Garrison Begins Publishing Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During an era when abolitionist newspapers proliferated in northern states, William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator stood out as the most radical and uncompromising advocate of immediate abolition of slavery.

Summary of Event

William Lloyd Garrison and his newspaper were products of the era of religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening Great Awakening, Second;and abolitionism[Abolitionism] , which transformed Protestant theology in the United States. The Awakening engendered moral reform movements in New England and other parts of the North during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Unlike their Calvinist predecessors, those who engaged in moral reform assumed that human beings, by their actions, could create a perfect society and bring about the millennial return of Jesus Christ Jesus Christ [p]Jesus Christ;and millenarianism[Millenarianism] . In his perception of the sinfulness and criminality of slaveholding, which he believed deprived both slaves and masters of a chance for salvation, Garrison went beyond most reformers of his time. Garrison, William Lloyd [p]Garrison, William Lloyd;and The Liberator[Liberator] Liberator, The;founding of Abolitionism;newspapers Journalism;abolitionist Boston;The Liberator[Liberator] [kw]Garrison Begins Publishing The Liberator (Jan. 1, 1831) [kw]Begins Publishing The Liberator, Garrison (Jan. 1, 1831) [kw]Publishing The Liberator, Garrison Begins (Jan. 1, 1831) [kw]Liberator, Garrison Begins Publishing The (Jan. 1, 1831) Garrison, William Lloyd [p]Garrison, William Lloyd;and The Liberator[Liberator] Liberator, The;founding of Abolitionism;newspapers Journalism;abolitionist Boston;The Liberator[Liberator] [g]United States;Jan. 1, 1831: Garrison Begins Publishing The Liberator[1660] [c]Journalism;Jan. 1, 1831: Garrison Begins Publishing The Liberator[1660] [c]Social issues and reform;Jan. 1, 1831: Garrison Begins Publishing The Liberator[1660] Tappan, Arthur Tappan, Lewis Chapman, Maria Weston Forten, James Lundy, Benjamin Phillips, Wendell

William Lloyd Garrison.

(Library of Congress)

Garrison was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1805. Deserted by his seafaring father at the age of three, he was raised in poverty by his devout Baptist Baptists;and slavery[Slavery] mother, who instilled in him her own strict moral code. At thirteen years of age, he apprenticed as a printer at the Newburyport Herald, where he learned the newspaper business. By 1828, he was in Boston, working as the editor of The National Philanthropist, which supported the temperance Temperance movement;in United States[United States] movement. Garrison also supported what he and others perceived to be the antislavery efforts of the American Colonization Society American Colonization Society (ACS), which had been founded in 1817. As the dominant antislavery organization of the 1820’s, the ACS advocated the gradual abolition of slavery, combined with the transportation of free black Americans to Africa.

In 1828, Garrison’s decision to join Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lundy Lundy, Benjamin in Baltimore as coeditor of Lundy’s weekly, The Genius of Universal Emancipation, Genius of Universal Emancipation, The led to The Liberator and a more radical antislavery movement. In Baltimore, Garrison observed slavery in practice. Influenced by members of Baltimore’s African American community, he came to believe that gradualism would never end the “peculiar institution.” African American influences also led Garrison to conclude that the ACS perpetuated a racist assumption that black and white people could not live together as equals in the United States, and he came to oppose the society’s “colonization” goals.

Garrison’s increasing militancy made cooperation with the more conservative Lundy Lundy, Benjamin difficult. Garrison’s radicalism also led to his imprisonment for libel in Baltimore and to his decision to return to New England to begin his own antislavery newspaper. On January 1, 1831, he published the first issue of The Liberator in Boston. In that inaugural issue, Garrison proclaimed his conversion to immediate, not gradual, abolition of slavery. Harshly condemning slaveholders as sinners and thieves, he pointed out that one did not ask sinners to stop sinning gradually or require that thieves gradually stop committing crimes. Christian morality and justice, he insisted, required that slaveholders immediately and unconditionally free their bondspeople.

Garrison was not the first to advocate immediate emancipation. What was different about him was his rejection of moderation and his linkage of immediatism with a demand that the rights of the formerly enslaved be recognized in the United States. In his most famous statement, Garrison proclaimed,

I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.

Garrison’s launching of The Liberator is also significant for its reflection of biracial cooperation in the antislavery movement. Although Garrison, like other white abolitionists, never entirely escaped the racial prejudices of his time, he and his newspaper enjoyed the strong support of African Americans. Wealthy black abolitionist James Forten Forten, James of Philadelphia provided crucial financial support to The Liberator in its early years. During the same period, Garrison employed black subscription agents, and three-quarters of the newspaper’s subscribers were black. In Boston, where white antiabolition sentiment could produce violent confrontations, Garrison enjoyed the physical protection of African Americans.

