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Prophets of Abolition: William Lloyd Garrison and Henry Highland Garnet
Arguments over slavery and abolition grew increasingly vitriolic and diversified in the middle decades of the 19th century as the United States seemed to head inexorably towards civil war. Though all abolitionists agreed that the end of slavery was the ultimate aim of the movement, how this was to be achieved and what was to happen afterwards provided ample ammunition for in-fighting and schisms within the movement. As the years progressed, people from both ends of the abolitionist spectrum emerged as national figures, espousing views that would have profound effects on the country as a whole. William Lloyd Garrison came to dominate the national consciousness as the principle agitator for emancipation and the leader of the movement, though most of his views were extreme, even for the abolitionists. Garrison, in his weekly editorials, speeches, and letters, argued vehemently for immediate emancipation and resistance to a government that made any concessions to slavery, though Garrisonian emancipation was based on the principle of nonviolence. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Henry Highland Garnet, an African American who had been born into and escaped from slavery, offered an alternative to Garrisonian abolitionism, one that advocated emancipation and equality by any means necessary, including slave rebellion, but which also said that change could be effected through the political system, a concept that Garrison strongly opposed. How Garrison and Garnet arrived at their positions and how those positions shaped the national discussion about slavery and emancipation reveal much about antebellum America.
William Lloyd Garrison
That William Lloyd Garrison became a prominent figure was a testament to his anti-slavery zeal. He came from very humble beginnings and ancestry. His Nova Scotian parents moved to Massachusetts just before his birth in 1805. His father was a seaman who could rarely make ends meet, while his devoutly-Baptist mother served as a caretaker struggling to ensure that her children were provided for. Garrison’s father abandoned the family when Garrison was a young boy, and the family never saw him again. Afterwards, Garrison was sometimes sent into the streets to beg for food, and for the rest of his life he remembered going to the wealthy neighborhoods to ask for scraps from their tables. Despite these difficulties, his mother ensured that he was properly instructed in Christianity, and he would forever be devoutly religious. In 1812, his mother split the family up and apprenticed the children out because she could no longer provide for them. Garrison spent his childhood living with various families and apprenticed into various trades. He was finally apprenticed to the editor of the semi-weekly Newburyport, Massachusetts, Herald, and in publishing he found a task that suited him.
Working at the newspaper offered Garrison the opportunity to educate himself and to learn politics and national affairs. Beginning in 1822, he wrote anonymous essays to the paper, and when he eventually admitted his authorship, the editor allowed him to write editorials. Writing for the paper gave him the opportunity “to develop a vigorous style and a great deal of self-confidence.” In 1826 he began editing a paper of his own, which shortly failed, but by then he had a reputation as responsible, reliable, religious, and conservative. The following year he moved to Boston and began editing a temperance paper. His religious roots led him to tap into a variety of reform movements; his focus was never exclusively abolitionism.
In 1828, Garrison met a Quaker abolitionist named Benjamin Lundy, who was the publisher of the Genius of Universal Emancipation newspaper. Lundy made a strong impression on Garrison, and he made a strong impression on Lundy, because the following year Lundy invited him to edit the Genius of Universal Emancipation. “I owe everything . . . to Benjamin Lundy,” Garrison later said. Lundy’s aim was gradual emancipation. “Slaveholders, he believed, if convinced of the iniquity of the system, would voluntarily free their slaves if assured of the freedman’s resettlement elsewhere,” a view not uncommon in antebellum America. Garrison likewise subscribed to these views, supporting both gradual emancipation and colonization. Colonization was a popular position for many white Americans at this time. It called for voluntary repatriation of free blacks to Africa. Before taking over for Lundy, however, Garrison came to oppose both of these positions. A widely-read British pamphlet from those years had called gradualism a solution “halfway between now and never,” and Garrison seems to have arrived at the conclusion that the issue of slavery could not continually be put off for future generations to deal with. What remained of Lundy’s influence was the idea of moral suasion—the belief that slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike could be reasoned with, that they simply did not know the truth about the horrors of slavery, but when they did, they would willingly give up the institution in favor of free labor. That Garrison’s later editorials were so angry in tone might derive from his growing frustration at the inability of moral suasion to free any slaves.
