This week my AP classes are tackling the various reform movements of the Antebellum Period. It should come as no surprise that we spend a great deal of time on the Abolitionist Movement and William Lloyd Garrison in particular. This morning I began class with a fairly vague question to get the ball rolling that asked students to assess Garrison’s philosophy and goals. Their responses are fairly typical and express a collective belief that Garrison ought to be admired for his perseverance and that his goals were laudable. There is nothing necessarily wrong with such a response, but we should not pass up the opportunity to work to understand Garrison’s place both within the broader anti-slavery community and the society as a whole. We do this by first sketching out the goals of the American Colonization Society, which united a broad swath of the population as well as notable political figures from around the country. I then asked students to think about the implications of their goals of gradual abolition followed by colonization; what do these goals tell us about how Americans viewed slavery and race. Most of the students were able to see that the program was intended to cause the least amount of harm to slaveowners while colonization suggests that many Americans were unable to imagine a racially integrated society. This is the context in which to understand Garrison:
On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but 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.
This broader picture allows students to move beyond their own narrow interpretation of Garrison’s words and actions to a clearer understanding of the extent to which his understanding of race challenged the very foundations of American society. This move from the personal to the historical is the bread and butter of historical inquiry and it is important, but it should not constitute the end of any classroom discussion about Garrison and the radical abolitionists. Continue reading →