previous next

Chapter 7: the man of action

In calling up the spirit of Garrison out of the irrecoverable past we must never forget that he was but a part of something;we must call up the whole epoch. Garrison was as much an outcome of slavery as was “Uncle Tom's Cabin” or John C. Calhoun. He is a spiritual product; he is that suppressed part of man's nature, which could not co-exist with slavery. He is like a fiery salamander, who should emerge during a glacial epoch — crawling out from a volcano that was all the time hidden beneath the ice-crust. It is through the hot breath of this salamander that verdure is to be brought back to the earth, and the benign climate of modern life restored to America. To the conservative minds of his own time he appeared to be a monster; and he was a monster---a monster of virtue, a monster of love a monster of power.

Let us not judge but only examine him. Fortunately the materials are abundant, the [159] record is complete. His life in four enormous volumes has been written by his children; and the children of Garrison suppress nothing. We are brought into absolute contact with all of Garrison's singularities. This biography is not a critical work: it is, one might say, a work of idolatry. Every little battle is fought over again, and every word or gesture of the protagonist is deemed sacred. The reader feels oppressed by the one-sidedness of this procedure. One becomes sorry for the other actors in the great drama: for after all, these men could not help it that they were not Garrison; they seem to live out their lives under the pitiful inferiority of not being Garrison. For instance, Cassius M. Clay of Kentucky went to Yale College, and was, as a youth, converted to Anti-slavery by a lecture of Garrison's at New Haven. Clay returned to Kentucky, emancipated his slaves, and thereafter made relentless war on slavery, thus furnishing, say Garrison's biographers, “an example without parallel both of heroism and of the folly of attempting to undermine the slave power from within.” The italics are mine. But why do Garrison's children think it folly for a [160] Southerner to agitate against slavery in Kentucky? It seems to me that to do so was right. I believe that the agitation of Clay in Kentucky somehow went to a spot in the slavery question that nothing else could have reached. It affected Garrison himself as nothing else ever affected him: it softened him. It was the conduct of Clay and Rankin (another Southerner) which caused Garrison to offer a resolution at the Cincinnati convention in 1853, in which he stated that the Abolitionists of the country were as much interested in the welfare of the slaveholders as they were in the elevation of the slaves. His habitual attitude towards the slaveholders had always been, “We do not acknowledge them to be within the pale of Christianity, of Republicanism, of humanity. This we say dispassionately, and not for the sake of using strong language.”

Garrison, then, was touched by the almost miraculous courage of Clay. If there had been a few more such Southern Abolitionists, the bitterness of this whole epoch might have been qualified. It was, however, one of the stock taunts made against Garrison that he did not go South to agitate; and, therefore, these biographers reason that any agitation [161] of slavery in the South must be “folly.” The four great volumes contain frequent little hacks and side-cuts out of old controversies which are wearying to the modern reader. Nevertheless, the volumes contain also such mountains of precious ore, such a painstaking recovery of everything germane to the subject, such an angel-minded presentation of the blind side of Garrison, with the record of things said against himthat the reader is left with nothing but gratitude to these children who are so like the father that their very deficiencies, rightly taken, illuminate their subject. The children of Garrison have not written a philosophic history.1 But there are other things in the world besides criticism, and some things more rare and more beautiful than the critical intellect. There is praise and worship; there is reverence and love; there is the girasole that turns towards the sun and follows him from the orient to his setting, [162] ever in a dream, ever without knowing that he has changed his position, because for her he has not moved or changed; to her he is only himself.

Garrison was a man of action, that is to say, a man to whom ideas were revealed in relation to passing events, and who saw in ideas the levers and weapons with which he might act upon the world. A seer on the other hand is a man who views passing events by the light of ideas, and who counts upon his vision, not upon his action, for influence. The seer feels that the mere utterance of his thought, nay the mere vision of it, fulfills his function. Garrison was not a man of this kind. His mission was more lowly, more popular, more visible; and his intellectual grasp was restricted and uncertain. Garrison was a man of the market-place. Language to him was not the mere means of stating truth, but a mace to break open a jail. He was to be the instrument of great and rapid changes in public opinion during an epoch of terrible and fluctuating excitement. The thing which he is to see, to say, and to proclaim, from moment to moment, is as freshly given to him by prodigal nature, is as truly spontaneous, as the song of the [163] thrush. He never calculates, he acts upon inspiration; he is always ingenuous, innocent, self-poised, and, as it were, inside of some self-acting machinery which controls his course, and rolls out the carpet of his life for him to walk on. We must remember this; for it is almost impossible not to use words which imply the contrary in describing the acts of the practical man — the man who utters sharp sayings in order to gain attention, the man who gives no quarter when in the ring.

