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See our present condition–The country engaged in war!–our men cutting one another’s throats…and then consider what we know to be the truth… Abraham Lincoln

All on fire : William Lloyd Garrison and the abolition of slavery    New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1998 Henry Mayer Abolitionists United States Biography,  Garrison, William Lloyd, 1805-1879 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xxi, 707 p. : ill., map ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text.  VG/VG

Many historians that the ending of slavery in the U.S. was inevitable and it very nearly happened not long after we became a republic. Slavery was becoming an economic burden on the agricultural system – largely tobacco farming – and played no small part in Jefferson’s near bankruptcy [which was avoided by his selling his library to the congress giving birth to the Library of Congress (bailouts have been around for a long, long time!)]. Enter Eli Whitney with his cotton gin and the science of unintended consequences that so often accompanies technology takes over and the need for cheap labor rises up to trump all other considerations and any hopes of abolishing the institution are dead.

There were still the voices of gradualists like Henry Clay of Kentucky that were reasonable and called for the displacement of slavery and its gradual abolition. Rightly, historians have tended to dismiss the strong voices calling for the immediate abolition of slavery as “fanatical.”  The editor and printer William Lloyd Garrison, founder of The Liberator and of The New England Anti-Slavery Society, the American Anti-Slavery Society, and the Massachussetts Anti-Slavery Society, is one of those voices often dismissed as “shrill,” “unreasonable,” and “fanatical.”  Many of his contemporaries saw him the same way  – as the author of editorials that thundered jeremiads against the perceived moral shortcomings of his age – and Mayer has written a large biography of Garrison that shows Garrison, as a professional agitator who changed the political climate and made the issue of slavery a political issue that – though it never had the strength to bring down the Republic – was used in tandem with other, often hidden, issues to create a coalition that destroyed the Republic.

Failed clerics from Luther to Stalin have been a constant source of political upheaval ultimately leading first to revolution and then to totalitarianism for the past five hundred years. Stephen F. Austin warned of the aggressively evangelistic, whom he called “excited,” “imprudent,” “fanatic,” “violent,” and “noisy.” Apparently it was the missionary Henry Stephenson who prompted Austin’s outburst that “one preacher” could cause more harm for Texas “than a dozen horse thieves.”
Garrison filled the bill, 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 in favor of the continuation of slavery or at least sympathetic to the needs of agricultural interests – and in a United States with no real manufacturing base agriculture was THE industry.

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 crusade for the immediate abolition of slavery the “liberals” were not nearly so “liberal” as they are today – and they included Abraham Lincoln – nor did they envision a multi ethnic America.

Ironically Garrison was a 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), and socially enforced debt peonage, known as the crop-lien system, began after the Civil War continued in practice until the 1930s – slavery by another name. We have yet to see the society which Garrison and his fellow abolitionists plotted, agitated and strove by any means to create. 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.

Although he failed his nation and even his cause it is no longer popular to see Garrison as a failure.  Instead, he is portrayed as a story of how  one person unites a small group of people which grow 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, over the issue of the use of violence and much else. The major accomplishment of this book is its presentation of Garrison’s interaction in the lives of lesser known figures from the wealthy Tappan brothers to Charles Finney, the Grimke Sisters, Lucretia Mott, William Ellery Channing as well as the public figures who embraced his utopian ideas – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Clay, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln who finally found a marriage of convenience that helped propel him to the presidency.


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