Editor's note: This article was
originally published in The Charger in the Winter of 2001.
Prior to the Civil War, and
indeed during the War, people continually talked about the
Abolitionists. Southerners of course hated them and made it clear
if they caught one he would be hanged. It is less well known that
a majority of people in the North did not like them either.
However, it’s strange that for all
the reference to abolitionists even students of the Civil War could
not name one. Yes, they might say John Brown. However, before the
takeover of the Arsenal at Harpers Ferry most Americans never heard
of John Brown. John Brown was financed by abolitionist’s money but
was never accepted as a leader.
The abolitionist that most people
knew in 1860 was William Lloyd Garrison.
Garrison was born when Thomas
Jefferson was President in 1805 in the
Massachusetts seaport town of Newburyport. His father was a seaman
who favored strong drink. After one drunken episode his wife threw
his drinking buddies out of the house. Garrison’s father soon
followed and the family would never see him again. William was then
three years old.
His mother could not raise the
family and Lloyd was sent to live with the family of the local
church deacon. He received a grammar school education. However,
young Lloyd grew up lonely and in poverty.
At thirteen he got a job as a
printer’s devil for a semi weekly newspaper. This was a seven year
apprentice program. He also had some success writing articles for
the paper. At twenty when his apprenticeship was completed he
decided to start his own newspaper. His newspaper would fight
injustice. Something he felt had been done to him all his life. The
big injustice he saw in the world was Slavery.
His first newspaper, the Free Press,
failed. He worked at print shops for two years before he was made
editor of a Quaker-owned newspaper Genius, in slave owning Baltimore.
He wrote a story of terrible conditions on a certain slave ship. The
owner went to court and had Lloyd sentenced to six months in jail
for slander. Lloyd could have paid the fine instead, as an
abolitionist offered him the money, but he refused.
Garrison returned to Boston to
start the weekly newspaper the Liberator for which he is famous. A
big event in came in 1831 that would change his life - the Nat Turner
slave insurrection in Virginia.
Slave owners, looking for
scapegoats, blamed Garrison’s newspaper the Liberator as “hatching”
the slave violence. There is no evidence that Nat Turner ever read
Garrison’s paper and the paper was not sold to slaves for the simple
reason that slaves could not read. Southern newspapers however
accused the Liberator of being the evil propagandist behind the uprising.
Sales of Garrison's rag-tag
publication soon tripled. Garrison himself became well known as
Southern newspapers were making death threats on his life. Far from
being intimidated by threats of stabbing, poisoning, and abduction;
Garrison was delighted. His life as a abolitionist was set.
Undaunted, Garrison flooded both
North and South with anti-slavery propaganda. A Massachusetts bible
salesman traveling in Tennessee was caught with a copy of the
Liberator. He was tied to a post in the public square of Nashville
and flogged. In 1835, a mob of 3,000 broke into the Charleston, S.C.
post office and seized all abolitionist publications including the
Garrison was not safe in Boston
either. An angry mob came to an anti-slavery lecture and proceed to
lynch him. He was dragged through the streets, his clothes being torn
off. He was finally rescued by the Boston Police who took him to
jail. The crowd followed and demanded he be turned over to them. The
police were finally able to sneak Garrison out of town.
Riots followed him and his fellow
abolitionists everywhere: New York, Philadelphia, Utica, Albany, and
Providence, Rhode Island.
He had a strange relationship with
Abraham Lincoln. First, he was the only abolitionist leader to
support Lincoln. Second, Lincoln rejected his support as Garrison
was in favor of letting the Southern States leave the Union. “Let
them go,” he said. Third, when other abolitionists condemned the
Emancipation Proclamation, he supported it.
One of the great highlights of his
life was when his oldest son George an officer of the Massachusetts
55th, a black regiment, lead the regiment through Charleston, South
Carolina in March of 1865.
William Lloyd Garrison died quietly
in 1879. His life was spent convincing Americans that the same
chains that bound their slaves would imprison their conscience until
they were removed.