In reviewing the life of such a man we must take the logic of it as a whole; we must feel the unity of it as an organic process and torrent of force. It will contain many breaks in metaphysical unity; yet through these breaks may be seen the gushing stream of the spirit. I believe that Garrison shifted his ground and changed his mind less often than most men of that kaleidoscopic epoch. But we must not try to make him out more consistent than he was. All politics, including reform agitation, proceeds from day to day and from year to year under the illusion that the thing in hand is more important than it really is. All the actors are at every mo---nent somewhat deceived; and to each of [164] them the thing in hand ever a little blots out the sky. The agitator lives in a realm of exaggeration, of broadsides and italic types, of stampings of the foot and clenchings of the hand. He uses the terms and phrases of immortal truth to clamp together his leaky raft. The “belle reponse” of the martyr, the deep apothegm of the sage, and the words of Christ, are ever on his lips. Such things pass muster in politics without exciting comment. And yet, these statements of ideal truth, like the axioms of arithmetic, never quite square with the material world. They can only be felt and believed in mentally. You can never find or measure out an exact pound of anything or lay off a true mile; nor can you assign any accurate value to the influence of a good deed. Nevertheless, the inaccuracy which is permissible in the market-place is very much greater than the inaccuracy permissible to the historian who sits in his closet endeavoring to think clearly upon the matter.

The source of Garrison's power was the Bible. From his earliest days he read the Bible constantly, and prayed constantly. It was with this fire that he started his conflagration. Now the Bible is many things. [165] It is a key to metaphysical truth, it is a compendium of large human wisdom, it is a code of ethics, it is the history of a race, and many other things beside. To Garrison, the Bible was the many-piped organ to which he sang the song of his life, and the arsenal from which he drew the weapons of his warfare. I doubt if any man ever knew the Bible so well, or could produce a text to fit a political emergency with such startling felicity as Garrison. Take for example, the text provided by him for Wendell Phillips's speech on the Sunday morning following Lincoln's call for troops in 1861. “Therefore thus saith the Lord; Ye have not hearkened unto me in proclaiming liberty everyone to his brother, and every man to his neighbor: behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, saith the Lord, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine.”

I doubt whether Cromwell or Milton could have rivaled Garrison in this field of quotation; and the power of quotation is as dreadful a weapon as any which the human intellect can forge. From his boyhood upward Garrison's mind was soaked in the Bible and in no other book. His “Causes” are all drawn from the Bible, and most of them may be traced to the phrases and [166] thoughts of Christ, as for instance Peace (Peace I give unto you), Perfectionism (Be ye therefore perfect), Non-resistance (Resist not evil), Anti-sabbatarianism (The Lord is Lord of the Sabbath). So also, a prejudice against all fixed forms of worship, against the authority of human government, against every binding of the spirit into conformity with human lawall these things grew up in Garrison's mind out of his Bible reading; as they have done in the minds of so many other men before and after him. He, himself, was not going to be bound, and never was bound, by any declaration nor by any document. He even arrived at distrusting the Bible itself, perceiving that the Bible itself was often a tyrant — much as Christ saw the tyranny of the law of Moses. All this part of Garrison's mental activity is his true vocation. Here he rages like a lion of Judah. By these onslaughts he is freeing people from their mental bonds: he is shaking down the palaces of Babylon.

His age was the age of social experiments, and he was ever ready to take on a new one. This hospitality to new dogmas annoyed his associates, and led, as we have seen, to revolts, schisms, and heresies in [167] the Anti-slavery ranks. Garrison seems to have been assailed by such multitudinous revelations from on high that he was obliged to publish one dispensation in order to clear the wires for the next. There is one of these manifestoes which reveals the impromptu character of them all. “Despite its length,” say the biographers, “the greater part of this important document must be given here.” There follow several pages of fine print, concerning the causes uppermost in Garrison's mind, which evidently had filled up all the space in the Liberator, or used up all the ink in the office; and yet it appears at the close, that Garrison has forgotten to say anything about woman's rights. And so he calls out, like a man upon a departing stage-coach: “As our object is universal emancipation, to redeem women as well as men from a servile to an equal condition — we shall go for the Rights of women to their utmost extent.”

