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[420]

Chapter 13: Marriage.—‘shall the Liberator die?’—George Thompson.—1834.

Garrison marries Helen Eliza Benson, of Brooklyn, Conn., after the Liberator has been barely saved from going under. In the same month, September, George Thompson arrives from England, come at Garrison's request to aid the anti-slavery agitation in this country. Foreign interference is resented, and he is mobbed in sundry parts of New England.


‘Freedom's Cottage, Roxbury,’ is the superscription of a letter addressed on September 12, 1834, by Mr. Garrison to George W. Benson, of Providence, and which began as follows:

A year ago, I was just about half-way across the Atlantic,1 between England and the United States, as little dreaming that I should be a married man within twelve months as that I should occupy the chair of his holiness the Pope. At that time I knew nothing of Freedom's Cottage, and my acquaintance with Helen was too slight to authorize me to hope that a union for life might take place between us.

It has been the most eventful year in my history. I have been the occasion of many uproars, and a continual disturber of the public peace. As soon as I landed, I turned the city of New York upside down. Five thousand people turned out to see me tarred and feathered, but were disappointed. There was also a small hubbub in Boston on my arrival. The excitement passed away, but invective and calumny still followed me. By dint of some industry and much persuasion, I succeeded in inducing the abolitionists in New York to join our little band in Boston, in calling a National Convention at Philadelphia. We met—and such a body of men, for zeal, firmness, integrity, benevolence and moral greatness, the world has rarely seen in a single assembly. Inscribed upon a Declaration which it was my exalted privilege to write, their names can perish only with the knowledge of the history of our times. A National Anti-Slavery Society was formed, which astonished the country by its novelty, and awed it by its boldness. In five months its first annual meeting was held in the identical city in which,2 [421] only seven antecedent months, abolitionists were in peril of their lives!—In ability, interest, and solemnity it took precedence of all the great religious celebrations which took place at the same time. During the same month, a New England Anti-Slavery Convention was held in Boston, and so judicious were its measures, so eloquent its appeals, so unequivocal its resolutions, that it at once gave shape and character to the antislavery cause in this section of the Union. In the midst of all these mighty movements, I have wooed “a fair ladye,” and won her—have thrown aside celibacy, and jumped, body and soul, into matrimony—have sunk the character of bachelor in that of husband—have settled down into domestic quietude, and repudiated all my roving desires—and have found that which I have long been yearning to find, a home, a wife, and a beautiful retreat from a turbulent city.

Here, then, conveniently remote and protectingly obscure from the great capital of our State, I am located in a cottage which I have long since ventured to designate by Freedom's appellation; for within its walls I have written much in defence of human liberty, and hope to write more. If my health should be mercifully preserved, and no unforeseen obstacles prevent, I hope to make the ensuing winter memorable for the aid I shall give to the anti-slavery cause; so that it shall be seen that matrimony, instead of hindering, rather advances my labors.

What, indeed, strikes the reader of the fourth volume of the Liberator, from the very beginning, is the frequency, fulness and animation of the editorial articles. It is not merely the Colonization Society's deficit of $46,000, nor3 the ardor of renewed conflict with the old ‘humbug’; nor the abortive movements looking towards gradual4 emancipation in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Maryland; nor the equally abortive attempt of the last-named State5 to effect forcible colonization, which led to an exposure from Mr. Garrison's pen6 scarcely less elaborate than the Thoughts; nor the suppression of free debate in Lane7 Theological Seminary and the withdrawal of the students; nor the accession of James Gillespie Birney to the 8 anticolonization [422] ranks;9 nor the several anniversaries above referred to, and the attendant and subsequent mobs; nor the daily multiplication of anti-slavery societies; nor Judson's retributive defeat as candidate for the10 Connecticut Legislature; nor Charles Stuart's arrival in11 America; nor Gerrit Smith's founding a manual-labor12 school at Peterboroa, for colored males. All these cheering signs of the times, following close upon the organization of the American Anti-Slavery Society, were well calculated to elate the editor of the Liberator. But one is made aware of a special exaltation seeking a vent in verse—mainly in sonnets—of which the last two,13 ‘Helen, if thus we tenderly deplore,’ and ‘Thou mistress of my heart! my chosen one!’ reveal the cause.