By the time Garrison took over the Genius in 1829, he had developed an aggressive style which scared off subscribers and got him into legal trouble. A libel case against him cost him fifty dollars and his job at the Genius, though rather than pay the fine he served forty-nine days in jail. In order to fully articulate his opinions, Garrison decided to found his own paper, the Liberator, which was published for the first time on January 1, 1831. In his first editorial, he repudiated his earlier, Lundy-inspired views, and his tone demonstrates his sincerity in the cause of abolition:
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 of timidity, injustice, and absurdity. . . . My conscience is now satisfied.
He then announced his determination to “strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population,” and to be heard by the nation, come what may. Despite Garrison’s zeal and sincerity, the Liberator was not greeted with any special fanfare, but with “suspicion and apathy,” as he remarked. The Liberator rarely brought in enough money to pay the bills, and Garrison frequently worked fourteen-hour days and slept on his desk just to keep the paper alive. Subscriptions mainly came in from free blacks in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City, who had few champions, and for who Garrison became a hero. Within in a few weeks, several of Boston’s most influential blacks were publicly thanking Garrison for his efforts on their behalf, and announced that they were “proud to claim [him] as their advocate.”
Garrison first came to national prominence when Southerners who had never heard of him blamed the Liberator for Nat Turner’s bloody 1831 rebellion in Virginia. That Garrison was an avowed pacifist throughout his life did not matter; threats were made against him, and several Southern states offered rewards for his arrest, and one individual reportedly offered money for his disembodied ears. Southerners concluded that the appearance of the Liberator in 1831 and Nat Turner’s rebellion a few months later were not coincidental; Garrison must have had something to do with the inspiration or planning of the rebellion. In the aftermath of Nat Turner’s rebellion, Garrison emerged as a nationally- and internationally-known and much-reviled figure, and hatred for him only grew as the years went on. In one instance in 1835, at a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, a mob burst in and demanded Garrison. He eventually escaped through a back window, but the mob caught him down the road and tied a rope around him. The mob wanted to drag him through the streets, possibly to his death, but cooler heads in the crowd prevailed, shouting, “He shan’t be hurt!” The mayor soon took custody of him, and Garrison was jailed as a disturber of the peace for his own good. Though he was often in danger, Garrison shoehorned his newfound fame into a leadership position in the abolition movement. In early 1832, he founded the New England Antislavery Society, and the next year was invited to the World Antislavery Convention in London. He soon helped found the American Antislavery Society to try to organize abolition efforts nationally, but there were increasingly splits within the movement.
Garrison was not the first abolitionist, nor was he the most prominent until late in his career. But the years when the Liberator was in its infancy were crucial. “It was between 1830 and 1840 that the real work of Garrison was done,” writes Garrison biographer John Jay Chapman. “At the beginning of that decade Abolition was a cry in the wilderness: at the end of it, Abolition was a part of the American mind.” Garrison and the Liberator were the instrument of that change. More than Garrison’s ideas, which were not unique, it was his tone that grabbed the public’s attentions and would not let go. One of Garrison’s friends, Samuel May, told him to moderate his tone, which was “all on fire.” “Brother May,” Garrison responded,” “I have need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt.”
