William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879)
Contributing Editor: Paul Lauter
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students often don't see why Garrison seemed so outrageous to his contemporaries. Of course slavery was wrong; of course it had to be abolished. There seems to be a contradiction between the intensity of his rhetoric and the self-evident rightness (to us) of his views.
He may also strike them as obnoxious--self-righteous, self-important, arrogant. That's a useful reaction, when one gets it. Even more than Thoreau, who students "know" is important, Garrison may be seen (and be presented in history texts) as a fringy radical. He tends to focus questions of effectiveness, or historical significance, and of "radicalism" generally.
It can be useful to ask whether Garrison is an "extremist" and, if so, whether that's good or bad. (Some may recollect Barry Goldwater on the subject of "extremism.") Garrison was committed to nonviolence; but wasn't his rhetoric extremely violent? Are his principles contradicted by his prose?
Particularly effective presentational strategies include asking these questions:
Students often ask the following questions:
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Students are not generally familiar with the difference between colonization as an approach to ending slavery and Garrison's doctrine of immediate and unconditional emancipation.
They are even less familiar with the implications of evangelical Christianity, as interpreted by people like Garrison. They have seldom been exposed to concepts like "perfectionism," "nonresistance," "millennialism." The period introduction sketches such issues.
It can be important to link Garrison's commitment to abolitionism with his commitments to women's rights, temperance, pacifism. If students can see how these were connected for Garrison and others, they will have a significant hold on antebellum evangelical thinking.
The issue raised by Tolstoi (see headnote) is also significant: What human interactions are, or are not, coercive? How is political activity, like voting, coercive? What alternatives are there? Tolstoi's comments also foreground the issue of human rationality, and they suggest the importance of Garrison's thought and practice to nineteenth-century reformers.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Students can find it interesting to analyze a typical passage of Garrisonian rhetoric-- e.g., "I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language. . . . Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm. . . ." One finds in that paragraph the whole range of his rhetorical techniques.
How does he compare with an Old Testament prophet like Jeremiah?
Since the work included in the text is the lead editorial for the Liberator, the question of audience (or audiences) is crucial. In the passage noted above, Garrison is arguing against a set of unstated positions--those who claim to be "moderates," the apathetic. Indeed, throughout the editorial, he addresses a whole range of people, most of whom--when one looks closely--he assumes disagree with him. In a way, the editorial can be used to construct the variety of opposed viewpoints, and if students can do that, they may also be able to discuss why Garrison takes his opponents on in just the ways he does.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
The Garrison text is placed with a number of others concerned with the issue of slavery in order to facilitate such comparisons. While some share the passionate rhetoric (e.g., Walker), others the disdain of colonization, others the sense of commitment and the view that people can achieve change (e.g., Grimké), all differently compose such elements. What links (values, style) and separates them?
He is particularly interesting in comparison with Grimké and Thoreau on the issue of civil disobedience, which doesn't come to the surface in this editorial, but is implicit in it. In particular, Garrison does focus on the idea that "What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn" (to quote Thoreau). His emphasis on satisfying his own conscience is important, but is that a sufficient criterion for action? Is this editorial what Thoreau means by "clogging with your whole weight"?
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. (a) What is Garrison arguing against?
(b) How has he changed his own position regarding the abolition of slavery?
(c) Is it sufficient to "satisfy" one's own conscience? What does that mean?
2. (a) One can easily find quotations suggesting that Garrison was an ineffective windbag. How do students respond to such accusations?
(b) Do you think his approach would be effective today regarding racism in American society?
(c) Are Garrison's objectives and his style at war with one another?
The four volumes edited by Garrison's children, William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879; the Story of His Life Told by His Children, provide a rich source not only of Garrison's writing but of the contexts in which he wrote. They are especially useful for any students interested in doing papers on any aspect of Garrison's life or work.