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Chapter 3: the figure

The essential quality of all this old society was that it was cold. In the last analysis,after the historical and constitutional questions have been patiently analyzed, after economics and sociology have had their say,the trouble with the American of 1830 was that he had a cold heart. Cruelty, lust, business interest, remoteness from European influence had led to the establishment of an unfeeling civilization. The essential quality of Garrison is that he is hot. This must be borne in mind at every moment as the chief and real quality of Garrison. Disregard the arguments; sink every intellectual conception, every bit of logic and of analysis, and look upon the age:--you see a cold age. Look upon Garrison:--you see a hot coal of fire. He plunges through the icy atmosphere like a burning meteorite from another planet.

There is a second contrast. The age was conciliatory: Garrison is aggressive. These [35] two forms of the contrast between Garrison and his age lie close together and merge into each other: yet they are not entirely identical: the first concerns the emotions, the second, the intellect. Conciliation was the sin of that age. Now this anti-type, this personified enemy of his age,--Garrison,must in his nature be self-reliant, selfassertive, self-sufficient. He relates himself to no precedent. He strikes out from his inner thought. He is even swords-drawn with his own thought of yesterday. When he changes his mind he asks God to forgive him for ever having thought otherwise. His instinct is so thoroughly opposed to any authority except the inner light of conscience, that he makes that conscience-his local, momentary conscience — into a column of smoke sent by the Lord. Not Bunyan, not Luther is greater than Garrison on this side of his nature. He is not an intellectual person. He is not a highly educated man. But he is a Will of the first magnitude, a will made perfect, because almost entirely unconscious, almost entirely dedicated and subdued to its mission.

I quote here the whole of the first editorial of the Liberator (January 1st, 1831), because the whole of Garrison is in it. In [36] reading it let us remember the shattering, repulsive power which self-assertion exercises over smooth, cold people of good taste, whose worldly fortunes and sincere spiritual beliefs are bound up for all eternity with smoothness, coldness, and good taste. The punctuation and typesetting of the article, and the verses (not his own) at the end of it, may also be noted as indicating Garrison's taste and education:

In the month of August, I issued proposals for publishing the Liberator in Washington City; but the enterprise, though hailed in different sections of the country, was palsied by public indifference. Since that time, the removal of the Genius of Universal Emancipation to the Seat of Government has rendered less imperious the establishment of a similar periodical in that quarter.

During my recent tour for the purpose of exciting the minds of the people by a series of discourses on the subject of slavery, every place that I visited gave fresh evidence of the fact that a greater revolution in public sentiment was to be effected in the free States--and particularly in New England--than at the South. I found contempt more bitter, opposition more active, [37] detraction more relentless, prejudice more stubborn, and apathy more frozen, than among slave-owners themselves. Of course, there were individual exceptions to the contrary. This state of things afflicted, but did not dishearten me. I determined at every hazard to lift up the standard of emancipation in the eyes of the nation, within sight of Bunker Hill and in the birthplace of liberty. That standard is now unfurled; and long may it float, unhurt by the spoliations of time or the missiles of a desperate foe-yea, till every chain be broken, and every bondman set free! Let Southern oppressors tremble — let their secret abettors tremble — let their Northern apologists tremble — let all the enemies of the persecuted blacks tremble.

I deem the publication of my original Prospectus unnecessary, as it has obtained a wide circulation. The principles therein inculcated will be steadily pursued in this paper, excepting that I shall not array myself as the political partisan of any man. In defending the great cause of human rights, I wish to derive the assistance of all religions and of all parties.

Thus began Garrison in his first editorial in the Liberator. Does this seem egotism, [38] this almost pompous deliberation, this taking off his coat and laying it across a chair as he makes his bow to the public? Yes, it is egotism. It is gigantic egotism-but not the egotism of vanity or self-seeking. It is the selfless egotism of a supreme selfassertion, put forth unconsciously by human nature; and as such it is in itself a sample of what that age needed, the sample of a spirit of independence without which slavery never could and never would have been abolished. Let us proceed with the editorial. ...

Assenting to the “selfevident truth” maintained in the American Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rightsamong which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population. In Park Street Church, on the Fourth of July, 1829, in an address on slavery, I unreflectingly assented to the popular but pernicious doctrine of gradual abolition. I seize this opportunity to make a full and unequivocal recantation, and thus publicly to ask pardon of my God, of my country, and of my brethren, the poor slaves, for having uttered a sentiment so full [39] of timidity, injustice, and absurdity. A similar recantation, from my pen, was published in the Genius of Universal Emancipation at Baltimore, in September, 1829. My conscience is now satisfied.