In those days societies were founded for everything. No one ever paused to consider what things could or could not be accomplished through organization, nor how far the sayings of Christ were parts of one another, nor whether at the bottom of all these questions there lay some truth [168] which enveloped them all. Every one rushed to utterance, and Garrison more than all men put together. So long as we consider his utterances in the large, as part of the upturning of that age, as the sine qua non of a new epoch, we love and value them. It is only when we collocate them, analyze them, and try to find something for our own souls in them, that they turn out to be emergency cries. They were designed towards local ends, they were practical politics, they do not always cohere with one another.

The great thesis to which he devoted his life, however, was unquestionably sound. He thus announced it in the Liberator in 1832:

There is much declamation about the sacredness of the compact which was formed between the free and slave States, on the adoption of the Constitution. A sacred compact, forsooth! We pronounce it the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villainy ever exhibited upon the earth. Yes, we recognize the compact, but with feelings of shame and indignation; and it will be held in everlasting infamy by [169] the friends of justice and humanity throughout the world. It was a compact formed at the sacrifice of the bodies and souls of millions of our race, for the sake of achieving a political object---an unblushing and monstrous coalition to do evil that good might come. Such a compact was in the nature of things, and according to the law of God, null and void from the beginning. No body of men ever had the right to guarantee the holding of human beings in bondage.

Who or what were the framers of our Government that they should dare confirm and authorize such high-handed villainysuch a flagrant robbery of the inalienable rights of man — such a glaring violation of all the precepts and injunctions of the Gospel — such a savage war upon a sixth part of our whole population? They were men, like ourselves — as fallible, as sinful, as weak, as ourselves. By the infamous bargain which they made between themselves, they virtually dethroned the Most High God, and trampled beneath their feet their own solemn and heaven-attested Declaration, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights-among which are life, [170] liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They had no lawful power to bind themselves or their posterity for one hour — for one moment — by such an unholy alliance. It was not valid then — it is not valid now. Still they persisted in maintaining it — and still do their successors, the people of Massachusetts, of New England, and of the twelve free States, persist in maintaining it. A sacred compact! a sacred compact! What, then, is wicked and ignominious?

It is said that if you agitate this question you will divide the Union. Believe it not; but should disunion follow, the fault will not be yours. You must perform your duty, faithfully, fearlessly and promptly, and leave the consequences to God: that duty clearly is, to cease from giving countenance and protection to Southern kidnappers. Let them separate, if they can muster courage enough — and the liberation of their slaves is certain. Be assured that slavery will very speedily destroy this Union if it be let alone; but even if the Union can be preserved by treading upon the necks, spilling the blood, and destroying the souls of millions of your race, we say it is not worth a price like this, and that it is in the [171] highest degree criminal for you to continue the present compact. Let the pillars thereof fall-let the superstructure crumble into dust — if it must be upheld by robbery and oppression.

This statement of Garrison's is, to my mind, the best thing ever said about slavery in the United States. There is no exaggeration in the statement: it is absolutely true. It is a complete answer to the Constitutional point; and makes all our antebellum public men (including Lincoln) appear a little benighted. They are like men who have been born in a darkness and have lived always in a twilight. They all have a slight, congenital weakness of the eye, which prevents them from taking the daylight view of this whole matter.

We ourselves to-day are so habituated to the historic obfuscation of our ancestors that we make allowance for it — more allowance, indeed, than we ought to make. We have, by inheritance, rather weak eyes on this subject ourselves. The true cause for wonder as to the age of Abolition is not that Garrison was right, but that there should have been only one person in America with a clear head. Let us now turn forward over ten years of historyeluding [172] all the pictures of struggle and incidents referred to in the earlier pages, and let us read Garrison's most famous exposition of his theme uttered in 1842:

We affirm that the Union is not of heaven. It is founded in unrighteousness and cemented with blood. It is the work of men's hands, and they worship the idol which they have made. It is a horrible mockery of freedom. In all its parts and proportions it is misshapen, incongruous, unnatural. The message of the prophet to the people in Jerusalem describes the exact character of our ‘republican’ Compact: ‘Hear the Word of the Lord, ye scornful men that rule this people. Because ye have said, We have made a covenant with Death, and with Hell are we at agreement; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto us: for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves: Therefore thus saith the Lord God, Judgment will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet: and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the water shall overflow the hiding-place. And your covenant with Death shall be annulled, and your agreement with Hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall [173] pass through then ye shall be trodden down by it.’

Another message of the same inspired prophet is equally applicable: ‘Thus saith the Holy One of Israel, Because ye despised this word, and trust in oppression and perverseness, and stay thereon: Therefore, this iniquity shall be to you as a breach ready to fall, swelling out in a high wall, whose breaking cometh suddenly, at an instant. And he shall break it as the breaking of a potter's vessel that is broken to pieces; he shall not spare: so that there shall not be found in the bursting of it, a sherd to take fire from the hearth, or to take water withal out of the pit.’