Besides speaking out in favor of immediate emancipation and against colonization, Garrison took up a multitude of other causes. When he was not raging against slavery, he turned the Liberator’s columns over to “discussions of dueling, tobacco-using, cockfighting, cruelty to animals, diet, fashions, women’s rights, nonresistance, ‘no-government,’ or any other reform Garrison happened to find interesting.” Garrison’s strong moral sentiments would alienate supporters and allow his enemies to brand him as a radical. Garrison first pushed the issue of women’s rights in 1838, when he moved to allow women a vote in the New England Antislavery Society. Garrison firmly controlled the New England group, but a similar attempt in the national antislavery society caused the group to splinter. When Garrison had a woman appointed to one of the subcommittees at the 1840 convention, many delegates seceded, including the New York delegation, of which Henry Highland Garnet was a member. Garrison was left in control of the national society, but with a much-diminished membership that was confined almost entirely to New England. The national society thus lost much of its territorial expanse and many of its more conservative and wealthy benefactors, becoming essentially another arm of the New England society. Much the same scene played out at a convention in London, when he refused to take part in the proceedings because women were not allowed to participate.
Garrison also caused excitement with his political views. According to him, the U.S. Constitution legalized and protected slavery, and thus violated human rights and the principles of Christianity. It was therefore unlawful and not binding on Americans who had an obligation to obey a “higher law.” He developed this idea throughout the 1830s and was an avowed disunionist by 1842. Throughout 1842 his editorials called for the North and South to separate, while the Liberator’s masthead was changed to “NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS!” until 1861. The logical consequence was that he could not support any political party, even one focused solely on abolition, because it would have to work within a corrupt system. As Garrison wrote, “It is impossible for men to be moral reformers and politicians at the same time.”
Garrison’s other interests were so alienating and distracting that one acquaintance wrote to tell him, “Still do I beg of you, brother, to let other subjects alone until slavery is finished.” These digressions away from the central issue of slavery constantly divided supporters and turned average citizens against Garrison. To Garrison, though, there was no reason that multiple causes could not be taken up at once. As Garrison was emerging as a national figure despite tactics that splintered the abolition movement, Henry Highland Garnet was likewise making statements not designed to win friends.
Henry Highland Garnet
Henry Highland Garnet had a decidedly different childhood from Garrison. He was born a slave in Maryland in 1815. Though Garnet himself was not abused as a slave, he witnessed his mother and other slaves being beaten and abused, and quickly grew to view slavery as “the essence of all conceivable wickedness.” As a child, Garnet’s father inculcated in him a sense of racial pride. He was told that he was pure African, with no white blood, and that he was the descendent of African kings. As an adult, this racial pride caused Garnet to feel a special responsibility to become a leader of his race.
Garnet’s master died in 1824. When the new master tried to impose hasher discipline, Garnet and his extended family, eleven people in all, escaped from slavery. They traveled through the Underground Railroad, eventually stopping in New York City. His father commemorated the occasion by re-baptizing the family, this time as free people. New York had a large free black population, but there was harsh political, social, and economic discrimination, especially as the century wore on. The family got along fairly well, and Garnet was able to attend an all-black school funded and run by a colonization society. Because Garnet would later be a strong advocate for colonization, his experiences at the school—and a lifetime of racial discrimination—must have strongly influenced the development of his abolitionist ideology.
As a young boy of fourteen, Garnet started working as a steward and cook aboard a ship that traveled to Washington, D.C. and Cuba. Once while he was at sea, slavecatchers tried to capture his family. His father had to escape from their home through a window. In his rage, Henry bought a knife and walked the streets, publicly threatening to kill any slavecatchers. Thus his indoctrination to violence as an acceptable response to slavery came early, and for him it was a pragmatic response to the threat that slavery posed to his family. Unlike Garrison, who had never been in quite the same position, Garnet thought that blacks were justified in responding to violence with violence.
As a teenager, Garnet received a classical education from a high school sponsored by whites. For Garnet, as for most free African Americans, education was an all-important tool. “For him, education was to be used to acquire information that was helpful in the struggle against slavery,” writes his biographer Martin B. Pasternak. “All education, he recalled, was a means to an end. And the end was always emancipation. Education was the tool to the victory over slavery.” While he was at school in the early 1830s, Garrison was emerging as a prominent figure, to who Garnet looked up. In 1834 he formed a literary society at his school called the Garrison Literacy and Benevolent Association. Garnet’s intelligence was evident to many, and after high school, a mentor recommended him to the Noyes Academy set to open in Canaan, New Hampshire, which was going to allow in black and white students equally.
