William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison2018-11-28T09:54:58+00:00

William Lloyd Garrison for APUSH

William Lloyd Garrison APUSH

About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.

In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison was a radical abolitionist who favored immediate uncompensated emancipation of slaves.  He published a newspaper known as The Liberator which became the mouthpiece for radical abolitionists in the north.  While his position on slavery initially represented the sentiments of extremely few northern abolitionists (some historians refer to his followers as “the lunatic fringe”), his outspoken condemnation of slavery as an immoral institution gradually gained converts in the north and terrified southerners who believed his position represented mainstream abolitionist sentiment and posed an immediate threat to the institution of slavery.

Growth of Abolition

By 1830 northern abolitionists had successfully ended slavery, or set in motion its end, in the north.  Spurred on by earlier Quaker impulses to eradicate slavery within its own ranks, other northern groups sought the abolition of slavery as well.  Not having taken firm root in the north, largely due to climatic conditions and farming practices that made slavery impractical, slavery in all probability would have died a natural death there. As a matter of fact, as late as 1790, slavery was considered by many Americans to be a “dying institution” or a “necessary evil” throughout the United States.  The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 altered those perceptions in the American south.

As late as 1790, slavery was considered by many Americans to be a “dying institution” or a “necessary evil” throughout the United States.  The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 changed that idea.

In the north three branches of abolitionism developed.  The most numerous branch was the Free-Soilers who believed the federal government lacked the constitutional authority to end slavery in the states but had the constitutional authority to regulate the institution in the territories.  Banning slavery in the territories would ultimately lead to abolition of the institution because depletion of the fertility of the soil (soil butchery) due to excessive cotton production meant that new slaveholding territories must be secured for slavery to survive.  The second most numerous group was the moderate abolitionists like Theodore Dwight Weld who wrote American Slavery As It Is.  Moderate abolitionists favored gradual compensated emancipation in which, over time, slave owners would be paid to free their slaves. While moderate abolitionists were criticized by some for paying slave owners for their immorality, they understood the massive monetary investment many southerners had in the institution and moderates reasoned that manumission was unlikely to occur if significant monetary losses were thrust upon slave owners.  Radical abolitionists represented the numerically smallest group.  Radicals like William Lloyd Garrison sought immediate uncompensated emancipation believing that slaveholding sinners should not be compensated for their immorality.

Radical abolitionists represented the numerically smallest group.  Radicals sought immediate uncompensated emancipation believing that slaveholding sinners should not be compensated for their immorality.

Garrison’s Sensational Action

Originally associated with the American Colonization Society that favored relocating freed slaves to Africa (and ultimately founding Liberia), Garrison came to question the real motives of those who favored relocation and divorced himself from the organization, feeling it hypocritical.  In 1831, shortly before Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Virginia, Garrison published the first copy of The Liberator boldly stating that on the issue of slavery:

 I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice.  On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation…  I am in earnest- I will not equivocate- I will not excuse- I will not retreat a single inch- AND I WILL BE HEARD.  

And heard he was.  Garrison referred to the U.S. Constitution as a “covenant with death” and an “agreement with hell” because of its tacit approval of slavery.  In 1833 Garrison founded the American Anti-Slavery Society which splintered in 1840 over Garrison’s support for women’s rights and his hardline position on emancipation.  To many in the north, Garrison’s hardline position foreshadowed a breakup of the Union, which Garrison was not opposed to, but was unacceptable to more moderate northerners.  Radical abolitionist speakers were treated harshly by northern audiences, sometimes facing barrages of incoming rotten eggs and stones during speeches, sometimes being whipped out of town by angry mobs, sometimes being paraded through town with a noose around their neck (as happened to William Lloyd Garrison in Boston in 1835), and sometimes being murdered (as in the case of Elijah Lovejoy).

To many in the north, Garrison’s hardline position foreshadowed a breakup of the Union, which Garrison was not opposed to, but was unacceptable to more moderate northerners.

South’s Soaring Skepticism

Southern misperception about the numbers that Garrison’s position represented caused them to dig in their heels.  Southern post offices refused to deliver abolitionist literature, and the “gag rule” (strongly opposed by John Quincey Adams) automatically tabled all petitions on the issue of slavery sent to the U.S. House of Representatives (meaning they could not be read on the floor of the House).  Measures like these led many non-abolitionists to believe that their rights of free expression were being threatened by southern slaveholders.

Southern misperception about the numbers that Garrison’s position represented caused them to dig in their heels.

In 1837 the South dug in its heels further when John C. Calhoun espoused the apologist view of slavery.  Calhoun contended,

“I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation    now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good–a positive good.”

Calhoun defended slavery as a positive good for the North and for the South, for slave owners as well as slaves, and was critical of the northern system of free labor, referring to workers there as “wage slaves.”

Calhoun defended slavery as a positive good for the North and for the South and was critical of the northern system of free labor, referring to workers there as “wage slaves.”

Unlike many moderate abolitionists, Garrison did not believe in pursuing his goal through the political system which he thought would corrupt the cause.  Instead he believed in “moral suasion”, or an intense persuasive argument, to ultimately accomplish his goal. As the nation grew, Garrison was vehemently opposed to any expansion that would accommodate slavery- such as the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, the Dred Scott Decision,  and the Compromise of 1850- and especially the Fugitive Slave Law.

Unconditional and Urgent

As Garrison’s platform and allies grew louder, so did the South’s determination to maintain slavery. The war of words between the extreme abolitionists and southern slavery apologists grew to new heights in the 1850s. As this war escalated, the hopes for compromise conversely dimmed.  This led those in the middle of the debate to choose sides, because the middle ground was shrinking quickly. Many northerners found Garrison’s ideology more tenable than the southerners, which furthered the divide between northern abolitionists and southern slavery apologists.

Many northerners found Garrison’s ideology more tenable than the southerners, which furthered the divide between northern abolitionists and southern slavery apologists.

William Lloyd Garrison believed slavery to be a moral wrong.  Emerging from the Second Great Awakening belief in the “perfectibility of man,” reform movements in the 1830s and 1840s sought to make that a reality.  For Garrison and many other abolitionists, slavery was the greatest moral evil facing the nation.  Always committed, often divisive, William Lloyd Garrison’s boisterous, in-your-face style forced southerners to a more defensive position and the country to ultimately choose between moral right and wrong.

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