Slavery is a combination of Death and Hell, and with it the North have made a covenant and are at agreement. As an element of the Government it is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. As a component part of the Union it is necessarily a national interest. Divorced from Northern protection it dies; with that protection, it enlarges its boundaries, multiplies its victims, and extends its ravages.

These passages are too direct to be called extravagant. They are appalling. They are magnificent. And they came much [174] nearer to expressing the general opinion of the country in 1842 than the milder words quoted above came to expressing the contemporary opinion of 1832. Education was marching, the case was beginning to be understood. Within three years after Garrison's denunciation of the Constitution as an agreement with Hell, the Annexation of Texas brought thousands of the most conservative minds in the country, including Channing, to the point of abandoning the Constitution; and when in 1854 Garrison publicly burned the Constitution on the Fourth of July, the incident was of slight importance. Civil War was already inevitable: the dragon's teeth had been sown: the blades of bright bayonets could be seen pushing up through the soil in Kansas.

We see, then, the profound unity of Garrison's whole course, and may examine with indulgence some minor failures in logic which are very characteristic of him — very characteristic, indeed, of all practical-minded men who, after making one fault of logic, proceed to joggte themselves back again to their true work by committing a second. It is apparent that a man who assumes Garrison's grounds as to the importance of the spirit, and the unimportance of everything [175] else, can never turn aside and adopt any institution, without doing violence to his own principles. To disparage all government because it is “the letter that killeth,” and thereafter to swear fealty to some party, or adopt a symbol, or advise a friend to vote with the Whigs is inconsistent. One who believes in standing for absolute principle can never indorse some political scheme on the ground that “this time it doesn't count.” One who believes it wrong to meet force with force cannot retain the privilege of approving some particular war or some particular act of self-defense, which seems to him to be useful. Garrison had not the mental training to perceive this, and to do so would have involved his retirement from the camp to the closet: it would have involved his being someone else. Suffice it to say that from time to time his nature drew a veil over his theories, and so obscured them that he was able to support the Constitution of the United States, to rejoice in bloodshed, to take active part in political contests,--both in the great occasional National elections (as when he came out for Lincoln or Fremont), and in the continuous petty politics of the Anti-slavery cause.

After having supported one of these human [176] institutions with zeal, and having justified his conduct with facile and selfdeceiving casuistry, he would again ascend the mountain, the veil would be withdrawn from his intellect, and he would see his true vision once more and proclaim it with renewed fervor: the vision, namely, that no institution should be held sacred.

Let us now look upon Garrison's dealings with Anti-slavery societies, newspapers, and meetings by the light of the foregoing views. When a new religious movement begins to stir in a community, its members are drawn together through the spiritual likeness of one to the other. They are few: they are held together by persecution: they have all things in common. They need no creed; they all feel as one. This stage cannot endure; for someone arises who wishes to hold office. The Apostles began quarreling as to who should be greatest even during Christ's lifetime. As soon as any organization is formed, there arise differences of opinion, and the era of politics is reached. With our modern ideas of club organization for everything, a political element enters into any cause whenever two or three are gathered together in it. It ought to be a lesson to us to observe how completely all men, [177] even great men, are the children of their age. Garrison took up the propagation of the Anti-slavery cause by means of Democratic societies — a means which ties up any cause into little tight knots as it goes along, much as certain forms of crochet work progress by adding little groups of hard knots to other groups of hard knots. The machinery of his movement made vigilance essential. He might be outvoted, his newspaper might be taken from him, his control might be destroyed at any juncture. He is obliged, at intervals, to throw himself into the intrigue of Anti-slavery government, with the words of Moses on his lips and some vote-getting, hall-packing device in his mind. This was not true of the earliest years of the movement; but came about through the mighty logic of natural law as the movement spread.

Persecution purifies any new religion. As the wave of persecution which had held the Abolitionists together from 1830 to 1837 began to subside, quarrels broke out. It was not until 1850 when the triumph of the Slave Power in the passage of the Compromise Bill, gave rise to a new and short persecution, that the Anti-slavery people enjoyed again a short period of unity and peace. The inevitable quarrels over creed and [178] dogma set in in 1839. Anti-slavery developed a complex and bitter political activity. This is the epoch of mutual proscriptions. The purity of the faith is ever at stake, New Organization is branded by Old Organization “as the worst form of proslavery.” The Tocsin of Liberty maintained: “The simple truth is, the American A. S. Society has linked itself to pro-slavery, to get friends — and, like the Colonization Society, it has become an obstacle to progress which must be removed.” Mr. Garrison reported from the business committee, “that we cannot regard any man as a consistent Abolitionist who, while holding to the popular construction of the Constitution, makes himself a party to that instrument, by taking any office under it requiring an oath, or voting for its support.”

