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William Lloyd Garrison
William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist, journalist, and editor of The Liberator LCCN2017660623 (cropped).jpg
Garrison c. 1870
Born (1805-12-10)December 10, 1805
Died May 24, 1879(1879-05-24) (aged 73)
Occupation Abolitionist, journalist
Known for Editing The Liberator
Political party Republican
Helen Eliza Benson Garrison
(m. 1834; died 1876)
Children 5
William Lloyd Garrison signature.svg

William Lloyd Garrison (December 10, 1805 – May 24, 1879) was a prominent American Christian, abolitionist, journalist, suffragist, and social reformer. He is best known for his widely read antislavery newspaper The Liberator, which he founded in 1831 and published in Boston until slavery in the United States was abolished by constitutional amendment in 1865. He was one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society and promoted immediate and uncompensated emancipation of slaves in the United States.

Early life and education

Nathaniel Jocelyn - William Lloyd Garrison - NPG.96.102 - National Portrait Gallery
Portrait of Garrison by Nathaniel Jocelyn, 1833

Garrison was born on December 10, 1805, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He was the son of immigrants from the British colony of New Brunswick, in present-day Canada. Under An Act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen, his father Abijah Garrison, a merchant-sailing pilot and master, had obtained American papers and moved his family to Newburyport in 1806. The elder Garrison became unemployed and deserted the family in 1808. Garrison's mother was Frances Maria Lloyd, reported to have been tall, charming, and of a strong religious character. She started referring to their son William as Lloyd, his middle name, to preserve her family name; he later printed his name as "Wm. Lloyd". She died in 1823, in the city of Baltimore, Maryland.

Garrison sold homemade lemonade and candy as a youth, and also delivered wood to help support the family. In 1818, at 13, Garrison began working as an apprentice compositor for the Newburyport Herald. He soon began writing articles, often under the pseudonym Aristides. (Aristides was an Athenian statesman and general, nicknamed "the Just".)

After his apprenticeship ended, Garrison became the sole owner, editor, and printer of the Newburyport Free Press, acquiring the rights from his friend Isaac Knapp, who had also apprenticed at the Herald. One of their regular contributors was poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier. In this early work as a small-town newspaper writer, Garrison acquired skills he would later use as a nationally known writer, speaker, and newspaper publisher. In 1828, he was appointed editor of the National Philanthropist in Boston, Massachusetts, the first American journal to promote legally-mandated temperance.

He became involved in the anti-slavery movement in the 1820s. Garrison co-founded The Liberator and in 1832 he organized out of its readers the New-England Anti-Slavery Society. This society expanded into the American Anti-Slavery Society, which advocated for the immediate abolition of slavery.



At the age of 25, Garrison joined the anti-slavery movement. For a brief time, he became associated with the American Colonization Society, an organization that promoted the "resettlement" of free blacks to a territory (now known as Liberia) on the west coast of Africa. By late 1829–1830, "Garrison rejected colonization, publicly apologized for his error, and then, as was typical of him, he censured all who were committed to it." He stated that this opinion was shaped by fellow abolitionist William J. Watkins, a Black educator and anti-colonizationist.

Genius of Universal Emancipation

William Lloyd Garrison portrait
Portrait of William Lloyd Garrison in Century Magazine

In 1829, Garrison began writing for and became co-editor with Benjamin Lundy of the Quaker newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation, published at that time in Baltimore, Maryland. While working for the Genius, he became convinced of the need to demand immediate and complete emancipation. Lundy and Garrison continued to work together on the paper despite their differing views. Each signed his editorials.

Garrison introduced "The Black List," a column devoted to printing short reports of "the barbarities of slavery – kidnappings, whippings, murders." For instance, Garrison reported that Francis Todd, a shipper from Garrison's home town of Newburyport, Massachusetts, was involved in the domestic slave trade, and that he had recently had slaves shipped from Baltimore to New Orleans in the coastwise trade on his ship the Francis. (This was completely legal. An expanded domestic trade, "breeding" slaves in Maryland and Virginia for shipment south, replaced the importation of African slaves, prohibited in 1808; see Slavery in the United States#Slave trade.)