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;--but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — and I will be heard. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

It is pretended that I am retarding the cause of emancipation by the coarseness of my invective and the precipitancy of my measures. The charge is not true. On this question my influence — humble as it isis [40] felt at this moment to a considerable extent, and shall be felt in coming yearsnot perniciously, but beneficially — not as a curse, but as a blessing; and posterity will bear testimony that I was right. I desire to thank God that He enables me to disregard “the fear of man which bringeth a snare,” and to speak his truth in its simplicity and power . ...

And here I close with this fresh dedication:

Oppression! I have seen thee, face to face,
And met thy cruel eye and cloudy brow;
But thy soul-withering glance I fear not now--
For dread to prouder feelings doth give place
Of deep abhorrence! Scouring the disgrace
Of slavish knees that at thy footstool bow,
I also kneel — but with far other vow
Do hail thee and thy herd of hirelings base:--
I swear, while life-blood warms my throbbing veins,
Still to oppose and thwart, with heart and hand,
Thy brutalizing sway-till Afric's chains
Are burst, and Freedom rules the rescued land,-- [41]
Trampling Oppression and his iron rod:
Such is the vow I take-so help me God!

Garrison's early history is the familiar tale of poverty, and reminds one of Benjamin Franklin's boyhood. His mother, a person of education and refinement, was, during Garrison's babyhood, plunged into bitter destitution. He was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1805. At the age of nine, in order to help pay for his board, he was working for Deacon Bartlett in Newburyport. Later, he learned shoemaking at Lynn, cabinet-making at Haverhill, and in 1818, at the age of thirteen, was apprenticed to a printer and newspaper publisher. Now began his true education. He read Scott, Byron, Moore, Pope, and Campbell; and at the age of seventeen, was writing newspaper articles in the style of the day. By the time he was twenty, Garrison was a thoroughgoing printer and journalist; and during the last three years of his apprenticeship he had entire charge of his master's paper. During the next four years, he edited four newspapers, and embraced various reforms besides Anti-slavery, e. g., Temperance, Education, Peace, Sabbatarianism, etc. He seems at this period to be [42] like a hound on a scent, as he takes up and abandons one newspaper after another. He is already a reformer, already a boiling enthusiast, already an insuppressible Volubility, already one-ideaed upon any subject that he treats. If his theme be Temperance, then moderate drinking is the worst enemy of man. He joins most heartily in the anathema against tobacco either in chewing, smoking, or snuffing. He is against capital punishment and imprisonment for debt, and it is safe to say that he would, at a moment's notice, have delivered a violent judgment upon any subject that aroused his compassion.

Whatever else he was, he was a full-grown being at the age of twenty-four, when Benjamin Lundy persuaded him to devote his life to the cause of the slave. Benjamin Lundy, the quiet Quaker, had been editing the Genius of Universal Emancipation since 1821, and was at this time (1828) established in Baltimore, where he had recently been assaulted and almost killed in the streets by Austin Woolfolk, a slave trader. Lundy's practice was to walk from town to town throughout the country, founding Antislavery societies, and introducing his newspaper. He first met Garrison while he was [43] on a visit to Boston, and at a later date he walked from Baltimore to Bennington, Vermont, where Garrison was editing a journal, in order to convert Garrison. He succeeded. Garrison left Vermont and became co-editor of the Genius in Baltimore. Before he migrated to Baltimore, however, he visited Boston and there on July 4th, 1829, he delivered an address in the Park Street Church which is really the beginning of his mission. The Reverend John Pierpont (the grandfather of Pierpont Morgan) was present and wrote a hymn for the occasion. Whittier, a stripling, was also present. The tone and substance of this address are strikingly like those of Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa address (delivered six years later), in which Emerson made his manly salutatory to his age. Garrison's words are as follows:--

I speak not as a partisan or an opponent of any man or measures, when I say that our politics are rotten to the core. We boast of our freedom, who go shackled to the polls, year after year, by tens, and hundreds, and thousands! We talk of free agency, who are the veriest machines — the merest automata — in the hands of unprincipled jugglers! We prate of integrity, and [44] virtue, and independence, who sell our birthright for office, and who, nine times in ten, do not get Esau's bargain — no, not even a mess of pottage! Is it republicanism to say that the majority can do no wrong? Then I am not a republican. Is it aristocracy to say that the people sometimes shamefully abuse their high trust? Then I am an aristocrat. ...

