Book Review: Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery
Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998; pb. ed., 2000).
Looking backward, it has seemed to many historians that the abolition of slavery in the U.S. was inevitable. From that perspective, the voices of gradualists like Henry Clay of Kentucky have seemed reasonable and historians have tended to dismiss the strong voices calling for the immediate abolition of slavery as “fanatical.” The editor and printer William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), founder of The Liberator (the first and leading abolitionist newspaper) and founder of The New England Anti-Slavery Society, the American Anti-Slavery Society, and the Massachussetts Anti-Slavery Society, is one of those voices too often dismissed as “shrill,” “unreasonable,” and “fanatical.” Many of his contemporaries saw him the same way and were usually surprised that the author of editorials that thundered jeremiads against the moral complacency of his age was, in person, mild-mannered, soft spoken, and careful of personal relationships. Henry Mayer has written a large biography of Garrison that rehabilitates him–showing that Garrison, as a professional agitator, changed the political climate and made the issue of slavery a moral priority that could not be ignored.
This is a wonderful biography that has made Garrison one of my heroes. Born into poverty in a pious New England Baptist family (though never baptized because he couldn’t describe a conversion story in the style expected by his time), Garrison was a self-educated “mechanic,” as a printer, editor, and publisher. When he began The Liberator in 1831 there were few if any voices calling for the immediate abolition of slavery. All but two (John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams) presidents had been slaveowners and there were no political parties or presidential candidates who were not either apologists for the perpetual continuation of slavery or appeasers of the Southern slaveholders. The U. S. Constitution counted slaves as “3/5ths of persons” for census purposes, thus giving the slave states more political power than the non-slave states and forcing slaves to virtually vote for their own continued slavery. The Missouri Compromise created a gag rule against even discussing the end of slavery in Congress (with Southern politicians constantly threatening secession if the rule was removed) and Southerners schemed to annex much of northern Mexico (which abolished slavery after independence from Spain) to spread slavery westward and keep slavery in perpetuity. When Garrison began, the “liberal” view of reforming philanthropists was represented by the American Colonization Society which worked for gradual emancipation of slaves on condition of deportation to the U. S. colony of Liberia in West Africa (whose capital, Monrovia, is named after U.S. President James Monroe, a slaveholder and pro-colonization man). These gradualists and colonizationists, including presidents Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and Monroe, all deliberately denied any future for free blacks in the U. S. and all argued that equal citizenship was impossible because of the “degraded” condition of slaves and the inherent inferiority of persons of African descent. To say it differently, when Garrison began his campaign for the immediate abolition of slavery and creation of a racially just and equal society, the “liberals” were all white supremacists and proponents of massive ethnic cleansing schemes–and they had the Constitution on their side.
So, Garrison, using the popular media of his day, sought not to play party politics, but to change the moral and political context in which any would be politician had to operate. Within 5 years he could no longer be ignored or dismissed, colonization schemes were seen as the racist plans they were, and the question of abolition became THE moral issue of the day.
Garrison’s story could be seen as one of failure: A Christian pacifist, Garrison hoped to abolish slavery by “moral suasion” that created a nonviolent social revolution that would call for a new Constitution. Instead, slavery was only abolished after a bitter civil war and even after the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution (which could only be passed and ratified because the former slave states were under military governments), white supremacy, segregation, and legal discrimination continued for another century. We have yet to see the racially just society which Garrison and his fellow abolitionists worked so hard. The churches he hoped to purify divided over slavery along sectional lines and 11 o’clock Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in the U.S.
But Mayer doesn’t present Garrison as a failure. Instead, his is a story of how an ordinary person–not a general or politician or “captain of industry,”–can make a difference. One person became a small group of people which grew into a movement. The movement widened–participation by women created the first wave of feminism and the struggle for women’s suffrage and equality (which Garrison completely supported). The movement divided over “the woman question,” over questions of political strategy (Garrison opposed voting until the Constitution was changed since voting in the current context perpetuated the flawed system, but others wanted to create abolitionist parties and candidates), over the issue of the use of violence in the struggle for justice, and much else. Even many of the abolitionists were racially prejudiced, but Garrison and others worked to overcome this–attending black churches, staying in black homes and hosting black families in theirs, pushing against discriminatory laws. Garrison even urged an end to all laws against interracial marriage–laws that would exist in 13 states until 1967. If struggles continued after Garrison’s death, they built upon the struggles and victories of Garrison’s day. His is a legacy which needs to be reclaimed for this generation.
Mayer’s book also deepens the account of U.S. history in the decades leading up to the Civil War (1861-1865), showing how deeply slavery and racism were woven into the law and culture and how the seeds of the Civil War were sown by the Constitutional compromises, the Missouri Compromise, the rebellion of Texas (and schemes of Texas annexation), the War with Mexico, the Monroe Doctrine, and, of course, the economics of cotton. We also see Garrison intersect the lives of less-neglected figures from the wealthy Tappan brothers to Charles Finney, the Grimke Sisters, Lucretia Mott, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Clay, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, and many others. It was Garrison who first introduced Frederick Douglass to the world and who published the first edition of Douglass autobiography–for which he has receieved little credit. (Today, Douglass is being recovered by scholars and popular history, too, after long neglect. But Garrison has yet to get his due.)
Readers of this magnificent biography should also see the collection of primary sources, William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery: Selections from The Liberator, ed with and introduction by William Cain.