Todd filed a suit for libel in Maryland against both Garrison and Lundy; he thought to gain support from pro-slavery courts. The state of Maryland also brought criminal charges against Garrison, quickly finding him guilty and ordering him to pay a fine of $50 and court costs. (Charges against Lundy were dropped because he had been traveling when the story was printed.) Garrison refused to pay the fine and was sentenced to a jail term of six months. He was released after seven weeks when the anti-slavery philanthropist Arthur Tappan paid his fine. Garrison decided to leave Maryland, and he and Lundy amicably parted ways.

The Liberator

In 1831, Garrison returned to New England, where he co-founded a weekly anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, with his friend Isaac Knapp.

In 1834 it had two thousand subscribers, three-fourths of whom were black people. The newspaper was distributed free of charge to state legislators, governor's mansions, Congress, and the White House. Although Garrison rejected violence as a means for ending slavery, his critics saw him as a dangerous fanatic because he demanded immediate and total emancipation, without compensation to the slave owners. A North Carolina grand jury indicted Garrison for distributing incendiary material, and the Georgia Legislature offered a $5,000 reward (equivalent to $146,567 in 2022) for his capture and conveyance to the state for trial.

Knapp parted from The Liberator in 1840. The Liberator gradually gained a large following in the Northern states. It printed or reprinted many reports, letters, and news stories, serving as a type of community bulletin board for the abolition movement. By 1861 it had subscribers across the North, as well as in England, Scotland, and Canada. After the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment, Garrison published the last issue (number 1,820) on December 29, 1865.

Helen Eliza Benson Garrison
Portrait of Garrison's wife, Helen Eliza Benson Garrison

American Anti-Slavery Society

In addition to publishing The Liberator, Garrison spearheaded the organization of a new movement to demand the total abolition of slavery in the United States. By January 1832, he had attracted enough followers to organize the New-England Anti-Slavery Society which, by the following summer, had dozens of affiliates and several thousand members. In December 1833, abolitionists from ten states founded the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS). Many affiliates were organized by women who responded to Garrison's appeals for women to take an active part in the abolition movement. The largest of these was the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, which raised funds to support The Liberator, publish anti-slavery pamphlets, and conduct anti-slavery petition drives.

The purpose of the American Anti-Slavery Society was the conversion of all Americans to the philosophy that "Slaveholding is a heinous crime in the sight of God" and that "duty, safety, and best interests of all concerned, require its immediate abandonment without expatriation."

The threat posed by anti-slavery organizations and their activity drew violent reactions from slave interests in both the Southern and Northern states. Healthy bounties were offered in Southern states for the capture of Garrison, "dead or alive".

The woman question and division

Anne Whitney, William Lloyd Garrison
Anne Whitney, William Lloyd Garrison, 1879, Massachusetts Historical Society

Garrison also emerged as a leading advocate of women's rights, which prompted a split in the abolitionist community. In the 1870s, Garrison became a prominent voice for the women's suffrage movement.

Garrison took a leading role in the May 30, 1850, meeting that called the first National Woman's Rights Convention, saying in his address to that meeting that the new movement should make securing the ballot to women its primary goal. At the national convention held in Worcester the following October, Garrison was appointed to the National Woman's Rights Central Committee, which served as the movement's executive committee.

After abolition

After the United States abolished slavery, Garrison announced in May 1865 that he would resign the presidency of the American Anti-Slavery Society and offered a resolution declaring victory in the struggle against slavery and dissolving the society.

After his withdrawal from AAS and ending The Liberator, Garrison continued to participate in public reform movements. He supported the causes of civil rights for blacks and woman's rights, particularly the campaign for suffrage. He contributed columns on Reconstruction and civil rights for The Independent and The Boston Journal.

