William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass: Racism in the Abolitionist Movement?
The Liberator Started the Fight
William Lloyd Garrison's anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, was fundamental in moving the United States towards abolishing slavery. As most Americans know, the Civil war dragged on for years without Lincoln issuing an emancipation proclamation. As the years dragged on, Garrison relentlessly published his paper, urging Lincoln and Congress to make the war about slavery and free the slaves.
Famous 1850s Masthead
Every week, Garrison sent a copy of The Liberator to every member of the government. Every issue of the paper laid out his clear claim that slavery was evil and should be immediately abolished with no compensation to the owners. It was the same argument he had made for over 30 years, although at the time of the war, he was not alone in believing slavery was wrong because all of the years of publishing and lecturing and organizing had changed the country.
So why is Garrison's important work not studied more often? I believe the answer lies in what many critics have believed to have been prejudice on his part towards Frederick Douglass, whose slave autobiography has entered the canon of American Literature and is widely read in college classrooms.
Mentor and Friend
It was William Lloyd Garrison who first heard Douglass speak and tell his story. It was Garrison who took the former slave and introduced him to wealthy abolitionists in Boston and elsewhere and helped him not only publish his book but find work as an anti-slavery lecturer. Moreover, it was Garrison who promoted Douglass and helped him gain fame as the foremost of all African-American anti-slavery speakers.
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However, both men were very strong personalities and both men liked their own way. Garrison had broken with other friends and he and Douglass had a falling out when Douglass started his own anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star, which ran in competition with The Liberator. Garrison was not happy, but it wasn't just because of the new paper. In fact, The Liberator actually published a very favorable review of the The North Star, praising the reporting and the editor.
However, personally, Garrison was very angry with Douglass at this time because he felt betrayed. What happened was that while the two men were on a rigorous anti-slaver lecture tour in the west, Garrison became extremely ill, and, in fact, thought he was dying. Just as he was beginning to recover, Douglass left him.
It isn't clear whether Garrison knew where his companion was going, but shortly afterwards, Douglass's The North Star appeared. Garrison felt betrayed and never fully trusted his former colleague again. However, in spite of the fact that the new paper threatened to take away The Liberator's always tenuous financial support, Garrison decided to take the high road and give the new paper his support in print.
Was Garrison Racist?
Talking about Garrison's racism has become popular. Although these two men had a long and complicated relationship, two particular quotations by Douglass have shaped the way in which literary and historical critics have viewed Garrison’s work. The first is Douglass’s comment in his Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1845) that he was converted to abolitionism by reading Garrison's paper:
"The paper became my meat and my drink. My soul was set all on fire. Its sympathy for my brethren in bonds—its scathing denunciations of slaveholders—its faithful exposures of slavery—and its powerful attacks upon the upholders of the institution—sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before!
I had not long been a reader of the “Liberator,” before I got a pretty correct idea of the principles, measures, and spirit of the anti-slavery reform. I took right hold of the cause. I could do but little; but what I could, I did with a joyful heart, and never felt happier than when in an anti-slavery meeting" ( Life and Times 118).
Many literary critics have read this as implying a "paternalistic" attitude on Garrison's side. Other critics have leaped on this idea and suggested that the white abolitionist's latent prejudice kept him from recognizing Douglass as an equal and promoting his status accordingly.
The second quotation by Douglass comes from his later autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855):
"Tell your story, Frederick,” would whisper my then revered friend, William Lloyd Garrison, as I stepped upon the platform. I could not always obey, for I was now reading and thinking. New views of the subject were presented to my mind. It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them. I could not always curb my moral indignation for the perpetrators of slave-holding villainy, long enough for a circumstantial statement of the facts which I felt almost everybody must know. Besides, I was growing, and needed room" (Bondage 220).
Literary critics and historians have often used this quote in to show that Garrison was both paternalistic and racist. They imply that Garrison was unwilling to believe that Douglass could or should speak anything outside of his own story. Garrison, in other words, was putting Douglass down. Moreover, they confirm this assessment by pointing out that Garrison objected to Douglass’s plan to start a newspaper and that the two men eventually “broke” their relationship when they disagreed on the interpretation of the Constitution.
1800s Printing Press
The use of the quote from Bondage in one collection of essays, Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, edited by Eric J. Sundquist, is illuminating. In his introduction, Sundquist says, “The condescending instructions Douglass received from William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists required that he stick to the ‘facts’ and leave the ‘philosophy’ to others” (4). Similarly, Wilson J. Moses, in “Writing Freely? Frederick Douglass and the Constraints of Racialized Writing,” uses this quote to formulate his thesis that Douglass was confined by the Garrisonian insistence that he remain in the “literary box” of the slave narrative (67). In yet another instance, Jenny Franchot, in “The Punishment of Ester: Douglass and the Construction of the Feminine,” uses this section of the later autobiography to contend that Douglass’s relationship with Garrison went from hero-worship to appropriation of “charismatic patriarchal authority” (150).
However, the most damaging evaluation of the relationship comes from John R. McKivigan. In “The Frederick Douglass-Gerrit Smith Friendship and Political Abolitionism in the 1850s.” McKiven contends “Douglass soon tired of repeating personal anecdotes about his years of a slave and began to offer a more ideological denunciation of the institutions. His white coadjutors, however, warned Douglass that his true asset to the movement was not his rhetorical skill but his status as a fugitive slave. Even though this advice might have been well intentioned, it revealed a paternalistic attitude that many white abolitionists from all factions displayed toward their black colleagues” (207).
