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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 148

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This is the grave of William Lloyd Garrison.

Born in 1805 in Newburyport, Massachusetts to dirt poor parents. His father, a sailor unemployed due to the Embargo Act of 1807, the single worst foreign policy decision in American history, deserted the family in 1808. Garrison had to work from a young age to help the family survive. He began working for a newspaper in 1820 and soon began writing for it, starting his own paper in 1826. He became involved in abolitionism in the late 1820s, moving quickly from supporting the colonization of ex-slaves to Africa to full-fledged abolitionism. Editing a Quaker newspaper in Baltimore, he began publishing stronger anti-slavery material, eventually getting sued. At that point, he left Baltimore, moved to Boston, and started The Liberator in 1831.

The Liberator would be Garrison’s mouthpiece until slavery died. In the first issue, he pronounced his now famous manifesto.

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? 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. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

Garrison was heard alright. He was a real radical. Today, we think of him as a hero. And we think of Boston as the opposite of the South, a place where radicalism thrived. But Bostonians hated Garrison. He was seen as a freak. His actions, such as publicly burning the Constitution, did not endear him to the locals. He believed the Constitution was “a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell” for permitting slavery. Imagine this today. Colin Kaepernick refuses to stand for the American flag and he is blacklisted. What would happen if he burned a copy of the Constitution on the field? Would he be lynched? And while whites, including Garrison, have always been able to say and do things African-Americans could not, what do you think people would do if the left starting burning the Constitution in the street? It would not be pretty. It wasn’t for Garrison either. In October 1835, a mob surrounded his office, captured him, put a rope around his neck, and nearly tarred and feathered him before the mayor intervened and put him in jail for his own safety. Abolitionism was no accepted idea in Boston in 1835. In fact, Garrison was so radical on his view of the Constitution that he broke with Frederick Douglass over their interpretation of the document in 1855, when Douglass argued that the Constitution could be interpreted in an anti-slavery manner. To Garrison, that made Douglass a sellout.

And really, abolitionism wasn’t that much more accepted in 1860 either. Over two decades later, Garrison was still an outlier. Less so, but in most of the North, abolitionism was still seen as a weird movement of fanatics when the Civil War started, especially the fervent evangelical type of Garrison. The 1840s and 1850s had convinced many northerners that the Slave Power must be stopped in some way but that was an entirely different proposition than not only freeing slaves, but believing that African-Americans were equal and deserved equal treatment. Of course, that was still different than the South, as the state of Georgia actually put a price on Garrison’s head at some point before the war.

Garrison consistently supported other radical movements as well. That included women’s suffrage and his support for allowing women to speak at anti-slavery conventions split the abolitionist movement, with people such as the Tappan brothers splitting with him over the issue and starting their own organization.

Garrison closed The Liberator in 1865, after slavery was finally dead. He still wrote frequently in favor of black rights. In 1870, he began co-editing a paper supporting women’s suffrage. He supported Native American rights at the moment when the final conquest of the last remaining independent tribes was happening. On the other hand, Garrison was one of the abolitionists who turned harshly on the rise of organized labor. After the Civil War (and before really), white workers began calling themselves “wage slaves.” This drove Garrison crazy. He was deeply offended that white workers would borrow the terminology of slavery, something Garrison found uniquely horrible. He wasn’t wrong really and perhaps the language of the white working class was slightly overwrought compared to actual chattel slavery. But that working class also faced declining standards of living and the increasing control over their labor and lives by employers in ways that did seem to represent slavery. Moreover, Garrison blamed the workers for their own poverty and did not believe that capital should be attacked. Unfortunately, he was far from alone in these feelings among the white abolitionist class, who, unlike Garrison to be fair, were largely relatively wealthy and educated and pro-business.

Garrison died in 1879 of kidney disease, a few years after his wife, which he responded to by engaging in that popular movement of the time, spiritualism. Knock on the bottom of your table in a spooky manner in honor of him tonight.

William Lloyd Garrison is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts.

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