Of that touching farewell scene at the African Church14 in Providence in April, 1833, Miss Helen Benson was a witness, and for the first time looked on the speaker whose name was household in her father's family. They met again the next day at her brother's store—Mr. Garrison deeply impressed by her ‘sweet countenance and pleasant conversation’; she, who had found him to surpass even her imagination of him, ‘riveted to the spot,’ lingering long to hear him converse, and bidding him farewell, perhaps forever, with a dull weight upon her mind. In his fancy she accompanied him on his outward voyage and during his sojourn in England, and lightened the tedium of his return. On his subsequent journeys to and from Boston he never omitted an opportunity to visit the Bensons at Brooklyn, and every interview confirmed him in his admiration of her. She was a plump and rosy creature, with blue eyes and fair brown hair, just entering, when first seen by him, her twenty-third year.15 [423] ‘Peace and Plenty,’ they sometimes called her, not more in allusion to her uniformly placid disposition than to her easily aroused and irrepressible mirthfulness. By nature abstemious in her living, ‘a famous patron of cold water,’ simple in her tastes, and modest in her attire, ‘so generous and disinterested, so susceptible and obliging, so kind and attentive,’ the youngest daughter was a universal favorite.

She was the picture of health, and the sound mind and16 sound body were evidently united in her. The natural result of good spirits followed, and these were invariably present. But they were not the mere result of good health. Courtesy, thoughtfulness for others, gentle manners and kindly words were the rule of the household, and they found a ready disciple and their best soil in her, and united to form even at that early period a very attractive character. To a certain degree self-distrustful and sensitive, she would yet join as readily and easily in the mirth of her companions, when herself the subject of it, as any of them. She evidently knew the value of self-control; and if ever the hasty word or sharp reflection rose to her lips, it was repressed, and with evident good-will. In a quite long and intimate association with that circle of friends, old and young joining easily, I never saw in her an exception to this gentle spirit, this sweet and kindly disposition. It made sunshine whenever she came among us, and, with the accompaniment of a voice in unison with her temperament, never failed to insure her a joyful welcome.17

Helen Benson had, withal, both a thoughtful and a deeply religious mind, which had been early brought [424] under the happy influence of Samuel J. May, her neighbor, pastor, and warmest of warm friends. Although she frequently visited her brothers and married sister in Providence, she preferred the quiet and repose of the country as more favorable to serious reflection.

‘Your grandfather's family,’ writes Mrs. Philleo of18 the Bensons, ‘was an honor to humanity, and your dear mother was their darling.’ Brooklyn was then the shire town of Windham County, and there were held the several trials which arose out of the persecution of Miss Crandall In a letter to his future father-in-law, Mr. Garrison wrote, May 31, 1834:

Never shall I forget the emotions which arose in my19 bosom, on bidding you farewell at the close of my visit in March last. Your house was then thronged with colored pupils from Miss Crandall's school, who were summoned as witnesses at Mr. Olney's20 trial, and who had no other place in Brooklyn “where to lay their heads” than your hospitable dwelling. They were kindly received by you all; and although in number sufficient to overwhelm a quiet family like yours, yet your dear wife and daughters were as composed as if not one of them had been present. Some families, under such circumstances, would have been thrown into utter confusion— and bustle, bustle, nothing but bustle, and running to and fro, would have been the consequence. I was forcibly struck by the quietude of spirit manifested by you all, and by that domestic order which reigned paramount; but more especially by that benevolent condescension which is as rare as it is godlike, and that disinterested philanthropy which led you cheerfully to entertain and accommodate so many of those who are generally treated in society as the offscouring of the earth. In riding to Providence, my thoughts constantly reverted back to the scene which I had just left, and my heart grew liquid as water. “Heavenly father,” I inwardly ejaculated, “let thy choicest blessings fall upon the head of that very dear and venerable philanthropist, and upon his dear wife, and all their children, for thus compassionating the condition of an injured and helpless race.”

[425]

In truth, if any seal was needed on the match between Miss Benson and Mr. Garrison, it was to be found in the character and history of her father.21 A retired merchant, whose moderate fortune had been earned in Providence, George Benson could look back on more than half a century of personal and associated opposition to slavery. He had a hand in founding and incorporating (1790) the third of those interesting abolition societies of the first22 years of the Republic, of which the Pennsylvania Society, with Franklin at its head, was the earliest and the longest-lived.23 Of the Providence Society he was latterly made the Secretary; of the Pennsylvania Society promptly an honorary member (October, 1792). The fugitive slave had in him a friend at all hazards; and ‘it deserves to be recorded that while so many worthy persons were beguiled by the cunningly devised scheme of the American Colonization Society, Mr. Benson clearly comprehended its spirit and tendency, and wrote a long and an elaborate document in opposition to it even before the Liberator made its appearance.’

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