Before God, I must say, that such a glaring contradiction as exists between our creed and practice, the annals of six thousand years cannot parallel. In view of it, I am ashamed of my country. I am sick of our unmeaning declamation in praise of liberty and equality; of our hypocritical cant about the unalienable rights of man. I could not, for my right hand, stand up before a European assembly, and exult that I am an American citizen, and denounce the usurpations of a kingly government as wicked and unjust; or, should I make the attempt, the recollection of my country's barbarity and despotism would blister my lips, and cover my cheeks with burning blushes of shame.

Let us now take a few sentences from Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa address:

The spirit of the American freeman is [45] already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame. Public and private avarice make the air we breathe thick and fat. The scholar is decent, indolent, complaisant. See already the tragic consequence. The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself . ... Young men of the fairest promise, who begin life upon our shores, inflated by the mountain winds, shined upon by all the stars of God, find the earth below not in unison with these, but are hindered from action by the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire, and turn drudges, or die of disgust, some of them suicides. What is the remedy? They did not yet see, and thousands of young men as hopeful now crowding to the barriers for the career do not yet see, that if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.

The difference between Emerson and Garrison is that Emerson is interested in aesthetic, Garrison in social matters. The one represents the world of intellect, the other, the world of feeling. Both speak the same idea, each according to his own idiom. Both are, in essence, affronting the same [46] evil-the Dominion of Slavery. The difference is that Garrison has seen the evil plainly, and has laid his hand upon it; Emerson was to live in ignorance of its specific nature for many years to come. I shall revert again to the relation between these two young men, both so noble, both of such immense consequence to the country, each of them, in a sense, the father of all of us — whose spirits were raised up by God to shed new life upon America.

We must return to Garrison as the coeditor with Lundy of the Genius of Universal Emancipation in Baltimore. Inasmuch as Garrison had already received his revelation as to immediate emancipation, and Lundy favored slower methods, the two partners agreed to sign their articles separately. Baltimore was, at that time, the most northern port in the coastwise slave trade: and Garrison constantly saw the slaves being shipped south in New England bottoms. It was not long before Garrison was thrown into jail in Baltimore as the result of a suit for criminal libel, brought by a New England slave trader whom he had denounced. The Mr. Todd whom he “libeled,” and about whom he spoke only the truth, was a fellow townsman of Garrison's, [47] being a native of Newburyport, Mass., and was thus a natural target for Garrison's invective. Garrison remained in jail seven weeks, during which time he conducted a most telling campaign of pamphlets, private letters and public cards, sonnets, letters to editors, etc., with the result that the whole of America heard of the incident. Mr. Arthur Tappan of New York became interested in the case, and secured Garrison's release by paying the fine of one hundred dollars. This was in the spring of 1830.

Thus it may be seen that at the time that Garrison returned to Boston and established his Liberator (1830-31) he was twenty-five years old, a consummate controversialist, and the apostle of a new theory — Immediate Emancipation, for which he had already suffered imprisonment. The world has no terrors for a man like this.

Anti-slavery action did not begin with Garrison. There had been Anti-slavery societies for fifty years before him; there existed in 1830 perhaps a hundred and fifty of them, many of them being in the slave states. But the new movement did not spring from these old societies. It was militant as they were not: it was dissatisfied with their mild methods and inactivity: in [48] fact, it denounced them. The new movement came bursting up like a subterranean torrent.

I have no doubt that Garrison and his mission were somehow fundamentally connected with the labors of the Anti-slavery men who kept the name of mercy alive between 1776 and 1820. Yet these old agencies were upheaved from beneath. Abolition appeared at the North and overslaughed them; the Slave Power developed new heat at the South and burned out the roots of them. Any single anecdote of those times will be apt to illustrate both sides of the question, i. e., the new vulture quality of slavery at the South, and the new bulldog quality of Abolition at the North. For instance, when the Southern statesmen recognized the existence of Abolition, they began passing laws against the introduction of Abolition literature into the South, and they began to correspond with Northern statesmen and officials with the aim of suppressing Garrison. The Legislature of Georgia, in 1831, offered a reward of $5000 for the arrest and conviction of Garrison under the laws of Georgia. The Southern press went into paroxysms of clamorous rage. On the other hand, Garrison [49] is by no means deficient in vigor of feeling. The following is his comment on the reward:

A price set upon the head of a citizen of Massachusetts--for what? For daring to give his opinions of the moral aspect of slavery! Where is the liberty of the press and of speech? Where the spirit of our fathers? Where the immunities secured to us by our Bill of Rights? Are we the slaves of Southern taskmasters? Is it treason to maintain the principles of the Declaration of Independence? Must we say that slavery is a sacred and benevolent institution, or be silent? Know this, ye senatorial patrons of kidnappers! that we despise your threats as much as we deplore your infatuation: nay, more-know that a hundred men stand ready to fill our place as soon as it is made vacant by violence. The Liberator shall yet live — live to warn you of your danger and guilt — live to plead for the perishing slaves — live to hail the day of universal emancipation!

