The Liberator Newspaper by William Lloyd Garrison
What was the Paper's Mission?
In the "Declaration of Sentiments" that he wrote for the founding meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in December of 1833, William Lloyd Garrison clearly articulated the mission of the radical abolitionists: they were to transform America through the written and spoken word. They called it “moral suasion.” We might call it propaganda. The word these abolitionists wanted to spread was that slavery was sinful and must be abolished.
Masthead from 1850
His Call to All Americans
Having been raised in the household of a Baptist preacher after his alcoholic father abandoned the family, Garrison was steeped in the rhetoric of the King James Bible and revivalist preaching. His flair for dramatic and memorable speeches is evident even in his first issue. Here is his inspiring call to Americans to rise up to fight slavery:
- We shall organize Anti-Slavery Societies, if possible, in every city, town and village of our land.
- We shall send forth Agents to lift up the voice of remonstrance, of warning, of entreaty and rebuke.
- We shall circulate, unsparingly and extensively, anti-slavery tracts and periodicals.
- We shall enlist the PULPIT and the PRESS in the cause of the suffering and the dumb. (Liberator, Dec. 14, 1833).
1820's Portrait of Editor
The paper stated two goals:
- Immediate, uncompensated emancipation of the slaves.
- Citizenship for all African-Americans.,
Although the Garrisonian abolitionists were to later develop direct action, non-violent protest methods such as boycotts and sit-ins, these other strategies were orchestrated to give opportunities for abolitionists to spread their message through:
- Symbolic gestures like burning the flag.persuasive oratory, or dramatic newspaper copy.
- Persuasive oratory by his band of anti-slavery lecturers who traveled the country in pairs in order to stir up interest in the abolitionist cause and start small groups in every town.
- Dramatic newspaper copy such as the fate of slaves when they were sold, beatings of slaves and escapes from slavery.
Garrison launched the radical abolitionist movement in 1831 with the publication of his weekly newspaper, the Liberator (1831-65). Even though the Liberator never had a readership of more than 3000, and often much less, he used his flair for notoriety to cause his ideas to be discussed in hundreds of other newspapers. Like most editors of his time, he exchanged his paper with many others, giving them free reign to reprint anything they wanted and taking the same privilege for himself.
Re-mix and Commentary
On the first page of the Liberator, under the title "Refuge from Oppression," Garrison regularly printed pro-slavery articles from Southern papers. He then argued vigorously, with famously virulent language, against these articles. Garrison's vehemence made great copy and so he was frequently quoted in other papers, North and South. When those papers slandered him, Garrison reprinted their articles, labeled himself a martyr, and set off a new round of accusations.
This paper was both the longest-running abolitionist paper and the most influential. Its publication not only initiated the radical abolitionist movement but also ended it, ceasing after the emancipation proclamation became law in 1865.
Even when Garrison was mobbed and forced out of Boston in 1835, the paper did not skip a single issue.In thirty-five years, publishing a total of one thousand, eight hundred and twenty issues of the four-page paper. The Liberator was always prophetic and always radical.Just as the rest of the nation began to accept its ideas, the paper moved on to making new and more extraordinary demands for social change.
Influence on Others
Most of the major figures of the abolitionist movement were converted to the cause either by the paper or by Garrison himself. Lydia Maria Child, Theodore Weld, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown and many others gave their lives for the cause of the slave because of the fire that Garrison’s rhetoric lit in them.
Furthermore, the Liberator was an important source of abolitionist information not only for well-known agitators but also for those abolitionists who worked quietly in their own small towns throughout the North.It provided ammunition for discussion about abolitionism among friends and neighbors.
Free Black Abolitionist Support
The paper was particularly influential in free black communities because Garrison took much of the Liberator’s agenda, particularly in the first five years, from black abolitionists.Three-quarters of the early subscribers were African-American and it was money from free black abolitionists which enabled the editor to start the paper and keep it running from 1831 to 1835.
Many of the articles and letters in the paper were written by free blacks in the North or escaped slaves. Some of the earliest African-American literature was published in The Liberator. Ironically, literary critics have sometimes portrayed Garrison as racist because of his split with Frederick Douglass. In "Garrison and Douglass: Racism in the Abolitionist Movement?" I explain how that division had more to do with two powerful personalities clashing than race, but, unfortunately, the historical view of the editor as racist has damaged his reputation and left his work neglected.
Although Garrison did not write all of the copy for the paper, most contemporaries thought of the paper as mostly his ideas because he firmly controlled the content. In fact, he ferociously defended his right to control the content of his paper, even when the Abolitionist Societies who supported the Liberator disagreed with him.
Furthermore, the editor seems to be linked more strongly to his paper because, unlike many abolitionist newspaper editors, he was a professional newspaperman who actually set the type for each issue and often helped print it. When Garrison was sick or traveling on lecture tours, his friends Edmond Quincy or Oliver Johnson would edit and print the paper in his absence. Except for occasional letters from Garrison about his trips and an absence of his editorial comments, these issues are generally indistinguishable from his own.
Changes in Paper's Influence
Between the start of the paper and 1850, The Liberator was the primary voice in the American Anti-Slavery movement. However, as more and more Americans began to believe the message of anti-slavery, The Liberator's influence became less because there were many more anti-slavery papers, along with books and speakers.
Two events marked a turning point in the abolitionist movement after 1850: one political, the other literary.
- Fugitive Slave Act: The political event was the Compromise of 1850, which sought to end the sectional division over slavery by admitting California as a free state; creating Utah and New Mexico as territories where popular sovereignty would decide the slave issue; settling the Texas-New Mexico boundary dispute in favor of Texas; ending the slave trade in Washington D.C.; and, in the most infamous part of the compromise, making it easier for southerners to capture fugitive slaves in the north.
- Uncle Tom's Cabin: This last provision, often called the Fugitive Slave Act, motivated Harriet Beecher Stowe to write what became a literary turning point for abolition: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or; Life Among the Lowly (1852). After the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, abolitionist literature entered the mainstream of American thought and letters. While the Liberator continued to play a role in shaping the representation of African-Americans after that time, it was as one of many competing voices!