We can see to-day that it was through these very struggles that the new thought was penetrating the community. It is at first through the multiplication of new agencies, and later through an attack upon existing agencies, and an absorption into the older organs of society, that new thought always sinks and spreads, touching and changing society both visibly and invisibly. This process is inevitable, but Garrison [179] quarreled with it. He was ever wanting to keep the faith pure. He saw that no one else cared so much about the subject as he himself did; and he thought that he must keep the precious ichor from pollution. As late as 1857, he moaned that if it had not been for the split in the Anti-slavery ranks in 1840, slavery might have been abolished before then. It was not given to him to see that he could have kept himself and all his following clear of all entanglements, and could have exerted the maximum of influence with the minimum of effort, if he had simply formed no organization, but had merely taken in subscriptions for the cause, in his own name, and to do with as he pleased. His organization and his Liberator were in any case, and always, mere personal organs of his own: they followed his mental vagaries, they stuck to him, they were himself; and this same result could have been accomplished with infinite heart's ease instead of infinite heart's anguish, had Garrison but seen how to do it. In adopting a formal organization he was adopting part of the very element that his thought rejected: he was fighting the cause of nogovernment by means of a “machine” ; :he was supporting the spirit by votes. [180]

Hence Garrison's share in all the wearisome, little, and at times, degraded bickering between Anti-slavery societies; hence much personal vilification and heated talk over trifles. We see here also that these defects in Garrison proceed from a want of philosophic continuity of thought. Philosophic insight he had, but philosophic continuity he had not. There came a time in the forties when he seems to have half-perceived the nature of his own mission — to have half-seen, at least for a moment, that there were to be no simon-pure Abolitionists except himself, and that his function was to influence the world from where he stood. This insight was probably the result of watching the same phenomena occur again and again, of seeing his Cause move constantly forward through an infinite series of failures: “As fast as we, the Old Organization, make Abolitionists, the new converts run right into the Liberty Party, and become almost wholly hostile to us. This results from the strong leaning of our National character to politics. ... It is disheartening to see that every blow we strike thus tells in a degree against ourselves, and yet duty bids us keep on striking.” It is Wendell Phillips who in this passage is accurately [181] describing the operation of a great law of influence, and who yet seems to see in it merely evidence of human perversity. Later on, and especially during the war, Garrison became reconciled to that law, which his own life had ever blindly obeyed and exemplified.

I must now speak of the matter of strong language. The prophet, great or small, is not so much an individual, as a part of the consciousness of all men. He acts in a particular way upon the force of life, just as a prism acts in a particular way upon light. He is formed by pressure of some sort, and appears at critical times, just as a prism is created by pressure in the womb of the mountain. His understanding of his own function is uncertain, and there have been many plain-minded prophets who could suffer martyrdom, but not explain. I cannot find that even Socrates exactly understood the theory of agitation. The world sometimes thinks of these men as stupid people who know not what they would be at. We should think of them as spirits who enact a lesson rather than as moralists who read a lecture. Let every man carry home what he can from the auto-da-fe. The prophets are hot volcanic lava, rolling out of some [182] hidden furnace — which is really a distributive furnace, and overflows to a lesser degree in other men.

The aerolites which fall in Terra del Fuego show much the same chemical nature as those of Iceland. So of these accusing, flaming aerolites of politics. The Jewish prophet is the most soft-hearted of them all, and it is to this variety that Garrison belongs. These men see the suffering of the world, and they see or feel the relation between the suffering of one man and the selfishness of the next. The greatest of them all speaks thus:

For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye [183] them that are entering to go in. Woe unto ye, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple he is a debtor!

Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? Woe unto ye, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint, and anise, and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done and not leave the other undone. Woe unto ye, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, and say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto [184] yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.

Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify, and some of them ye shall scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, all these things shall come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

The tone of these denunciations is not an accidental characteristic of Christ's. It is an organic product, a concomitant of the [185] hottest, most personal love of men that has ever been known upon the earth. Here then is an outpouring of lava. Vainly might we call this passion, idle, unphilosophical, lacking in courtesy; or say that it fails to distinguish between the sinner and the sin. Granted: granted. Yet this is the way a man speaks who feels as Christ felt. If Christ's way of feeling be right, there is something right about his mode of expression. Somewhere, somehow, this heat is valuable. In some sense these whirling words are true, just, adequate and scientific. They do something which nothing else will do. You say there is evil in them. You are mistaken: there is no evil in them: there is nothing uncharitable in them. They are the terrible music of social agony. You would speak thus yourself, could you see as clearly, feel as keenly, as did Christ. Your calmness is only possible because your heart is cold, or your eyes dim.

Let us now remember what mild gentlemen those Pharisees were, to whom Christ used such strong language. How inoffensive their vices — a little usury, some business villainy, perhaps, a good deal of conventional hypocrisy, front pews in church, public charity-giving. That old Jewish society [186] was probably the most moral society that ever existed. If we consider its thousand years of prophets, its literature of ethics and of devotion, its popular passion for theology, its passion for those discussions which went on constantly in temple and marketplace, and which show a deeper clutch upon truth than Athens at her best could show --if we consider what sort of men those scribes and Pharisees probably were, we shall have to confess that Christ's rebuke fell on men whose faults were mild compared to the atrocities visible in the modern world. Examine the morning newspaper and you will find fiendish cruelties unknown in Judaea.

At the back of the prophet's emotion is; his vision of a relation between innocent suffering and half-innocent selfishness. If you should see a man being burned alive by respectable rate-payers, you would cry out, you — yet not you but something in youwould burst into agonized protest, accusing those rate-payers; and your language would be harsh. Such is the explanation of the strong language of Anti-slavery. The Abolitionists were the only people in the country who effectually saw what was going on. They saw the slave-block, they saw the child [187] reft from the mother, they saw the floggings and the despair. A hundred volumes might be compiled out of old newspapers by culling advertisements like the following from the Charleston Courier in 1825:

Twenty dollars reward. Ran away from the subscriber, on the 14th instant, a negro girl named Molly. She is 16 or 17 years of age, slim made, lately branded on her left cheek, thus, “ R,” and a piece is taken off her left ear on the same side; the same letter is branded on the inside of both her legs.

Abner Ross Fairfield District, S. C.

Let any serious-minded man read a few pages of the Key to “Uncle Tom's Cabin,” or of Theodore D. Weld's book on American Slavery, before he decides to discountenance strong language. The people of the South did not know about the horrors of slavery, and taught their children not to see them; they glossed them over, as the inevitable unpleasantnesses of life are always glossed over. John S. Wise was a typical child of the South, save that he had a Northern mother. He was the son of Henry A. Wise, the famous Governor of Virginia, and he has given us a book of memoirs, “The [188] end of an era,” which will be read as long as the Civil War is remembered. John S. Wise had never heard of a slave-auction, till a Northern uncle, whom he met or visited in Philadelphia, took him to see “Uncle Tom's Cabin” on the stage. This was in the fifties, and when John S. Wise was a young lad. On returning to Richmond he visited a slave-auction, and was as much horrified as a Northern boy would have been. The horrors of slavery were unknown to the South, and ten times more unknown to the North, when the Abolitionists discovered them.

I have noticed in recent years one or two denunciations of business wickedness, in which a fierce invective seemed to tear the skin from the victim's body. One writer pictured the descent of disease upon the bad man — how his hair fell from his scalp. Now in all these cases — in the case of Christ, of the Abolitionists, and of the denouncers of business wickedness — the delicate mind is shocked. It is shocked because it reads in cold blood what is merely the instinctive expression of hot feeling. It sees malice where there is no malice. The truth is that instinctive expression does something which philosophic analysis cannot [189] do: it reaches the soul, it raises the temperature and lets in light. The danger of denunciation lies in the temptation to use denunciation as a method of reform. The spontaneous cry of pity ought never to be transformed into a lash; nor should the flames of righteous indignation be exploited politically, and used to cook up reform. There is nothing of this kind in the New Testament, but there was a good deal of it in Anti-slavery history. Garrison made a method of personal vilification; he would cover the wicked with “thick infamy.” He was a gadfly and a fury in his own conception. His utterances are not always, like Christ's, lyrical utterances; they are calculated attacks. This is hardly a matter, however, upon which one can make a general statement that will cover all cases. The particular thing uttered by Garrison must, in each case, be considered by itself. There are moments when Garrison is inspired. His faith is perfect. In reviewing the first year of the Liberator's activity, he wrote:

Last year I felt as if I were fighting single-handed against the great enemy; now I see around me a host of valiant warriors, armed with weapons of an immortal temper, whom nothing can daunt, and who [190] are pledged to the end of the contest. The number is increasing with singular rapidity. The standard which has been lifted up in Boston is attracting the gaze of the nation, and inspiring the drooping hearts of thousands with hope and courage.