It was at Noyes that Garnet again was confronted with violence. Local whites were vehemently opposed to the school. When it opened despite the threat of mob violence, the school had twenty-eight white students and eleven blacks. Garnet’s then-idol William Lloyd Garrison came to the town to speak in favor of Noyes. On July 4, 1835, Garnet, just twenty years old, was the featured speaker at an anti-slavery rally. After the fiery speeches by Garrison and Garnet and his schoolmates, the fed-up citizens of Canaan decided to act. A month later, a mob assembled, descended on the school “like a cloud of angry locusts,” and in a well-orchestrated act of destruction, “Ninety-five yoke of oxen were assembled for the purpose of moving the academy. The task, being difficult, required two days, after which the building was destroyed by fire.” Not content to destroy the school, the mob then attacked the home where Garnet and his friends were staying. Unlike Garrison, who, when confronted by a mob at the Boston Female Antislavery meeting just a few months later, met the enraged Bostonians with non-violent affability, Garnet resolved to fight. “In this incident Henry showed the bravery and courage which were characteristic of his life,” W. M. Brewer writes. “Although lame [from a sports injury; his leg would later be amputated], suffering with a fever, and using a crutch, he fired at the mob which had shot up the house. The remainder of the time he spent molding bullets for the double-barrelled [sic] shot gun which he used in defending himself against the further attacks of the rioters.” Despite his bravery, Garnet was forced to flee. These were the conditions under which his ideology matured.
He found a more accepting home at the Oneida Institute in New York, where he studied ancient African civilizations, becoming one of the only American authorities on the subject. On breaks from school, he often went on speaking tours throughout the state, honing oratorical and debating skills that the likes of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison considered some of the best in the abolition movement. In 1840, Garrison would praise a speech in which Garnet said that the North bore as much blame for slavery as the South by pronouncing, “Patrick Henry never spoke better.” He emerged from college in the 1840s as a full-fledged and accredited abolitionist. His early encounters with racism and opposition left him arrogant and confident, assured of his place in the movement, and convinced that violence was an acceptable means to the ends of abolition. He likewise realized that African Americans, treated unkindly in the United States, might settle with greater success in Africa.
Despite Garrison’s support and praise, Garnet broke with him as did many other abolitionists. When the American Anti-Slavery Society split in 1840 over Garrison’s attempts to allow women delegates to vote, Garnet remained loyal to the New York faction against the Garrisonians. Garnet was also increasingly opposed to Garrison’s moral suasion and his pacifistic beliefs. He likewise disagreed with Garrison’s stance on politics. When the Liberty Party was founded in 1839 by western abolitionists, Garnet joined the party and offered his full support. A few years later he would speak out publicly against the Garrisonians and attack them for abandoning the political process. He said that any black who did not support the Liberty Party was a “traitor to his race.” In the same 1842 speech, he also said that while violent revolution was not yet the answer to slavery, it might be at some point, previewing the more militant stance he was beginning to take.
National events forced Garnet to take a harder stand. The Supreme Court’s decision in Prigg v. Pennsylvania in 1842 announced the federal government’s support for slavecatchers. Although just months earlier he had said that the “time for a last stern struggle has not come,” Prigg v. Pennsylvania “was the proverbial straw that broke Garnet’s faith in nonviolence.” Garnet himself was a fugitive slave, and in his childhood the threat of recapture was very real; the Prigg decision hit close to home and no doubt riled old passions. From his pulpit, Garnet said that slavecatchers should be killed. A response to the Supreme Court that he coauthored agreed “with the sentiment of Patrick Henry and solemnly . . . [declared] that we will have Liberty, or we will have death.”