Meanwhile, Garrison and The Liberator played an essential role in the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society American Anti-Slavery Society[American AntiSlavery Society] (AASS). Founded in December, 1833, under the leadership of Garrison and New York City businessmen Arthur and Lewis Tappan Tappan, Lewis Tappan, Arthur , the AASS united immediate abolitionists in the United States through most of the 1830’s. Reflecting the pacifistic views of Garrison, the Tappans, and others, the society pledged in its Declaration of Sentiments—modeled on the Declaration of Independence—to use peaceful means to bring about the immediate, uncompensated emancipation of all U.S. slaves, without colonization.

Promoted by The Liberator, dozens of other antislavery newspapers, and thousands of antislavery pamphlets, the AASS American Anti-Slavery Society[American AntiSlavery Society] grew rapidly. By 1838, it claimed a membership in the North of approximately 250,000 people in 1,350 local affiliates. At the same time, however, internal tensions were tearing the AASS apart. The essential problem was that Garrison and his closest New England associates, including Maria Weston Chapman Chapman, Maria Weston , Wendell Phillips Phillips, Wendell , and Henry C. Wright Wright, Henry C. , had concluded that the spirit of slavery had so permeated the nation that the North, as well as the South, had to be fundamentally changed.

Although other abolitionists were reaching similar conclusions during the late 1830’s, many of them objected to the specific policies advocated in the columns of The Liberator to effect those changes. In particular, an increasingly unorthodox Garrison antagonized church-oriented abolitionists by his wholesale condemnation of organized religion. He also seemed to threaten traditional concepts of patriarchy by his championing of women’s rights and, specifically, female equality within the AASS American Anti-Slavery Society[American AntiSlavery Society] . He appeared to threaten government through his advocacy of nonresistance, the pacifist doctrine that physical force is never justified, even in self-defense or on behalf of law and order. He frustrated those who desired a separate abolitionist political party by condemning political parties as inherently corrupt.

As a result of these tensions, the abolitionist movement splintered in 1840. Garrison, his New England associates, and a few others throughout the North retained control of the AASS, but the great majority of abolitionists left the organization. Lewis Tappan Tappan, Lewis began the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society[American and Foreign AntiSlavery Society] , which, until 1855, maintained a church-oriented antislavery campaign. Politically inclined abolitionists organized the Liberty Party Liberty Party . By the 1850’s, a majority of non-Garrisonian abolitionists had come to support the Republican Party, which advocated neither immediate abolition nor equal rights for African Americans.

During the 1840’s and 1850’s, Garrison used The Liberator and other forums to promote anticlericalism, women’s rights, and nonresistance, as well as immediate emancipation and equal rights for African Americans. Although he and his former AASS American Anti-Slavery Society[American AntiSlavery Society] colleagues remained in agreement on many points, there was also considerable mutual antagonism. Chances for reconciliation among them diminished in 1842, when Garrison began to call on the people of the North to dissolve the union. He argued that it was northern support that kept slavery in existence in the South, implying that, when the North withdrew its support through disunion, the slaves could free themselves. His abolitionist critics responded that disunion was tantamount to the North’s divorcing itself from the slavery issue.

When the South, rather than the North, initiated disunion in 1860 and 1861, however, changing circumstances caused Garrison to draw back from some of his more radical positions. He compromised his pacifism and his opposition to party politics by supporting Republican president Abraham Lincoln’s war to preserve the union and free the slaves. After the war ended successfully for the North and slavery was formally abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18, 1865, Garrison, old, tired, and seeking vindication, announced that his work was done—although it was clear that black equality had not been achieved with the end of slavery. The last issue of The Liberator rolled off its press on December 29, 1865.


Publication of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly newspaper, The Liberator, helped to transform the antislavery movement in the United States. It symbolized the beginning of a radical effort to abolish slavery and secure equal rights for African Americans throughout the country. Garrison stood out as one of the most uncompromising advocates of emancipation. Early in his career, he was often vilified and sometimes even physically attacked. However, with the achievement of emancipation in 1865, Garrison was seen as a prophetic hero, and he is now regarded as one of the most influential antislavery voices of the nineteenth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abzug, Robert H. Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Demonstrates Garrison’s radicalism in the context of early nineteenth century U.S. Protestantism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedman, Lawrence J. Gregarious Saints: Self and Community in American Abolitionism, 1830-1870. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. A study of relationships among abolitionists. Includes a description of Garrison’s circle of abolitionists and his leadership style.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrison, William Lloyd. William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery: Selections from “The Liberator.” Edited with an introduction by William E. Cain. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Collection of forty-one selections from Garrison’s newspaper dealing with slavery issues. Cain’s introduction provides historical background on slavery and the abolition movement in the United States and the events in Garrison’s career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayer, Henry. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Biography of William Lloyd Garrison that places his life within the broader context of the abolitionist movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Scholary study of the early years of the abolition movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rogers, William B.“We Are All Together Now”: Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and the Prophetic Tradition. New York: Garland, 1995. Describes how Douglass and Garrison drew on the tradition of biblical prophecy in their struggle against slavery, intemperance, and the oppression of women and minorities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stewart, James Brewer. William Lloyd Garrison and the Challenge of Emancipation. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1992. A brief biography that explores the personal choices that initiated and maintained Garrison’s career as an abolitionist.

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