William Lloyd Garrison – a summary

Abolitonist, journalist, and social reformer, William Lloyd Garrison was born 12 December 1805 in Newburyport, Massachusetts.  His parents, Abijah Garrison and Frances Maria Lloyd Garrison, immigrated to the United States from New Brunswick, Canada.  His father abandoned the family in 1808 and young Garrison sold lemonade and candy to help support the family.

William Lloyd GarrisonAt the age of 13, Garrison was apprenticed to the Newbury Herald, where he began writing newspaper articles.  He later owned his own paper, Free Press.  It was a short-lived enterprise, but it was the first of several papers that he would own.  Garrison kept writing, began speaking and publishing his work.  In 1828, he became editor of the National Philanthropist in Boston, Massachusetts.

He joined the abolition movement at the age of 25 and associated himself, for a time, with the American Colonization Society, which promoted the relocation of African Americans to colonies in Africa.  Garrison later rejected the concept of colonization, which was intended to reduce the number of freed slaves in the United States.  He apologized for his ‘error,’ and began to censure others for making the same ‘mistake.’

The Black List

William Lloyd Garrison became co-editor of Genius of Universal Emancipation, a Quaker newspaper in Baltimore, Maryland.  While working for the Genius, Garrison moved from the gradualist concept of ending slavery to the immediatist viewpoint.  He began to include a column in the Genius called the ‘Black List’ which passed along stories of abuse and injustice against slaves.  He ran a story on the list of a ship owner who was involved in the slave trade.  After being sued, fined, and arrested for not paying the fine, Garrison and the Genuis parted ways.

In 1831, Garrison founded the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, which he would operate until after slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1865.  That same year, he founded the New England Anti Slavery Society, and one year later, the American Anti Slavery Society.  Garrison did not want either society aligned with any political party and allowed full participation in the activities of both organizations by women members.  Some of the members disapproved of female equality inside the organizations and formed rival abolitionist societies which did not allow female membership, much less female participation.  Garrison went on to form yet another society known as the Friends of Universal Reform.

Helen Eliza Benson GarrisonIn the midst of his abolitionist activities, Garrison met Helen Eliza Benson (pictured), the daughter of an abolitionist merchant.  They were married on 4 September 1834, and produced five sons and two daughters.  One son and one daughter did not survive to adulthood.  Of the sons, several became journalists and activists.  Garrison’s grandson, the son of his surviving daughter, Fanny, was Oswald Garrison Villard who helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Frederick Douglass, a former fugitive slave who became a newspaper editor and owner, author, and orator, among other things, was initially a great friend of Garrison’s.  After Garrison’s views on slavery became more aggressive, the two began to have differences that severed their friendship.  Douglass felt that the Constitution of the United States could be interpreted to be opposed to slavery, while Garrison felt that slavery tainted the document.

Insane and blood thirsty

Garrison’s outspoken views earned him as many enemies as friends.  He supported women’s suffrage as well as abolition.  In 1835, he was slated to speak at a meeting of the Boston Female Anti Slavery Society.  An angry mob disrupted the meeting, grabbed Garrison and dragged him through the streets of Boston with a rope tied around his waist.  In the State of Georgia, a $5,000 bounty was posted for his arrest.  He was the object of frequent death threats.  A church in Brooklyn, New York, went so far as to preach that Garrison and his followers were insane and blood thirsty, and were the cause of much discord between the north and south.

After the end of the American Civil War, Garrison continued to work on reforms for temperance and women’s suffrage.  He wanted to dissolve the American Anti Slavery Society that he had helped found, but other members argued that their work was not done until all African Americans had full equality, both civil and political.  Garrison believed that it was time for others to take up that task.  He resigned from the society and returned home to spend more time with his wife.

Helen Garrison had suffered a stroke in 1863 and her health was declining.  She died in 1876.  Garrison was so overcome with grief that he became ill himself.  He was too ill to attend Helen’s funeral service, even though it was held in his own home.  He slowly recovered and began attending spiritualist circles in hopes of contacting his dead wife.

In April 1879, Garrison went to live with his daughter, Fanny, in New York City.  The following month, he became so ill that his children rushed to his side.  They sang his favorite hymns to him while Garrison, too weak to sing, kept time by tapping his foot and hand.  On 24 May 1879, he lost consciousness and died.  Flags were flown at half-mast all over Boston as William Lloyd Garrison was laid to rest at Forest Hills Cemetery of the Jamaica Plains section of the city.

American SlaveryKat Smutz

Read more about slavery in the US in American Slavery: History In An Hour by Kat Smutz, published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and as downloadable audio.

See also articles on Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Elijah Lovejoy and Paul Cuffee.