In 1870, he became an associate editor of the women's suffrage newspaper, the Woman's Journal, along with Mary Livermore, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Lucy Stone, and Henry B. Blackwell. He served as president of both the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association. He was a major figure in New England's woman suffrage campaigns during the 1870s.

Personal life

On September 4, 1834, Garrison married Helen Eliza Benson (1811–1876), the daughter of a retired abolitionist merchant. The couple had five sons and two daughters, of whom a son and a daughter died as children.

William Lloyd Garrison, engraving from 1879 newspaper

Later life and death

Mr. Wm. Lloyd Garrison - DPLA - 3767a7d663a98924d1fcad8ac7f613aa (page 1)
Mr. Wm. Lloyd Garrison, [c. 1859–1870]. Carte de Visite Collection, Boston Public Library

Garrison spent more time at home with his family. He wrote weekly letters to his children and cared for his increasingly ill wife, Helen. She had suffered a small stroke on December 30, 1863, and was increasingly confined to the house. Helen died on January 25, 1876, after a severe cold worsened into pneumonia. A quiet funeral was held in the Garrison home. Garrison, overcome with grief and confined to his bedroom with a fever and severe bronchitis, was unable to join the service. Wendell Phillips gave a eulogy and many of Garrison's old abolitionist friends joined him upstairs to offer their private condolences.

Garrison recovered slowly from the loss of his wife and began to attend Spiritualist circles in the hope of communicating with Helen. Garrison last visited England in 1877, where he met with George Thompson and other longtime friends from the British abolitionist movement.

Grave of William Lloyd Garrison

Suffering from kidney disease, Garrison continued to weaken during April 1879. He moved to New York to live with his daughter Fanny's family. In late May, his condition worsened, and his five surviving children rushed to join him. Fanny asked if he would enjoy singing some hymns. Although he was unable to sing, his children sang favorite hymns while he beat time with his hands and feet. On May 24, 1879, Garrison lost consciousness and died just before midnight.

Garrison was buried in the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood on May 28, 1879. At the public memorial service, eulogies were given by Theodore Dwight Weld and Wendell Phillips. Eight abolitionist friends, both white and black, served as his pallbearers. Flags were flown at half-staff all across Boston. Frederick Douglass, then employed as a United States Marshal, spoke in memory of Garrison at a memorial service in a church in Washington, D.C., saying, "It was the glory of this man that he could stand alone with the truth, and calmly await the result."

Garrison's namesake son, William Lloyd Garrison, Jr. (1838–1909), was a prominent advocate of the single tax, free trade, women's suffrage, and of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. His third son, Wendell Phillips Garrison (1840–1907), was literary editor of The Nation from 1865 to 1906. Two other sons (George Thompson Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, his biographer and named after abolitionist Francis Jackson) and a daughter, Helen Frances Garrison (who married Henry Villard), survived him. Fanny's son Oswald Garrison Villard became a prominent journalist, a founding member of the NAACP, and wrote an important biography of the abolitionist John Brown.


William Lloyd Garrison by Olin Levi Warner, Boston, MA - IMG 5448
Memorial to Garrison on the mall of Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

Leo Tolstoy was greatly influenced by the works of Garrison and his contemporary Adin Ballou, as their writings on Christian anarchism aligned with Tolstoy's burgeoning theo-political ideology. Along with Tolstoy publishing a short biography of Garrison in 1904, he frequently cited Garrison and his works in his non-fiction texts like The Kingdom of God Is Within You. In a 2018 publication, American philosopher and anarchist Crispin Sartwell wrote that the works by Garrison and his other Christian anarchist contemporaries like Ballou directly influenced Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., as well.


  • Boston installed a memorial to Garrison on the mall of Commonwealth Avenue.
  • In December 2005, to honor Garrison's 200th birthday, his descendants gathered in Boston for the first family reunion in about a century. They discussed the legacy and influence of their most notable family member.
  • A shared-use path along the John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge and Interstate 95 between Newburyport and Amesbury, Massachusetts, was named in honor of Garrison. The 2-mile trail opened in 2018 after the new bridge was completed.

See also

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