A slavery foe's lost battle


Black History Month

February 09, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

On Boston's Commonwealth Avenue Mall sits the majestic granite statue of William Lloyd Garrison, the fiery abolitionist, resting in a chair, eyes full of fire and determination.

Garrison, born and raised in Newburyport, Mass., began his career as a writer and editor working for the Newburyport Herald.

When he was 25, he became active in the abolition movement, and came to Baltimore in 1829 to serve as co-editor with Benjamin Lundy of The Genius of Universal Emancipation. During his time here, Garrison managed to stir up trouble and was the target of a successful libel suit brought by the captain of a slave ship.

"In 1830 he was convicted of a libel on Captain Francis Todd for denouncing as `domestic piracy,' the action of the ship Francis for carrying slaves from Baltimore to New Orleans, and sentenced to pay a fine of $50 and costs. He was unable to pay the costs, and was put in jail," reported The Sun.

He was freed 49 days later when a friend paid the fine.

In an 1865 speech in Charleston, S.C., Garrison reflected on his Baltimore days.

"In 1829, I first hoisted in the city of Baltimore the flag of immediate, unconditional, uncompensated emancipation; and they threw me into their prison for preaching the gospel truth. My reward is, that in 1865 Maryland has adopted Garrisonian Abolitionism, and accepted a constitution endorsing every principle and idea that I have advocated in behalf of the oppressed."

In 1831 he established his own abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, whose motto was "Our Country is the World - Our countrymen are mankind," and proclaimed its anti-slavery mission in the first issue. The next year, he founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society.

Etched into the stone beneath the statue in Boston are those stirring words that greeted readers of the first edition of the Liberator: "I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation. ... I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - and I will be heard."

For the next 34 years, Garrison edited and published 1,820 issues of the newspaper, never missing an edition, and only brought it to a close in 1865 with the end of slavery and the Civil War.

Frederick A. Douglass was born into slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 1818, and gained his freedom in 1838, when he escaped to New York, finally settling in New Bedford, Mass.

Active in the abolitionist movement, Douglass subscribed to the Liberator and met Garrison at a meeting of the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1841. "No face and form ever impressed me with such sentiments as did those of William Lloyd Garrison," wrote Douglass, who was recruited as a lecturer for the society.

And Garrison paid similar homage to Douglass.

"I shall never forget his first speech at the convention - the extraordinary emotion it excited in my own mind - the powerful impression it created upon a crowded auditory, completely taken by surprise - the applause which followed from the beginning to the end of his felicitous remarks," Garrison wrote in the preface to Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself.

"It was at once deeply impressed upon my mind, that, if Frederick Douglass could be persuaded to consecrate his time and talents to the promotion of the anti-slavery enterprise, a powerful impetus would be given to it, and a stunning blow at the same time inflicted on northern prejudice against a colored complexion."

Eventually the two parted. Garrison denounced the U.S. Constitution as a pro-slavery document. He railed against churches, political parties and supported the breakup of the Union.

Douglass' views were quite different from his former mentor's. He felt the Constitution could be a mighty weapon for emancipation and that the dissolution of the Union would certainly maroon slaves in the South, thus ensuring their continued mistreatment.

On May 24, 1879, while visiting his daughter in New York City, Garrison died of Bright's disease at the Westmoreland Hotel. In a speech the next month at the Garrison Memorial Meeting, Douglass spoke of his old friend.

"In the death of William Lloyd Garrison, we behold a great life ended, a great purpose achieved, a great career beautifully finished, and a great example of heroic endeavor nobly established.

"Now that this man has filled up the measure of his years, now that the leaf has fallen to the ground as all leaves must fall, let us guard his memory as a precious inheritance, let us teach our children the story of his life, let us try to imitate his virtues, and endeavor as he did to leave the world freer, nobler, and better than we found it."

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