When Garnet began openly advocating violence, he was confronted by audiences who viewed violence as morally abhorrent. In 1843 he made his most important and widely-read statement of militant black rhetoric to explain himself and answer the charges against him. Garnet gave his “Address to the Slaves of the United States of America” to a national antislavery convention, answering the moral objections to violence and giving full expression to his militant ideology. Garnet began by briefly tracing the history of slavery from the shores of Africa to the plantations of the new nation, decrying the system of chattel slavery. “Succeeding generations inherited their chains, and millions have come from eternity into time, and have returned again to the world of spirits, cursed, and ruined by American Slavery.” Slaves were stripped of religion, while the masters had worked to destroy their minds “as much as possible, and every ray of light they have attempted to shut out from your minds.”
He then turned to the issue of what was to be done about slavery, specifically addressing moral qualms about violence. “ . . . Garnet met the moral objection in a most powerful way. He argued not that slaves were religiously permitted to revolt, but that they were religiously required to do so.” To the degradation of slavery, Garnet wrote, “it is sinful in the extreme for you to make voluntary submission.” All people were required to obey the will of God and to live Christian lives; slaves could not do this, and they were forced to obey a master other than God. Slaves therefore had a religious duty to cast off their white masters, using “every means both moral, intellectual, and physical that promise success.” With these words, “Garnet’s argument had transformed physical violence from cardinal sin to divinely ordained responsibility. The values of a religious movement were suddenly turned upside down.” It was also a matter of self-defense. Garnet wrote that “surely, heaven would frown upon the mean who would not resist such aggression [as slavery], even to death.”
Faced with the practical problems of a slave revolt succeeding, Garnet told his listeners and readers that the question was irrelevant. “You had far better all die—die immediately, than live slaves, and entail your wretchedness upon your posterity.” Invoking slaves’ “loving wives, heaving with untold agonies,” the cries of their children, “the torture and disgrace of [their] noble mothers,” Garnet asked them to approach their masters and demand their freedom. “If they then commence the work of death, they, and not you, will be responsible for the consequences. . . . If you would be free in this generation, here is your only hope. However much you and all of us may desire it, there is not much hope of Redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once—rather, die freemen, than live to be slaves.”
Despite Garnet’s fiery and inspiring rhetoric, his ideas would be impossible to implement in southern states where communication was tightly controlled. The convention at which Garnet delivered his address refused to endorse his appeal by a single vote. Garnet had argued that slavery was so evil that people were justified in killing and dying to overturn it. The convention, in refusing to adopt his appeal, had in effect said “that slavery was not that evil.” Garnet’s speech thus forced the bulk of the abolition movement into a moderate stance, with him and a few followers acting as the radicals. In time, the moderate wing would be able to contrast itself against Garnet’s radicals, and in comparison would be more acceptable to average citizens. As the Civil War approached, more and more blacks, including Frederick Douglass, who at the 1843 convention had voted against Garnet, began adopting his militant stance. White people, however, many of whom agreed that slavery were wrong but were uncommitted to abolition, began to feel the mounting pressure against slavery, and consequently joined the moderate camp which had largely lined up behind Garrison.
Garnet was praised by some after the speech, but, as might be expected, the response was largely negative, and he had emerged with “the reputation of being the most dangerous black man in the North,” if not the whole country. Like Garrison, in the following years Garnet spent his energy widely, calling for education programs, for blacks to move to rural areas and set up self-sufficient farms, and speaking out against alcoholism, segregation, and the Mexican War. During these years, Garnet turned to colonization as the answer to slavery, perhaps realizing that large-scale resistance was unlikely and futile.
