The Later Years of William Lloyd Garrison

THE painstaking biography of Garrison by his children, the earlier volumes of which were noticed in this magazine on their appearance, is brought to completion with the same patience in investigation, candor in setting forth the facts elicited, and fidelity to the antislavery cause which were the leading traits of the narrative of the first period. The work has been so thoroughly done, and issues from such an intimate and familiar acquaintance with the mass of information bearing on the general subject of the agitation of the great national question, that it must be regarded as the permanent source to which historians must recur in dealing with the abolition of slavery. The career of Garrison has been properly identified with the movement for emancipation, and there is only reason for thankfulness that his memoir has been made more than a biography, and includes so much of the matériel pour servir for the history of the country. The treatment in these last two volumes, however, is less minute than in the preceding ones. The great schism in the anti-slavery ranks had already been narrated, the dramatic incidents of the opening agitation described, and the field cleared for the entrance of the historical events of the twenty years before the war. The course of the anti-slavery societies, though full of interest, blends with diverse elements in the working out of the national problem ; even before war began the movement is felt to be apart from the central current of events, becomes less considerable in view of the powerful elements gathering from other sources of the public life, and, as the war goes on, grows more and more subsidiary. Garrison had already quickened the conscience and alarmed the mind of the country; the leaven of his work was felt far away from where he stood and beyond the range of his immediate action ; the issue of the matter did not hang on his words or on the hands of his associates, but on the courage and wisdom of the Union-saving people as a nation at large.

It is conceded that slavery perished immediately by the folly of the slaveholders. The work of Garrison and his followers was to help in bringing on the conflict which the South precipitated. The story of how they accomplished this is the burden of the greater part of these volumes. They record a chapter in the agitation of reform, — the organization of the movement, the activity of the body so formed, the conventions, speeches, petitions, the jealousies that sprang up, the internal conflicts that resulted, the factions that fell off on one or another ground of public policy or private aberration ; but when the distinctive cause of emancipation passed out of the bands of the agitators into those of the leaders of the people, the main subject is at an end. The remainder, which narrates how wisely Garrison waited upon the times, and gave his support to those in power, in confidence that the end was near, is merely the winding up of the history of the cause which events had befriended more effectively than its own devoted servants, and the crowning of the latter years of its great leader with the honor which was his due. It is not strange, therefore, that these last volumes permit a less strenuous treatment than was exacted by the conditions of the slavery question before 1840, and it, is pleasurable to the reader to find the conclusion of Garrison’s life so happily in contrast with what it was when he undertook his work, and to witness also the change in the nation itself.

In the later career of Garrison, to which this notice is necessarily confined, the most prominent characteristic is the multiplication of his reforming interests. The one cause to which he had given himself was foremost, and was served with complete fidelity; but he found time to entertain views upon many other subjects with which slavery was not directly related. Moral warfare was his business in life. The vice of intemperance had been even before slavery in engaging his hostility. But after the anti-slavery movement was fairly in action, the conditions of Garrison’s social and intellectual life were such as to force upon him an indefinite number of nostrums for the cure of the world. A more striking example of the demoralizing effects of a condition of things in which faith in government and church was undermined is hardly to be found in history than that afforded by the vagaries of the abolitionists. They had judged and condemned both government and church, and in obedience to their conscience were ready to cast off both. They could " come out ” from the church, and each follow his own devices, hut they could not so readily leave government behind them, — a fact of which Quincy seems to have been most sensible, — and they avoided rebellion only by the stratagem of non-resistance ; a principle which, however honestly held, alone made their position as peaceable burners of the Constitution a tenable one. The doctrine of non-resistance was not held by Garrison with any peculiar modification of his own, such as to call for discussion ; when it came to applying it to the phases of politics as they turned into war, his practical sense stood him in good stead, though he did not abate his convictions in theory; but in the matter of the exodus from the church, he found secession from its body fruitful in heresies. The history of the Bible Conventions and the Chardon Street Conferences casts a flood of light upon the mental characteristics of the times. It is true that useful movements originated in the remarkable ferment of thought, but the debates at such gatherings remind one of the contents of the witches’ caldron. Garrison himself, though credulous and very open to new ideas, did not lose his self-possession in the midst of these “ new lights ; ” but it is rather from Quincy than from him that one gets a realizing sense of the scenes and the persons. Phillips held much aloof. It was said at the time that Garrison injured the cause of emancipation by these alliances with other reforms, and the more because the degree of his participation in them could not be made plain. Reading in these pages, one is far from being surprised that to many estimable people in comfortable circumstances Garrisonianism meant not only the abolition of slavery, but also the abolition of church and state. The honesty of Garrison, his fearlessness, his confidence in the benefits of free discussion, shine the more clearly in his relations with these secondary reforms; and considerations of his repute among men could not, in the nature of the case, weigh with him. Yet to readers of to-day, as to his contemporaries, the story of these episodes will, we fancy, be a disturbing influence in their judgment of the man.

