Monday, June 29, 2009

Review of `William Lloyd Garrison and The Humanitarian Reformers'--Part 3

(Following book review first appeared in the November 9, 1994 issue of the Lower East Side alternative weekly, Downtown. See below for parts 1 and 2.)

Although Garrison was white, William Lloyd Garrison and The Humanitarian Reformers author Russel Nye points out that “from the beginning the free Negro formed the core of the Liberator’s financial support, and until the day of his death its editor remained a Negro idol, nearly an object of worship.” The few hundred free African-Americans who subscribed to the Liberator in the early part of 1831 were apparently attracted by Garrison’s editorial support for the immediate, not the gradual, abolition of slavery and Garrison’s opposition to those abolitionists who believed that following their emancipation the ex-slaves of the South should be sent back to Africa to establish colonies like Liberia—instead of being integrated into U.S. society as equals. Yet, despite the support of predominantly African-American subscribers in Boston, Philadelphia and New York, “the early issues of the Liberator caused no great stir in Boston, or elsewhere” and “`his paper was received,’ Garrison said, with `suspicion and apathy,’ and he found it hard to pay rent…”

What enabled Garrison to turn the Liberator into a financially viable, although still low-circulation, weekly--and transformed both Garrison and his newspaper into nationally prominent symbols of militant abolitionism—was the August 1831 slave revolt which Nat Turner led—in which 52 whites were killed. Following the suppression of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion and the post-revolt lynching of over 120 slaves by the Southern planters, Garrison and his newspaper—which had only started publishing less than nine months before the rebellion—were apparently blamed by the Southern press for this 1831 slave revolt. As Nye notes:

“Turner was led, wrote the Tarborough, North Carolina Free Press, by `an incendiary paper, the Liberator, published in either Boston or Philadelphia by a white man, with the avowed purpose of exciting rebellion in the South.’ One by one Southern newspapers picked up the charge until the South was filled with clamor against Garrison.”

Paradoxically, as Nye also notes, “Garrison, by his own admission, had not a single subscriber south of the Potomac,’ and no Southern agents.”

Yet, because Garrison “did exchange with some 100 Southern editors, following contemporary journalist practice” and “Garrison’s prose lent itself admirably to juicy quotations,” the Southern press conveyed “the impression that Garrison represented a far larger influence in Northern antislavery circles than he did” and “the obscure reformer, toiling in a barren Boston loft, suddenly emerged as arch-symbol of antislavery extremism.”

As a result, “invitations to lecture” for Garrison “came in” from throughout the North, “particularly from Negro groups, and the Liberator’s fortunes improved” because “the attacks emanating from the South,” made Garrison appear to be “the outstanding figure in New England antislavery circles.” Ironically, despite his notorious media image in the South as being “the abolitionist who instigated the Nat Turner revolt,” Nye observes that “the fact was that Garrison was a nonresistant pacifist, opposed to violence in any form” who “had publicly censured David Walker’s incendiary pamphlet, An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World,” in 1829. (end of part 3)

(Downtown 11/9/94)

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