Letter from William Lloyd Garrison to the Public (1831)

Image: William Lloyd Garrison. Library of Congress, Miscellaneous Item in High Demand. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004672098/
How does Garrison compare anti-slavery sentiment in the North with anti-slavery sentiment in the South?
What similarities, if any do you find in Garrison’s views on the anti-slavery movement in 1831 and Martin Luther King’s views of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963?

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Few social reformers in American history have been more devoted to their cause than William Lloyd Garrison was to the immediate abolition of slavery in the United States. From January 1831 until the ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865, Garrison printed 1,820 issues of his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, most of them containing editorials he wrote as he type-set his own words.

Garrison’s father had abandoned his family in 1808 when the youngster was only three years old. Later Lloyd, as his mother called him, delivered wood, and sold homemade candy to support the family before apprenticing with the Newburyport Herald (MA) at age 13. In his twenties Garrison became involved in the abolition movement. Initially he supported gradual emancipation and the American Colonization Society’s plan to colonize Africa with American blacks. He abandoned both ideas by 1830 just before launching The Liberator. Within two years, he helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society whose mission was to convince all Americans that “Slaveholding is a heinous crime in the sight of God” requiring “its immediate abandonment without expatriation.”

In “To the Public,” an editorial published in the first edition of The Liberator, Garrison “recanted” his previous support for gradual emancipation. He publicly sought God’s forgiveness for having “a sentiment so full of timidity, injustice and absurdity.” He declared that on the issue of emancipation he was not a moderate. For the remainder of his career, Garrison called for immediate abolition on the grounds that slavery was a sin. He believed that the Constitution of the United States was pro-slavery, which caused a break in his friendship with African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass when Douglass argued that the Constitution could be used to denounce slavery. The most well-known line from “To the Public” is Garrison’s declaration “I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD.” Even though his life was threatened—once he was hung in effigy outside his office—he made himself heard until slavery was banned by the 13th Amendment in 1865.

—TAH Staff

Source: Garrison, William Lloyd. "To The Public," in The Words of Garrison: A Centennial Selection (1805-1905) of Characteristic Sentiments from the Writings of William Lloyd Garrison; with a Biographical Sketch, List of Portraits, Bibliography and Chronology. Edited by Francis Jackson Garrison and Wendell Phillips Garrison, 70-73. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1905. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Words_of_Garrison/HdV2AAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0

In the month of August I issued proposals for publishing the "Liberator" in Washington city; but the enterprise, though hailed in different sections of the country, was palsied by public indifference. Since that time, the removal of the "Genius of Universal Emancipation" to the Seat of Government has rendered less imperious the establishment of a similar periodical in that quarter.

During my recent tour for the purpose of exciting the minds of the people by a series of discourses on the subject of slavery, every place that I visited gave fresh evidence of the fact, that a greater revolution in public sentiment was to be effected in the free states—and particularly in New England—than at the South. I found contempt more bitter, opposition more active, detraction more relentless, prejudice more stubborn, and apathy more frozen, than among slave-owners themselves. Of course, there were individual exceptions to the contrary. This state of things afflicted, but did not dishearten me. I determined, at every hazard, to lift up the standard of emancipation in the eyes of the nation, within sight of Bunker Hill and in the birthplace of liberty. That standard is now unfurled; and long may it float, unhurt by the spoliations of time or the missiles of a desperate foe—yea, till every chain be broken, and every bondman set free! Let Southern oppressors tremble—let their secret abettors tremble—let their Northern apologists tremble—let all the enemies of the persecuted blacks tremble.

I deem the publication of my original Prospectus unnecessary, as it has obtained a wide circulation. The principles therein inculcated will be steadily pursued in this paper, excepting that I shall not array myself as the political partisan of any man. In defending the great cause of human rights, I wish to derive the assistance of all religions and of all parties.

Assenting to the "self-evident truth" maintained in the American Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights—among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population. In Park Street Church, on the Fourth of July, 1829, in an address on slavery, I unreflectingly assented to the popular but pernicious doctrine of gradual abolition. I seize this opportunity to make a full and unequivocal recantation, and thus publicly to ask pardon of my God, of my country, and of my brethren, the poor slaves, for having uttered a sentiment so full of timidity, injustice, and absurdity. A similar recantation, from my pen, was published in the "Genius of Universal Emancipation," at Baltimore, in September, 1829. My conscience is now satisfied.

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.

It is pretended that I am retarding the cause of emancipation by the coarseness of my invective and the precipitancy of my measures. The charge is not true. On this question my influence,—humble as it is,—is felt at this moment to a considerable extent, and shall be felt in coming years—not perniciously, but beneficially—not as a curse, but as a blessing; and posterity will bear testimony that I was right. I desire to thank God, that he enables me to disregard "the fear of man which bringeth a snare," and to speak his truth in its simplicity and power. And here I close with this fresh dedication:—

Oppression! I have seen thee face to face,
And met thy cruel eye and cloudy brow;
But thy soul-withering glance I fear not now—
For dread to prouder feelings doth give place
Of deep abhorrence! Scorning the disgrace
Of slavish knees that at thy footstool bow,
I also kneel—but with far other vow
Do hail thee and thy herd of hirelings base:—
I swear, while life-blood warms my throbbing veins,
Still to oppose and thwart, with heart and hand,
Thy brutalizing sway—till Afric's chains
Are burst, and Freedom rules the rescued land,—
Trampling Oppression and his iron rod:
Such is the vow I take—SO HELP ME GOD!


BOSTON, January 1, 1831

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