A second matter which may prejudice the mind of a later generation to his disfavor is his adoption of the principle of disunion. The policy of “ no union with slave-holders ” was logically arrived at, and it was consistently pressed. There is no need to discuss it now as a practical remedy, or to speculate on what would have been the result of its adoption; whether wise or not, it offends the sentiment of loyalty, and can appeal only to those to whom the existence of slavery under government seems a sufficient ground for revolution. When the moment came for action, Garrison was found upon the side of those who desired the preservation of the Union; and in casting his influence in support of the Northern cause, in the belief that slavery in the South would be extinguished by our victory, he exhibited the same practical sense which operated to make his doctrine of nonresistance innocuous. The humorous defense he made for himself when he said that in advancing his doctrine that the Constitution was “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” it had never occurred to him that “ death and hell would secede,” was a happy retort upon those who criticised him; and with this explanation his disunion views may well be dismissed. In this matter, as in so many others, his good sense is the trait which is conspicuous. It is remarkable to what a degree he exceeded his associates in justice and temperance of mind with regard to the trying events of the war period : his conduct in respect to the doings of the administration, his willingness to be patient with its progress in the direction of general emancipation, display a statesmanlike quality ; his cordial support of Lincoln in the contest for re-nomination, and his refusal to continue the anti-slavery organization after its immediate and definite end had been achieved, mark most conspicuously this rational trait, obliged as he was to meet the opposition of lifelong friends and to part company with Phillips, in order to act upon his own judgment.

His self-restraint and tact during the war present in this way a different side of his character from that which was brought out in the earlier struggle. It is, we think, a gain to his reputation, and illustrates his superiority to his followers in general. To a remarkable degree all his acts expressed his own nature. He relied upon himself with extraordinary faith, and hence his decisions represent his own judgment without any admixture of the influence of others to whom he might naturally have deferred. It commonly happens that the leader of a party represents the general consent of the varying wills of its components, but Garrison represented others only in so far as they agreed with himself. So much of justice there seems to have been in the complaint that he wished to absorb the party in his own autocratic will. It was fortunate for him, under the circumstances, that he held complete control of the Liberator throughout the conflict; such an organ for the unhampered expression of his personality was a necessity to him, and it also fed his heroic independence by exercise. But it was not only in the Liberator that he ruled supreme. He was a natural leader, and it was to be expected that he would hold the primacy in any cause he championed. It appears to those who can read the history of the time dispassionately that the course of events justified him in his vigorous and uncompromising maintenance of his hold upon the helm. His judgment was shown to be prudent, and his associates differed from him only to go astray. This was as true in the contests of the factions in the anti-slavery ranks as it was afterwards in the questions of policy which arose in the war time. He was not merely the man with the will and power to take command, but, looking at his course from beginning to end, one does not hesitate to declare him the man who deserved to be in control by native superiority. Others excelled him in particular ways, but none equaled him in power of character.