As for myself, whatever may be my fate -whether I fall in the spring-time of manhood by the hand of the assassin, or be immured in a Georgia cell, or be permitted to live to a ripe old age — I know that the success of your cause depends nothing upon my existence. I am but as a drop in the ocean, which, if it be separated, cannot be missed. My own faith is strong-my vision, clear -my consolation, great. “Who art thou O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain: and he shall bring the headstone thereof with shoutings, crying, Grace, grace unto it!”

Surely this is beautiful: it is inspired; it is unconscious.

The following description of the Colonization Society seems to me to be truly Hebraic in its celestial rage--“Upon this pamphlet I shall be willing to stake my reputation for honesty, prudence, benevolence, truth, and sagaciousness. If I do not prove the Colonization spirit to be a creature without heart, without brains, eyeless, unnatural, hypocritical, [191] relentless, unjust, then nothing is capable of demonstration.” The reader may turn over Garrison's utterances and pick out the lyrical from the political by the light of his own feeling. In doing so he will find himself forgiving more, the more he becomes acquainted with Garrison's world. The following words about Henry Clay seem cruel: “Henry Clay — with one foot in the grave, and just ready to have body and soul cast into Hell — as if eager to make his damnation doubly sure, rises in the United States Senate and proposes an inquiry into the expediency of passing yet another law, by which every one who shall dare peep or mutter against the execution of the Fugitive Slave Law shall have his life crushed out.”

When we learn, however, that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 provided that the negro in Massachusetts might be identified through the mere affidavit of the slaveholder agent; that the slave could not testify himself; that there was no trial by jury; that the commissioner's fee was doubled if the slaveholder prevailed; that the bystander could be summoned to aid in preventing an escape, and that, in case any person assisted the escape, such person should be fined a thousand dollars, or imprisoned not exceeding [192] six months; when we learn that modern historians have accounted for its diabolical provisions by suggesting that this Fugitive Slave Bill was intended to involve such humiliation to the North that the North would not swallow it, but would reject it and thereby give the South grounds for secession; when we reflect that the North did swallow this law, and that thousands of free colored people throughout the Northern cities, innocent and industrious citizens, were at that time fleeing to Canada;--when we remember these facts, we begin to feel that Garrison's language was by no means too strong.

When all has been said in his favor, there remains a certain debauchery of language in Garrison, which came from his occupation: he was a journalist. If a man writes all the time, his mannerisms become intensified. Garrison became a common scold — and yet not a common scold, because his inner temper was perfect, and his subject the great subject of the age. He is ever driving his Cause, and feels he must evoke immediate response at every instant. His lack of good taste is not unconnected with his weakness in abstract thinking. To him Slavery in the concrete was the evil. He had not the [193] philosophic power to perceive that sin was the real evil. The evils were injustice, cruelty, murder, lust, egoism. These things he believed to be the outcome of Slavery.

It is not, however, the harshness of language that we are quarreling with. What displeases us in Garrison is the element of policy, the wholesale element in his method. But let us beware lest in straining at a gnat we swallow a camel; and let us remember that what is offensive to us, physicked the nation. The young Garrison, the man of twenty-four, when he discovered Immediate Emancipation, was the vortex of an unseen whirlpool. Through his brain spun the turbillion. Something was to break forth; for the power was bursting its envelope. The flood issued in the form in which we know it — with purposed vilification, with excoriating harshness, with calculated ferocity. Only in this manner could it issue: the dam could hold the flood no longer, nor lift it into poetic expression.

If you take the great political agitators of the world like Luther, Calvin, Savonarola, Garibaldi, or certain of the English church reformers, you will find that these men always live under a terrible strain, and they generally give way somewhere. No one can [194] imagine how fierce is the blast upon a man's nervous system, when he stands in the midst of universal antagonism, solitary and at bay. The continuousness of the trial is apt to wear upon the character of reformers. Through vanity, or love of power, or through sheer nervous exhaustion, they become guilty of cruelty or tainted with ambition. There is generally something to forgive in the history of such men. Now Garrison is almost perfect: he is perfect in his lack of personal ambition, in his indifference to power, in his courage, his faith, his persistence, his benevolence. When he breaks down it is in driblets, and every day — in the bad taste and self-indulgence of a disgusting rhetoric, in his inability to “shut up” about anything, in his use of the personal pronoun. Through these channels his nervous exhaustion is worked off, and the inner heart of the creature is left free from the great temptations.