Colonization for Garnet was the outgrowth of his nationalistic ideas, which were the result of his studies of ancient African civilizations. Unlike most other abolitionists by the 1840s, Garnet accepted colonization because he felt alienated in America, and he felt that his people needed a homeland. “I would rather see a man free in Liberia, than a slave in the United States,” he said. By the end of the decade, though, Garnet’s influence was on the wane, while Frederick Douglass’s star was in the ascendancy. Douglass was a moderate in terms of militant resistance, at least at that time, and like most abolitionists, he decried colonization as a plan to expel African Americans from their homeland to a continent on which they were strangers. For his support of colonization, Douglass called Garnet “an unprincipled man” who was even more of an enemy to the slaves than slaveholders were. Garnet spent the better part of the 1850s in Europe on speaking tours or serving as a missionary in Jamaica. By the time he returned to the U.S., he had been replaced by Douglass and many other young free African Americans, and his continued support for colonization, even after most whites had given up the idea, made him an outcast amongst abolitionists.
Prophets of Abolition
By that time, Garrison had transformed from an alienating figure to a legitimate prophet. He spent most of the 1840s railing in the Liberator about continuous concessions to slavery, the growing power of the South, and the unwillingness of Northerners to stand up against slavery. Nevertheless, he had almost no political influence because of his stance against the Constitution and the American government. By 1848 he relented enough to offer tacit support to the Free-Soil Party, since “their direction is the same as ours.” The events of the 1850s, however, seemed to confirm his opinion of politics, as one event and compromise after another was handed down from Washington in favor of slavery, culminating with the Dred Scott decision in 1857. Garrison’s point of view on slavery came to be mainstream, whereas his former friend Wendell Phillips’s calls for immediate voting rights, and Garnet’s continued support for colonization, represented the radical extremes—Phillips cherished an idea whose time had not yet come, while Garnet spoke out in favor of an idea whose time had long since passed.
By 1861, Garrison had become a lukewarm supporter of Lincoln, defending his tact even as other abolitionists attacked the president for not rushing emancipation. When secession came, Garrison abandoned his earlier arguments in which he had actually spoke in favor of disunion, perhaps because he sensed the imminent end of slavery in the Civil War. The abolition movement sidelined Garrison because they now considered him too conservative, in favor of Wendell Phillips, whom Garrison had worked with for close to thirty years, but who now broke with Garrison to cry for faster reform. When emancipation came in 1863, Garrison’s life seemed to wind down.
After the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, Garrison worked to abolish the numerous anti-slavery societies to which he belonged. He said that the new amendment made them anachronistic, but Phillips and his followers argued that the battle for black freedom had actually just begun. Garrison probably agreed with this view, but he had spent over thirty years in constant agitation against slavery and a myriad of other issues; his finances were in shambles and his health was failing. In May, 1865, he announced that he was leaving the American Antislavery Society, and many of his followers quit as well. The Liberator published its last issue on December 29, 1865, over thirty years after Garrison’s first fiery editorial. Garrison would live through Reconstruction, but out of the public eye. He died in 1879, and there was a day of mourning in Massachusetts, and services throughout Boston, where a mob had once threatened to kill him.
Garnet was mourned when he died as well, but by strangers in a foreign land. During the Civil War he encouraged the use of African American soldiers and eventually served as a chaplain to black troops. He also had occasion to advise Lincoln on the treatment of black troops. As he “approached the evening of life his attention was drawn to the land of his fathers. He longed to visit its shores and to see something of the empires and the type of leaders who, in Africa, were proving their metal. This feeling was, no doubt, due in part to a failure of the Negro American to recognize and fully appreciate the sterling worth of this man who had given forty years of his life to their uplift and advancement.” Even after the war, Garnet continued to encourage emigration to Africa, and he increasingly fell out of favor, especially with the passage of the Reconstruction amendments. The prominence of people like Garrison, Douglass, and Phillips, made it obvious that his opinions were no longer respected, and he yearned to put his efforts and intellect to good use elsewhere. Before leaving the United States for the last time in 1881, he said, “If I can just reach the land of my forefathers and with my feet press her soil I shall be content to die.” In that year, he was afforded the recognition of the U.S. government when he was appointed minister to Liberia, a fitting post considering his lifelong affinity for colonization. He died the following year, content, according to the conditions he had recently set. His funeral was attended by diplomatic officials he had not gotten to know and he was buried overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles from his home.
