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

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Influencing Government

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.

William at the beginning of his publication of The Liberator
William at the beginning of his publication of The Liberator | Source

Prejudice?

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 Douglass 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.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass | Source

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Competition

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.

Personal Betrayal

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.

Garrison towards the end of the Civil War.  He 'd been fighting to end slavery for over 30 years.
Garrison towards the end of the Civil War. He 'd been fighting to end slavery for over 30 years. | Source

Was Garrison Racist?

Talking about Garrison's racism has become popular with literary critics. Although these two men had a long and complicated relationship, two particular quotations by Douglass have shaped the way in which literary 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 the Liberator and that Garrison was an almost god-like mentor to him:

"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 Garrison'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 have generally used this quote in order 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

Printing press similar to the one used to print both newspapers.
Printing press similar to the one used to print both newspapers. | Source

Literary Criticism

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 three concepts that were utterly unique:

  • Social Equality Between Races: He deliberately had his lecturers travel in mixed race groups and insisted on them being treated equally.
  • 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.

Early copy of the paper when financing came from black abolitionists in the North.
Early copy of the paper when financing came from black abolitionists in the North. | Source

What is the True Story?

Many critics argue that the reason Douglass left Garrison was because Garrison's racism caused him to not allow Douglass to fully develop as a writer and speaker. Leading this attitude 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 towards Douglass have become commonplace in most discussions of Douglass's work. Unfortunately, few descriptions indicate the complexity of Garrison’s and Douglass’s 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).

Former Slaves
Former Slaves | Source

How did Douglass Feel?

His Respect Grows: Using the Douglass quote from Bondage as proof of Garrison’s poor treatment of Douglass is not an accurate representation of how Douglass presents Garrison and the Liberator 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 Garrison and his paper in glowing terms.

He Remembers the Overall Picture: In Bondage, Douglass adds a significantly deeper description of how he felt about both Garrison and The Liberator. 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 The Liberator, 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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Comments 5 comments

loveofnight profile image

loveofnight 3 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

You did an awesome job with this hub, although I have knowledge of both these men you have given me even more to digest. Being left hungry for more I believe that I will be looking for the online book to finish what you have started. Thank you so much for a well detailed hub. Be well


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 3 years ago from United States Author

RonElFran--You are absolutely right Ron. I was so interested to read through the documents of each of these complex and powerful personalities. How easy it is to label someone else's relationship and yet most relationships are full of mixed feelings as they pass through different stages of life. Thanks for stopping by.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

Great hub! I suspect that Douglass himself would be surprised and dismayed at the interpretation some have put on his comments about Garrison. I also wonder if what seems like paternalism wasn't built into a relationship that started with hero-worship, regardless of the race of the participants. And that there would be tensions as Douglass grew and became his own man was entirely natural. Thanks for an informative hub.


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 3 years ago from United States Author

Thanks so much ajwrites. I agree that this relationship between two very powerful personalities was complex. Both men had many stormy relationships with other people. I think that is inevitable with a person who has a great vision for a future that many people can't see. Thanks for your comments.


ajwrites57 profile image

ajwrites57 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

VirginiaLynne--Tremendous discussion about two of the most influential and effective leaders of the abolition movement. I studied and wrote papers about abolition and William Lloyd Garrison's role in it in the past. In fact, I just came across them awhile ago. It seems to me that, as you point out, their relationship was complex. Critics often wanted to project their viewpoints and biases into it.

It is normal that tension would arise in mentoring relationships. When the student learns through instruction and experience, he often develops his own conclusions and develops differences in strategy. Often, relationships become strained over it. I think this plays a large part in their later relationship. Enjoyed the article and a chance to think about this issue anew! Thanks! :o)

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