He guided the movement firmly and sagaciously, and as his life is its history attention necessarily is given, in these volumes, to the details of its course. If one recalls the reputation he held for recklessness, folly, and arbitrariness, it is surprising to observe the soundness of his course within the limits prescribed to him by the shocking condition of the public mind upon the question of slavery. The greatness of his character, however, it is scarcely necessary to add, was not in his conduct of the agitation step by step, was not executive or political, but was moral. His intellectual power was strong so far as it was applied to slavery. Mr. Lowell is quoted as saying that he regarded Garrison as the most effective of the anti-slavery speakers. His addresses, of which many examples are given in the course of the narrative, are full of power. His style became more Scriptural as he grew older, and consequently has a peculiar quality, like the eloquence of the old divines; but the matter is of the best, and the expression is that which belongs to the living truth, and which no devices of oratory and rhetoric can match. Even when not dealing with the subject which struck fire from his mind, he wrote with admirable justness of thought. His criticism upon Dr. Channing seems to us the most remarkable passage, not upon anti-slavery, from his pen; and it is one which in comprehensive grasp of character, in justice, and in clearness of delineation lacks nothing to complete it; as a literary portrait it cannot be excelled. It was, however, in denunciation of slavery, and perhaps more conspicuously still in his latest expositions of the principles of liberty and of the duty of the American nation, that his power of logical and luminous expression and the passion of his moral fervor were most apparent. What he spoke, when roused by this inspiration, had the one quality which the highest oratory aims at, — the words bore with them the conviction of being the unmistakable truth. Though deficient in grace, brilliancy, and beauty of expression, he had this virtue of power. Intellectual force was an element in all this; but his faith was rather in the right, and only secondarily in the reasonable. He enforces our admiration, therefore, for his moral greatness, and not for any lesser quality of mind or genius by which men become memorable. The impression of such greatness, however, is not given by single events, or by measures of policy, or by the separate stages of a man’s career; it is necessary to read the entire life, page after page, to obtain an adequate feeling of the nobility of such a man’s intense faith in righteousness and consecration to its service.

The work concludes with a delineation of Garrison’s private character, which must rank as a remarkable chapter in modern biography. The candor and simplicity of this description, its entire freedom from any of the defects commonly found. in such accounts, its perfect good taste, make it quite the equal of the best that has been done in such work, of which the memoir of Darwin by his son is a recent example. In orderliness, proportion, and the selection of illustration, incident, or anecdote, and in the unassuming grace of style, it is a model of what such a chapter should be, and it is so compact that it cannot be condensed. We extract from it only the sentence in which the writer meets the two grave charges made against his father in his lifetime. “ The name of gentleman,” he says, “like that of Christian, is sadly abused; but if my father did not deserve to bear both the one and the other, there is no reason why the world should cherish either.” With this judgment the American reader who has followed the narrative from beginning to end will heartily concur. Apart entirely from his services to his country and to mankind, the personal character of Garrison must receive the respect and admiration of whoever places value upon private virtue, and appreciates self-denial, considerateness, and charm in its exercise. The life here described, led in privacy and with humble means, has a moral beauty as winning as the moral courage of its public career was grand. A greater mistake as to the character of a man, hated by his time, is not afforded by history. The biography ends fitly with this presentation of its subject in his personal qualities, showing us the man in his home and among the duties and charities of our common humanity ; the citizen is forgotten in the father, the philanthropist in the friend, only to come the closer to our sympathies.

But we cannot end this notice of a work, whose topics are altogether too broad to come within the limits of such treatment as is here possible, without some special acknowledgment of the excellence of its execution, in point of conscientiousness, breadth of view, and authority of statement. It is, for the anti-slavery record, final; and the service done to our national history is as great as that to a father’s memory. Its one eminent trait, however, is its justice: stern, it is true, toward those high in position and repute, and subject to the responsibility of men to whom much is given, — stern to selfish wealth and ambitious polities and callous aristocracy, to public officials, men in place and power, and to those who were the keepers of the Christian gospel, and acted with the sanction and under the authority of ecclesiastical religion; but also as exact and diligent in giving the praise to each most humble and obscure servant of the cause, however small his mite. The result is a view of New England life, especially, high and low, at a great moment of its history, of the highest value for the light it sheds upon the character of its people.

  1. William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879. The Story of his Life, told by his Children. Vol. III., 1840-1860. Vol. IV., 1861-1870. New York : The Century Company. 1889.