William Lloyd Garrison Finds His Voice

William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) in 1833.

William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) in 1833.

I’ve been meaning for some time to write an article or two on William Lloyd Garrison. Today being his birthday, I figure it’s a good time to get around to that.

Garrison, Boston’s leading abolitionist, influenced the political and social course of our nation in profound ways. In doing so, he played no small role in the coming of the Civil War. I feel he was one of the bravest historical figures I know, unflinching in his principles even in the face of lynch mobs.

It may be a bit trivial, but I have an interest in identifying watershed moments in the lives of certain historical figures. Particularly those moments when they first publicly voiced the views for which they would become famous. It is interesting to imagine the moment…

As I see it, the moment that launched Garrison irrevocably on the course of moral revolution was July 4, 1829 as he stood up to address roughly 1,500 people in Boston’s Park Street Church. At age 23, it was his first significant public address. And it was a barn-burner.

A bit of background first. The young, aspiring journalist and activist who was to make that address was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1805. His father had been a sea captain who fell on hard times and deserted his family in 1808 during Jefferson’s Embargo. Garrison’s mother was a strong woman of powerful religious conviction and was determined to support her family by becoming a nurse.

In 1818, Ephraim W. Allen, proprietor of the Newburyport Herald, accepted Garrison, then 13 years of age, as an apprentice and taught him the printer’s trade. By age 16, Garrison was writing columns for the Herald under various pseudonyms.

In 1826, Garrison became editor of The Free Press, another Newburyport newspaper. The paper did not last long. But it had some claim to fame in that Garrison therein published the first printed verses of poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Garrison and Whittier would develop a lasting friendship.

In 1828, Garrison went to work in Boston as editor of The National Philanthropist, a paper launched by a Baptist minister, Rev. William Collier, devoted to the “suppression of intemperance and kindred vices.” Garrison’s outspoken support of social reform efforts attracted the attention of antislavery activist Benjamin Lundy (1789-1839), a New Jersey born Quaker who, in 1821, had commenced publishing the nation’s first antislavery newspaper, the Genius of Universal Emancipation. As Lundy traveled about quite a bit on lecture tours, the paper was published during the 1820s out of any available office he could find in many different states.

Lundy came to Boston on a lecture tour in 1828 and immediately struck up a strong friendship with young Garrison. They discussed ideas for the establishment of an antislavery society in Boston. Lundy urged Garrison to work with him on his paper. Excited at the prospect, Garrison resigned from the Philanthropist. But Lundy continued on his lecture tour and their collaboration would be delayed for some time.

Finding himself without means, Garrison was recruited to become editor of a political propagandist paper in Bennington, Vermont, conceived and backed by anti-Jackson men in that town. It was less than ideal, but the backers gave Garrison latitude to publish articles on reform movements…particularly antislavery.

His few months of work with the Bennington paper once again brought Benjamin Lundy around. The peregrinating abolitionist appeared in Bennington and suggested that Garrison come to Baltimore where Lundy intended to resume publishing his paper. Garrison agreed and on his way to Baltimore, he stopped in Boston during the summer of 1829. He shared a room with his friend, the poet Whittier.

Boston’s Park Street Church had begun a tradition of Fourth of July lectures some years earlier. Many members of the church were devotees of the American Colonization Society. “Colonization” was an early and rather flawed form of antislavery that advocated gradual emancipation and deportation of freed slaves to colonies in Africa. The Fourth of July lectures at Park Street Church raised funds for missions in these African colonies. The church booked Garrison, at that time a rather unknown but intriguing young journalist, to give the annual lecture.

They expected a lecture rooted in the typical rhetoric of colonization. What they got was something entirely different. Biographer Henry Mayer called Garrison’s Park Street Church lecture, “an epochal moment in the history of freedom.”

July 4, 1829 was rainy, raw and chilly. As the crowd gathered at Park Street Church, Garrison sat in one of the front pews and awaited his turn to speak. There were prayers, hymns, and poems. As all these exercises took place, 23 year old Garrison, as he later wrote, felt his knees “knock together at the thought of speaking before so large a concourse.”

Park Street Church, Boston

Park Street Church, Boston

The moment came for his address. He had titled it, “Dangers to the Nation.” I offer some condensed highlights (and the reader will please pardon the “sound bytes.” A more complete text can be found here).

Fifty-three years ago, the Fourth of July was a proud day for our country. It clearly and accurately defined the rights of man…it gave an impulse to the heart of the world…

I speak not as a partisan or an opponent of any man or measures, when I say, that our politics are rotten to the core. There is an evil…It should make this a day of fasting and prayer, not of boisterous merriment and idle pageantry—a day of great lamentation, not of congratulatory joy. It should spike every cannon, and haul down every banner.