All this armor of language was the paraphernalia of the arena, which was, as it were, handed to Garrison from without from on high, from within. He puts it on, and enters the lists: he puts it off, and takes supper with his family. As for the kind of man which he really was, the testimony is [195] universal and uniform. I copy one or two phrases almost at random, from among the innumerable descriptions of him. Richard D. Webb, an Irish Abolitionist, and a very old friend of all the Anti-slavery people, wrote: “I . . . spent three weeks with the Garrisons in Paris and Switzerland. It was a time of intense enjoyment, for I exceedingly liked my companions .... As to Mr. Garrison himself, he is the most delightful man I have ever known — magnanimous, generous, considerate, and, as far as I can see, every way morally excellent. I can perceive that he has large faith, is very credulous, is not deeply read, and has little of the curiosity or thirst for knowledge which educated people are prone to. But, take him for all in all, I know no such other man. His children are most affectionate and free with him — yet they have their own opinions and express them freely, even when they differ most widely from his. . . . People who travel together have an excellent opportunity of knowing and testing one another. . . . I have never on the whole known a man who bears to be more thoroughly known, or is so sure to be loved and reverenced.”

Harriet Martineau has left us a record of [196] her first impressions in all their freshness:--“At ten o'clock he came, accompanied by his introducer. His aspect put to flight in an instant what prejudices his slanderers had raised in me. I was wholly taken by surprise. It was a countenance glowing with health, and wholly expressive of purity, animation, and gentleness. I did not wonder at the citizen who, seeing a print of Garrison at a shop window without a name to it, went in and bought it, and framed it as the most saintlike of countenances. The end of the story is, that when the citizen found whose portrait he had been hanging up in his parlor, he took the print out of the frame and huddled it away.”

The lion and the lamb dwelt together in Garrison; but the lion was a peculiar lion, he was never really in control of Garrison, as the lion in Luther was sometimes in control of Luther. The following anecdote from Mr. May's reminiscences gives us a glimpse of the social side of Garrison and shows the perplexities into which his methods of agitation naturally led the public. The scene is upon a steamboat.

There was much earnest talking by other parties beside our own. Presently a gentleman turned from one of them to me and [197] said, “What, sir, are the Abolitionists going to do in Philadelphia?” I informed him that we intended to form a National Anti-Slavery Society. This brought from him an outpouring of the commonplace objections to our enterprise, which I replied to as well as I was able. Mr. Garrison drew near, and I soon shifted my part of the discussion into his hands, and listened with delight to the admirable manner in which he expounded and maintained the doctrines and purposes of those who believed with him that the slaves — the blackest of them — were men, entitled as much as the whitest and most exalted men in the land to their liberty, to a residence here, if they chose, and to acquire as much wisdom, as much property, and as high a position as they may.

After a long conversation, which attracted as many as could get within hearing, the gentleman said, courteously: “I have been much interested, sir, in what you have said, and in the exceedingly frank and temperate manner in which you have treated the subject. If all Abolitionists were like you, there would be much less opposition to your enterprise. But, sir, depend upon it, that hair-brained, reckless, violent fanatic, Garrison, will damage, if he does not shipwreck, [198] any cause.” Stepping forward, I replied, “Allow me, sir, to introduce you to Mr. Garrison, of whom you entertain so bad an opinion. The gentleman you have been talking with is he.”

The gayety of temperament and a certain bubbling power of enjoyment which Garrison possessed he shared with all, or almost all, the Abolitionists; their work made them happy. “I have seen him intimately,” said Wendell Phillips, “for thirty years, while raining on his head was the hate of the community, when by every possible form of expression malignity let him know that it wished him all sorts of harm. I never saw him unhappy. I never saw the moment that serene abounding faith in the rectitude of his motive, the soundness of his method, and the certainty of success did not lift him above all possibility of being reached by any clamor about him.”

1 “Writing not without bias, surely, but in a spirit emulous of the absolute fairness which distinguished our father, we have done little more than coordinate materials to serve posterity in forming that judgment of him which we have no desire to forestall. In a literary point of view, we have aimed at nothing more than clearness, sequence and proportion.” Life of Garrison. Preface, p. XII.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1850 AD (2)
1842 AD (2)
1832 AD (2)
1861 AD (1)
1857 AD (1)
1854 AD (1)
1853 AD (1)
1840 AD (1)
1839 AD (1)
1837 AD (1)
1830 AD (1)
1825 AD (1)
July 4th (1)
14th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: