolition and William Lloyd Garrison's role in it in the past. In fact, I just came across them awhile ago. It seems to me that, as you point out, their relationship was complex. Critics often wanted to project their viewpoints and biases into it.

It is normal that tension would arise in mentoring relationships. When the student learns through instruction and experience, he often develops his own conclusions and develops differences in strategy. Often, relationships become strained over it. I think this plays a large part in their later relationship. Enjoyed the article and a chance to think about this issue anew! Thanks! :o)