Now we can see at a glance that this new Abolition is much more than Abolition: it is Courage. Garrison's tone here takes us back a generation to James Otis, to John Adams, and to the other Revolutionary heroes; [50] and he is really standing for constitutional liberty quite as distinctly, and at as crucial a moment, as those gentlemen had done. Garrison's language is harsh; but he is almost the only out-and-out masculine person in the North. No: there was one other — the aged John Quincy Adams; and Adams was as harsh, and as unmeasured, as Garrison. Nay, Adams was personally bitter, which Garrison never was. Adams was, in reality, a survivor of 1776, an untamed aristocrat-and he bore a vase of the old fire in his bosom. This was permitted to Adams-because no one could stop him; but men vaguely imagined that Garrison's fire could be put out.

In 1831, Garrison was indicted in North Carolina. The South was not wrong in thinking that the official classes at the North would lend aid in suppressing the new movement. Judge Thatcher of the Municipal Court in Boston made a charge to the Grand Jury (1832) in which he laid the foundation for the criminal prosecution of Abolitionists. No one could tell just how far subserviency might go. The Mayor of Boston, Harrison Gray Otis, was naturally appealed to by the Southern statesmen to protect them against the circulation [51] of Abolition literature. It was in 1829 that Otis was first called on to do something about “Walker's appeal,” a fierce, Biblical pamphlet, full of power, written by a colored man in Boston and urging the slaves to rise. Otis replied that the author had not made himself amenable to the laws of Massachusetts, and that the book had caused no excitement in Boston. Garrison had had nothing to do with Walker's pamphlet, and had publicly condemned its doctrines. None the less, Walker's appeal was an outcrop of the same subterranean fire that coursed through Garrison,--and when Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion broke out (1831) and a dozen white families were murdered in Virginia, the whole South was thrown into a panic, and attributed the insurrection to the teachings of the Abolitionists.

This puny rebellion was easily put down. Turner was hanged, his followers were burnt with hot irons, their faces were mutilated, their jaws broken asunder, their hamstrings cut, their bodies stuck like hogs, their heads spiked to the whipping-post. No connection was ever discovered between Nat Turner's Rebellion and the Abolitionists, who never at any time sent their papers to slaves. The illiteracy of the blacks made it [52] improbable that they had been influenced by any sort of writings. And yet one cannot help feeling that the existence of a militant propaganda in their behalf had reached the consciousness of the slaves, and that this rising was the outcome of the new age. Angels' wings were beating upon the air, and charging it with both life and death, till even dumb slaves felt the impulsion. Various Southern governors, statesmen, and newspapers renewed the campaign against the Liberator, and Otis was again appealed to.

“To be more specific in our object,” says the National Intelligencer which was published in Washington, and was one of the most influential journals of the epoch, “we now appeal to the worthy Mayor of the City of Boston, whether no law can be found to prevent the publication, in the city over which he presides, of such diabolical papers (copies of the Liberator) as we have seen a sample of here in the hands of slaves, and of which there are many in circulation to the south of us. We have no doubt whatever of the feelings of Mr. Otis on this subject, or those of his respectable constituents. We know they would prompt him and them to arrest the instigator of [53] human butchery in his mad career. We know the difficulty which surrounds the subject, because the nuisance is not a nuisance, technically speaking, within the limits of Massachusetts. But, surely, if the courts of law have no power, public opinion has to interfere, until the intelligent Legislature of Massachusetts can provide a durable remedy for this most appalling grievance ..”

Robert Y. Hayne of Columbia, S. C., begged Otis to find out whether Garrison had mailed him (Hayne) a copy of the Liberator. Otis obsequiously sent a deputy to question Garrison. This was something very like a prostitution of his office on the part of Mayor Otis; because what Hayne wanted was to obtain evidence to be used in a criminal prosecution of Garrison. Garrison at once becomes the able constitutional lawyer.