Is the Charge Fair?
Are these charges of racism fair? Perhaps. Garrison may not have been completely immune to the ideas about differences between races that pervaded the air of the nineteenth century. However, the whole tenor of his life was to fight against not only slavery but also the idea that the races should be separate. For example, from the very first issue of his newspaper, he fought strongly for four concepts that were utterly unique:
- Social Equality Between Races: He not only preached this, he also practiced it, even when it lead to contention and even rioting. He deliberately had his lecturers travel in mixed race groups and insisted on them being treated equally everywhere they traveled.
- Blacks and Whites Should Work Together Against Slavery: He deliberately integrated his Anti-Slavery Societies at a time when that was seen as scandalous. Anti-slavery societies let not only black and white men but also black and white women work together in a common cause.
- Talents of Black Men and Women Should Be Sought and Developed: He solicited black men and women to write articles for his paper in the very first year of its publication. Garrison frequently found and trained black men and women as lecturers and workers for abolitionism, giving them access to education, information and promotional opportunities for their businesses and writing.
- Black Men and Women Should Speak and Whites Should Listen: Whether it was articles in his newspaper, anti-slavery meetings or lectures, Garrison made sure that black voices mattered and were given a chance to be heard. He not only encouraged former slaves to tell their story, he helped them to publish their stories and tried to get white audiences to really listen to what they heard by having his lecturers and articles instruct white audiences to imagine themselves in the place of a slave.
What is the True Story?
Many critics argue that the reason Douglass left Garrison was because the newspaperman's racism caused him to not allow his friend to fully develop as a writer and speaker. A leading proponent of this argument is James Olney, who led the canonization of Douglass’s Narrative and seems at the same time to have sunk the reputation of Garrison. In “The Founding Fathers—Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington,” Olney says: “I believe that it was his insistence that he was and would continue to be the author of the narrative of his life that caused Douglass’s quarrel and ultimate break with William Lloyd Garrison and the Garrisonians” (5). By implication, Garrison is the villain who attempted to wrest control of Douglass’ life away from him.
This same attitude is pervasive in the history of African American literature. In his history of slave narratives, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865, William Andrews contends that in Bondage Douglass presents his rupture with Garrison as similar to his rupture with his slave master.
A Complex and Evolving Relationship
Similar descriptions of Garrison’s villainy have become commonplace in most discussions of Douglass's work. Unfortunately, few descriptions indicate the complexity of the relationship. Their friendship went through several stages, as might be expected between two such charismatic and opinionated individuals.
- Partnership: At first they had an intense and intimate partnership and support during lecture tours. In fact, they gave supportive encouragement to one another when other abolitionists disagreed with them.
- Mutual Support: Garrison supported Douglass’s acceptance of money to buy his freedom while Douglass supported Garrison during his battle against the militarism of some sides of the anti-slavery party.
- Rivalry: During the time they were running competitive newspapers, they had a bitter rivalry which was well known in abolitionist circles.
- Political Disagreement: At the same time they disagreed strongly over the whether or not the Constitution supported slavery, as well as differing in their approach to abolitionist tactics.
- Reconciliation: Finally, after the war, they reconciled and came to peace with one another. In his eulogy for Garrison, Douglass said, “It was the glory of this man that he could stand alone with the truth and calmly await the result” (Mayer 372, 431-33, 631).
How did Douglass Feel?
His Respect Grows: Using the Douglass quote from Bondage as proof of Garrison’s poor treatment of his friend is not an accurate representation of how Douglass presents Garrison and his newspaper in that work. As a matter of fact, Douglass significantly expands his tribute to Garrison and The Liberator in Bondage, keeping the two paragraphs from Narrative and adding three more long paragraphs which describe his appreciation of the editor and his paper in glowing terms.
He Remembers the Overall Picture: In Bondage, Douglass adds a significantly deeper description of how he felt. He notes that “I not only liked—I loved this paper, and its editor,” noting that for Garrison “The bible was his textbook,” and that this text made him believe “Prejudice against color was rebellion against God. Of all men beneath the sky, the slaves, because most neglected and despised, were nearest and dearest to his great heart” (216). Though this section is somewhat shortened and re-written in Douglass’s third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” these sentences remain intact and the overall tribute to Garrison’s work as an abolitionist is undiminished (213-214).
Views of Others
The accusation that Garrison was racist and did not allow African-Americans to lead in the movement ignores the fact that many other African-American leaders, such as Charles Remond, William Nell and William Wells Brown, had successful and multi-faceted careers as abolitionist speakers, agitators and writers while remaining in the Garrisonian camp. Brown was also a fugitive slave, but according to Brown’s biographer, William Edward Farrison, Garrison never seems to have attempted to prevent him from lecturing on various subjects or from writing literature, history, and drama along with his narrative.
Result of Misrepresentation
Perhaps as a result of this misleading representation of Garrison, no book-length manuscript has been published dealing with The Liberator as a work of importance to American literature. When I began studying Garrison in 1994, the paper was only available on microfilm. Now that they are published online and are even indexed, I hope that literary critics and people interested in American history will examine this newspaper more closely to find out how the abolitionists used moral suasion to begin the process of unraveling the sin of slavery.
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