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On 29 December 2015, we will mark the 150th anniversary of a strangely ambivalent moment in the history of the epic struggle to abolish slavery in the United States. On that day, William Lloyd Garrison ceased publication of the The Liberator, the pre-eminent abolitionist newspaper that he had printed in Boston for 35 years. Garrison chose to end the weekly with its 1803rd number, the final issue for 1865, to coincide with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution—the legal end of slavery in the United States. It turned out to be a close-run thing; the 13th Amendment was not ratified by the requisite number of states until 6 December, or formally proclaimed to the nation until 18 December 1865. The final issue of Garrison's Liberator, dated 29 December 1865, exists in two editions, the first of which is featured here.
Born in 1805 in Newburyport, Massachusetts, William Lloyd Garrison grew up in a broken home and was apprenticed to a local newspaper printer when he was 15. After stints as a newspaper editor in Newburyport, Boston, Bennington (Vermont), and Baltimore, Garrison returned to Boston where, with his partner Isaac Knapp, he launched The Liberator on 1 January 1831. Garrison already was well known as a fiery public advocate of a range of moral reforms, but none as strong and controversial as his support for immediate abolition. In his famous opening editorial for the first issue of The Liberator he wrote:
… Urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.
The years that followed were extraordinarily eventful. Opposition to the antislavery movement was so strong in Boston that in October 1835, when Garrison attempted to address the Female Anti-Slavery Society, he was mobbed and almost lynched. At first, he was largely dependent on Boston's African American community for financial support for The Liberator, but he persevered and from small beginnings his newspaper became nationally important. The Liberator became the vehicle through which Garrison could attack a range of American institutions that he saw as corrupted by slavery including organized religion and state and federal government. He saw the U.S. Constitution as a "covenant with death" that protected slavery and argued for northern secession from the slaveholding south. In addition to editing The Liberator each week—often providing text and, at first, setting the type himself—Garrison was an active public speaker and a founder and officer of regional and national antislavery organizations including the American Anti-Slavery Society. Non-participation in politics, anti-sectarianism (his opponents called it atheism), women's rights, and non-resistance (pacifism) all became tenets of "Garrisonian" abolitionism.
Although Garrison was only 60 in 1865, he was worn out from a lifetime of continuous labor and political struggle. He returned from a six-week lecture tour of the Midwest early in December 1865 and turned to preparing the last issues of The Liberator for the press since the abolitionist crusade had ended in victory. He was opposed by some of his oldest friends and closest allies including Wendell Phillips, a fellow antislavery orator and social reformer who had been one of The Liberator's most reliable financial backers Garrison, who had named a son for Phillips, had broken with his old friend the previous May at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. With ratification of the 13th amendment underway, Garrison had attempted to disband the organization that he had founded, but was defeated by Phillips and his supporters. Nevertheless, Phillips could not prevent the termination of The Liberator. Even after Garrison and Phillips divided over whether, with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the work of the abolitionists really was finished, Phillips declared, "I have never uttered an anti-slavery word which I do not owe to his [Garrison's] inspiration. I have never done an anti-slavery act of which the primary merit was not his."
The last issue of The Liberator is, perhaps, most remarkable for how unremarkable much of the information contained in it was: except for letters of congratulation and praise from old comrades and faithful supporters including Lydia Maria Child, Samuel E. Sewall, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and notices of its impending demise that had appeared in other sympathetic newspapers, the pages of the last number do not differ in any dramatic way from earlier issues. Over the years, the format of the paper had increased dramatically in size and the masthead had undergone a number of changes, but the reform agenda of the paper, centered on immediate abolition, had remained constant. The closing campaigns of the Civil War had witnessed great victories for the antislavery cause, but victories won at great cost—and not without personal anguish for Garrison, a sincere pacifist.
Garrison set much of the type for the last issue by hand exactly as he had done 35 years earlier when The Liberator began, but also prepared a "Valedictory" that is printed on the second page, together with a prefatory "Salutatory." He was extremely gracious in his praise for the cadre of volunteer editors, printers, and editorial assistants, and "agents," including members of his family, who, together with a group of like-minded financial angels including Wendell Phillips had kept The Liberator going week-after-week, year-after-year. The last page of the final issue ends with a poignant note: a small advertisement indicating that printing type and all the other tools and equipment necessary for a newspaper now were available for sale at The Liberator office.
Perhaps in the rush to get the last number to the press, Garrison failed to thank one of his most faithful supporters, the Rev. Samuel May, Jr., whose own tribute to Garrison had appeared in the 22 December issue. Garrison repaired the oversight and took the opportunity to add one more public letter to the paper by resetting and reprinting the third and fourth pages by publishing a second edition of the last issue. He deleted and compressed advertisements in order to make space for profuse thanks to May on page 3, and also to reprint a long letter from William C. Nell, one of his strongest advocates in the Boston African American community on page 4. Nell, who also was a Boston printer, had published his "Farewell to The Liberator," dated to mark the 30th anniversary of the mob attack on Garrison in October 1835, as a printed broadsheet. Now, in essence, Garrison gave him the last word. Nell vividly illustrated "the wonderful progress of that cause which the Liberator was established to espouse" by describing the bitter early struggles of the paper and the abolitionist movement in Boston, ending his recollection:
With a heart overflowing with gratitude for your life-long services in the cause of those with whom I am identified by complexion and condition,
Ever fraternally yours,
WILLIAM C. NELL
No sooner had the terminal issue of The Liberator appeared than Garrison wrote a New Year's greeting to Wendell Phillips, thanking him for his many kindnesses over many years: "May our friendship be as perpetual as sun, moon, and stars," he wrote, "but without their occasional obscuration!"
Garrison lived on until 1879, celebrated as the "preeminent agitator of the century," but without the platform provided by The Liberator, admired—even venerated—but less often heard. When he died in 1879, Massachusetts Governor Thomas Talbot declared a day of mourning. Lucy Stone and John Greenleaf Whittier spoke at the funeral; the pallbearers included Lewis Hayden, Samuel E. Sewall, and Wendell Phillips—the last survivors of Boston's abolitionist vanguard.
In 1912, William Lloyd Garrison's son, Francis Jackson, completed a task that had taken "nearly two-thirds of a long and busy life" to complete, an extra-illustrated edition of the biography of his father, William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879: The Story of His Life, which he and his brother, Wendell Phillips Garrison, had published between 1885 and 1889. In 1916, Francis Garrison donated the extra-illustrated volumes and Portraits of American Abolitionists, the hundreds of additional engraved and photogravure portraits he had collected, to the Massachusetts Historical Society. The collection is remarkable for its breadth—it even includes portraits of pro-slavery activists—but is representative of its time: there are relatively few images of African Americans and women abolitionists are under-represented. "One characteristic," Frank Garrison wrote, "which I think must impress everyone who carefully studies the faces of the anti-slavery host in this collection is the almost invariable firmness of the mouth."
Garrison, Francis Jackson and Wendell Phillips Garrison. William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879: The Story of His Life. New York: the Century Company, 1885-1889. 4 vols.
The extensive shoulder notes giving volume and page numbers to The Liberator and other sources make these volumes an annotated index of Garrison's writings.
Garrison, William Lloyd. The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison. Ed. by Walter M. Merrill and Louis Ruchames. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981. 6 vols.
Mayer, Henry. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Nell, William Cooper. William Cooper Nell: Nineteenth-Century African American Abolitionist, Historian, Integrationist. Selected Writings From 1832-1874. Ed. by Dorothy Porter Wesley and Constance Porter Uzelac. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 2002.
William Lloyd Garrison at Two Hundred. Ed. by James B. Stewart. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.