The Man Behind The Liberator

William Lloyd Garrison was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts in December, 1805. At thirteen years of age he began his newspaper career with the Newburyport Herald, where he acquired great skills in both accuracy and speed in the art of setting type. He also wrote anonymous articles for the paper.

He began writing for and eventually became co-editor of the Quaker Genius of Universal Emancipation newspaper in Baltimore. Garrison’s experience as a printer and newspaper editor allowed him to revamp the layout of the paper and freed Ben Lundy, his co-editor, to spend more time traveling as an anti-slavery speaker. While working for the Genius, Garrison became convinced of the need to demand immediate and complete emancipation and rejected Lundy’s differing view that emancipation could come about gradually. Rather than leaving the paper, both editors continued to espouse their views and started signin their editorials to make it clear to readers.

Garrison introduced a regular feature to the Genius that he called “The Black List”. This column was devoted to short reports of “the barbarities of slavery — kidnappings, whippings, and murders.” One of Garrison’s “Black List” columns landed him in legal trouble when he reported that a shipper, Francis Todd, from Garrison’s home town of Newburyport, Massachusetts was involved in the slave trade, and that he had recently had slaves shipped from Baltimore to New Orleans on his ship Francis. Todd filed a libel suit against both Garrison and Lundy.

Francis filed in Maryland in hopes of securing a favorable verdict in that state’s pro-slavery courts. The state of Maryland also brought criminal charges against Garrison, finding him guilty and ordering him to pay a fine of $50 and court costs. Garrison, unable to pay the fine, was sentenced to a jail for six months. After serving seven weeks of his sentencer the antislavery philanthropist Arthur Tappan paid his fine. During his time in jail Garrison had decided to leave Baltimore for Boston and he parted ways with The Genius.

On January 1, 1831 the first issue of The Liberator appeared with the motto: “Our country is the world—our countrymen are mankind.” Garrison was a journalistic crusader who advocated the immediate emancipation of all slaves and gained a national reputation for being one of the most radical of American abolitionists. The Liberator denounced the Compromise of 1850, condemned the Kansas-Nebraska Act, damned the Dred Scott decision and hailed John Brown’s raid as “God’s method of dealing retribution upon the head of the tyrant.”

Subscribers to Accessible Archives can search the full text of his thirty four years of work that only ended when the Union won the Civil War in 1865.

His first issue opened with this, The Salutation.

To date my being from the opening year,
I come, a stranger in this busy sphere,
Where some I meet perchance may pause and ask,
What is my name, my purpose, or my task?My names is ‘LIBERATOR’! I propose
To hurl my shafts at freedom’s deadliest foes!
My task is hard–for I am charged to save
Man from his brother!–to redeem the slave!Ye who may hear, and yet condemn my cause,
Say, shall the best of Nature’s holy laws
Be trodden down? And shall her open veins
Flow but for cement to her offspring’s chains?

Art thou a parent? Shall thy children be
Rent from thy breast, like branches from the tree,
And doom’s to servitude, in helplessness,
On other shores, and thou ask no redress?

Thou, in whose bosom glows the sacred flame
Of filial love, say, if the tyrant came,
To force thy parent shrieking from thy sight,
Would thy heart bleed- because thy face is white?

Art thou a brother? Shall thy sister twine
Her feeble arm in agony on thine,
And thou not lift the heel, nor aim the blow
At him who bears her off to life-ling wo?

Art thou a sister? Will no desp’rate cry
Awake thy sleeping brother, while thine eye
Beholds the fetters locking on the limb
Stretched out in rest, which hence, must end for him?

Art thou a lover?–no! naught e’er was found
In lover’s breast, save cords of love, that bound
Man to his kind! Then, thy professions save!
Forswear affection, or release thy slave!

Thou who art kneeling at thy Maker’s shrine,
Ask if Heaven takes such offerings as thine!
If in thy bonds the son of Africa signs,
Far higher than thy prayer his groan will rise!

God is a God of mercy, and would see
The prison-doors unbarr’d–the bondmen free!
He is a God of truth, with purer eyes
Than to behold the oppressor’s sacrifice!

Avarice, thy cry and thine insatiate thirst
Make man consent to see his brother cursed!
Tears, sweat and blood thou drink’st, but in their turn,
They shall cry ‘more!’ while vengeance bids thee burn.

The Lord hath said it! — who shall him gainsay?
He says. ‘the wicked, they shall go away’
Who are the wicked?- Contradict who can,
They are the oppressors of their fellow man!

Aid me, New England! ’tis my hope in you
Which gives me strength my purpose to pursue!
Do you not hear your sister States resound
With Africa’s cries to have her sons unbound?

After the end of the Civil War in December, 1865, Garrison published his last issue of The Liberator, announcing “my vocation as an abolitionist is ended.” After thirty-five years and 1,820 issues, Garrison had not failed to publish a single issue. He spent the final 14 years of his life campaigning for woman’s suffrage, pacifism and temperance. He died in New York City on May 24, 1879.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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