I stand up here…to obtain the liberation of two millions of wretched, degraded beings, who are pining in hopeless bondage—over whose sufferings scarcely an eye weeps, or a heart melts, or a tongue pleads either to God or man. I regret that a better advocate had not been found, to enchain your attention…

Let this be considered as the preface of a noble work, which your inventive sympathies must elaborate and complete. I assume as distinct and defensible propositions:

That the slaves of this country, whether we consider their moral, intellectual or social conditions, are preeminently entitled to the prayers, and sympathies, and charities, of the American people.

That, as the free States—by which I mean non-slave-holding States—are constitutionally involved in the guilt of slavery… and it is their duty to assist in its overthrow.

That no justificative plea for the perpetuity of slavery can be found in the condition of its victims; and no barrier against our righteous interference.

That education and freedom will elevate our colored population to a rank with the white—making them useful, intelligent and peaceable citizens…

And here let me ask, What has Christianity done, by direct effort, for our slave population? Comparatively nothing…From one end of the country to the other, her charitable societies form golden links of benevolence, and scatter their contributions like raindrops over a parched heath…The blood of souls is upon her garments, yet she heeds not the stain…

Every Fourth of July, our Declaration of Independence is produced…But what a pitiful detail of grievances does this document present, in comparison with the wrongs which our slaves endure!…In view of it, I am ashamed of my country. I am sick of our unmeaning declamation in praise of liberty and equality; of our hypocritical cant about the unalienable rights of man…

If any man believes that slavery can be abolished without a struggle with the worst passions of human nature, quietly, harmoniously, he cherishes a delusion. It can never be done, unless the age of miracles return. No; we must expect a collision, full of sharp asperities and bitterness…

We are all alike guilty. Slavery is strictly a national sin. New England money has been expended in buying human flesh; New England ships have been freighted with sable victims; New England men have assisted in forging the fetters of those who groan in bondage…

I will say, finally, that I despair of the republic while slavery exists therein. If I look up to God for success, no smile of mercy or forgiveness dispels the gloom of futurity…

This was not the lecture the audience was expecting. I am sure there was great shock and surprise. Garrison, at age 23, had voiced revolutionary views that would define his life’s work. Emancipation must be achieved through moral suasion, through prayer, churches and charity…not politics. Free states must shed their apathy and work to overthrow slavery. Freed slaves deserved full, equal rights as citizens. And if this was not accomplished, terrible bloodshed, either through Civil War or massive slave revolt, would result.

Garrison had found his voice. Just over a year later, he would be back in Boston (after being jailed in Baltimore). He would publish the first issue of the Liberator and a price would be put on his head by several Southern governments. But that is a different story…

About Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate View all posts by Patrick Browne

5 responses to “William Lloyd Garrison Finds His Voice

  • James Thaddeus

    In harmony with the principles of this speech, in 1844 Garrrison began a secessionist movement whereby non-slave states would secede from the Union. Although this movement was unsuccessful, the fact is evidence in favor of the lawfulness of secession in ante bellum America. The unlawfulness of state secession was not initially determined by any court deliberation, but by the Civil War. And it was only in 1869 that the U.S. Supreme Court in “Texas v. White” rubber stamped what the Civil War had already decided — that state secession is unconstitutional. But Garrison’s watchword in 1844 was then: NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS!

    • Patrick Browne

      James, your point is well taken regarding Garrison and secessionism. He was about as radical as they come. But I don’t think the stance of any radicals (whether it was Garrison or Calhoun) is evidence of the lawfulness of secession. The federal government would not have stood for it no matter which radicals were advocating it. And I also tend to think Garrison’s advocacy of secession was more posturing than anything else.

  • Jim Dwyer


    Thank you.

    I hadn’t heard of Garrison.

    I enjoyed the tenor of his message, as well as the content and the way he wrote. I could imagine the drooped jaws and mystified minds of those on hand to witness that Park Street speech.

    Easy for me to look back now and wonder why a “free” nation tolerated slavery for so long, and I wonder about today’s ills–if other Garrisons will summon their courage and voice their disdain for the status quo. Perhaps they have already done so. I also wonder how our descendants (perhaps someone will stumble upon this ol’ Internet in the year 2063) will feel about laws and behaviors and politics of our time.

    Well done, Patrick, as usual.


  • Marty

    Though I’m an atheist and find most theists silly I can’t deny the impact it’s often had on many of our more moral issues. At the same time that the belief in ‘the good god’ has liberated it has also enslaved. Suffice it to say history as well as the bible are all to often cherry picked to justify nefarious agendas and goals.

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