The Hon. Robert Y. Hayne of Columbia, S. C.,” says the Liberator of October 29th, 1831, “(through the medium of a letter), wishes to know of the Mayor of Boston, who sent a number of the Liberator to him, a few weeks ago. The Mayor of Boston (through the medium of a deputy) wishes to know of Mr. Garrison whether he [54] sent the aforesaid number to the aforesaid individual. Mr. Garrison (through the medium of his paper) wishes to know of the Hon. Robert Y. Hayne of Columbia, S. C., and the Mayor of Boston, what authority they have to put such questions?”

We can see in this, as in all the rest of Garrison's activity, the tactician of genius. We can see also the inner relation between morality and constitutional law, which exists in all ages. The Reformer is always struggling against arbitrary power. He invokes the protection of some law or custom which exists, or ought to exist. In cases where this law or custom has a historic basis, the struggle goes on in the form of constitutional law. The picture of the Reformer is always the picture of Courage and of Mercy: the courageous man who is, by his conduct, protecting the weak. It is this vision of courage and mercy in operation, that melts the heart and inspires new courage and mercy in the beholder. Here is the great question which stands behind all the details; for courage and mercy are of eternal importance. That is why we hear so much of Pym, Hampden, etc. Their conduct has a direct relation to present conditions. No day passes in which every man is not put [55] to the test many times over, as to his personal relation towards the cowardices and cruelties of his own age.

Mayor Otis saw nothing important in the episode which has given him a Dantesque immortality. He had never heard of the Liberator. He therefore, procured a copy of it.

“I am told,” he said, “that it is supported chiefly by the free colored people; that the number of subscribers in Baltimore and Washington exceeds that of those in this city, and that it is gratuitously left at one or two of the reading-rooms in this place. It is edited by an individual who formerly lived at Baltimore, where his feelings have been exasperated by some occurrences consequent to his publications there, on topics connected with the condition of slaves in this country. . . .”

At a later period Otis wrote:

Some time afterward, it was reported to me by the city officers that they had ferreted out the paper and its editor; that his office was an obscure hole, his only visible auxiliary a negro boy, and his supporters a very few insignificant persons of all colors. This information, with the consent of the aldermen, I communicated to the abovenamed [56] governors, with an assurance of my belief that the new fanaticism had not made, nor was likely to make, proselytes among the respectable classes of our people. In this, however, I was mistaken.

History has left us, in this anecdote, a silhouette of Harrison Gray Otis, one of Boston's most eminent personages at that time, -the representative of the old Puritan blood, of the education, wealth, good looks, social prominence, and political power of Boston's leaders. In how short a time, and with how easy a transformation does patriot turn tyrant. Here is the nephew of James Otis, hand in glove with the iniquity of his age. He who was rocked in the cradle of liberty, is now the agent of the Inquisition. And he is perfectly innocent. He is a mere toy and creature of his time. A new issue has arisen that neither he nor his generation understand, and behold, they have become oppressors.

The Hercules that is to save mankind from these monsters is in the meanwhile working fourteen hours a day, setting type. The Liberator was begun without a dollar of capital and without a single subscriber. Garrison and his partner, Isaac Knapp, a young white man equally poor and equally [57] able to bear privation, composed, set, and printed the paper themselves. They lived chiefly upon bread and milk, a few cakes and a little fruit, obtained from the baker's shop opposite and from a petty cake and fruit shop in the basement. “I was often at the office of the Liberator,” wrote the Rev. James C. White. “I knew of his (Garrison's) self-denials. I knew he slept in the office with a table for a bed, a book for a pillow, and a self-prepared scanty meal for his rations in the office, while he set up his articles in the Liberator with his own hand, and without previous committal to paper.”

“ It was a pretty large room,” says Josiah Copley, who visited it in the winter of 1832-33, “ but there was nothing in it to relieve its dreariness but two or three very common chairs and a pine desk in the corner, at which a pale, delicate, and apparently over-tasked gentleman was sitting.

I never was more astonished. All my preconceptions were at fault. My ideal of the man was that of a stout, rugged, dark-visaged desperado — something like we picture a pirate. He was a quiet, gentle, and I might say handsome man-a gentleman indeed, in every sense of the word.

” [58]

“The dingy walls; the small windows, bespattered with printer's ink; the press standing in one corner; the composingstands opposite; the long editorial and mailing table, covered with newspapers; the bed of the editor and publisher on the floorall these,” says Oliver Johnson, “make a picture never to be forgotten.”

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