(Following book review first appeared in the November 9, 1994 issue of the Lower East Side alternative weekly, Downtown.)
In pre-Civil War journalism history, William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, played a significant role. Penny press newspapers like James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald, had much larger circulations than Garrison’s Liberator, yet because Garrison utilized his newspaper and his journalistic skills to confront the nation’s greatest pre-Civil War moral issue—the continued enslavement of African-American people—his ultimate positive historical impact probably proved to be greater than Bennett’s.
William Lloyd Garrison and the Humanitarian Reformers by Russel B. Nye (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1955) describes the life of the militant abolitionist, from his economically humble beginnings in Newburyport, Massachusetts, through his early life in poverty, his work as a printer’s apprentice as a teenager and his pre-Liberator journalistic activity, on to the post-1831 years, when his editorship of the Liberator made him a prominent national figure.
Nye sees Garrison’s life and his Liberator newspaper as one more reflection of the spirit of humanitarian reform which attempted to perfect U.S. society, which Nye feels was a major characteristic of many of the people who lived in the United States during the 19th Century. In Nye’s view, the humanitarian reform impulse, which led Garrison to devote most of his life to the cause of abolitionism, as well as other human rights issues, flowed out of his strong religious faith:
“The central fact of Garrison’s life was his religious faith. The Bible was the only book he ever really read and his abolitionism itself spread directly from his belief that slavery violated God’s law.” (end of part 1)