William Lloyd Garrison and Henry Highland Garnet were the leading representatives of their ideals. Garrison was the distillation of immediate and complete abolitionism, the pure product of an ideological chemistry experiment, free from all compromise. Because he was so aggressive in propagating that idea, he was, for most of his career, considered a radical, at the extreme edges of American thought. Many Southerners would have liked to have seen him dead; most Northerners did not know that he existed or did not bother to read his paper. But through his constant agitation, his latching onto immediate emancipation and never letting go, John Jay Chapman writes, with more than a little hyperbole, “he vitalized and permanently changed this nation as much as one man ever did the same for any nation in the history of the world.” If that is a bit of an overstatement, Garrison certainly became the conscience for a growing segment of the American population which was gradually becoming aware that slavery was wrong and needed to end. By the late 1850s, more and more Americans were coming around to see the country as Garrison did, as a land whose principles were compromised in an unholy alliance with slavery. This view seemed to be confirmed by the stronger Fugitive Slave Act, by the decisions coming out of the Supreme Court, and the compromises coming out of congress, which all sanctioned and even strengthened slavery. By then, he was “in electrical communication with an age over-charged with passion. His thought [was] understood immediately.” When he died, he was hailed as a hero who had had the courage to stand up to the slaveocracy, when seemingly no one else would.
If Garrison was “in electrical communication” with his age, Garnet was disconnected, though he was certainly “over-charged with passion.” That he spent his life at the fringes of the movement owed to the circumstances of his upbringing. He was a runaway slave whose family was hunted by slavecatchers; he was a student whose school was destroyed by a mob that ran him out of town; he was a traveler who was treated better in Europe than in his own country. He was out of tune with the wider American society, not through any fault of his own, but because he was from a subordinated class, and because events throughout his life had served to alienate him from the mainstream. When Garnet previewed the language of Malcolm X in urging freedom by “every means . . . that promise success,” it was his frustration at being a man without any rights, perpetually at odds with his country, that shone through. Yet Garnet’s threatening language resonates with truth and the prospect of martial glory over oppressive and anti-democratic forces, as it must have resonated with the slaves and former slaves who got wind of his address. “Frequently the prophet lives before his time,” W. M. Brewer wrote. “This may be said of Garnet, prior to 1850, when he was displaced by leaders who emphasized moral suasion.” In fact, Garnet’s promise that bloodshed was necessary to end slavery was fulfilled, though in a fashion he probably had not imagined: millions of white and black soldiers dressed in a common blue fighting to upset a confederacy that rested on the backs of four million slaves. “It is enough to say that Henry Highland Garnet created the idea which Frederick Douglass tempered and presented to the world in a more palliative and acceptable form. The truth of Garnet’s message, however, was vindicated in the Civil War which emancipated the American Negro slaves to whom Garnet recommended force in 1843.”
Garrison and Garnet both presented important ideas to an American public whose consciousness was just awakening to the evils of slavery and the perils of a powerful slaveocracy. Both were, at one time or another, considered radical. Garnet spoke for people like himself, slaves and the downtrodden who would like to strike back at their tormentors. This idea never appealed to the bulk of white Americans because of its apocalyptic prospects, but it would be resurrected a hundred years later by the likes of Malcolm X. Garrison offered up an idea much more palatable to white Americans and moderate blacks—the idea that reason and rhetoric could carry the day. Interestingly, Garrison’s in many arguments in many ways resemble remarks made by Martin Luther King, the foil of Malcolm X. Like King, Garrison insisted that immediate change was necessary, that multiple reforms could be tackled at once, and that violence was never an acceptable solution. That this ideological argument, most commonly associated with the 1960s, was raging in the 1830s and 1840s reveals a complicated and energetic panorama of antebellum America.
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