Coming To Terms With Garrison and Radicalism

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. I want my students to have to work for their identification and approval of Garrison.  It’s one thing to identify with a cause whose broader narrative we can trace to its conclusion and one that is overwhelmingly approved.  It colors our interpretation of Garrison’s words and actions.  At one point I asked my students how they respond to people today who espouse views that are deemed to be on the fringes of society.  How might we respond to seeing someone burn a copy of the Constitution in public?  We discussed the extent to which we are comfortable being confronted by someone who stands on the fringes of society against a practice that is approved by the overwhelming number of people and who does so with the firm conviction of possessing the truth.  Most of my students acknowledged that unless they happened to agree with the cause that the tendency would be to give them the back of the hand or even worse.

Why does this matter?  It’s essential that students explore this aspect of the issue because it takes us beyond a narrow identification/sympathy with Garrison.  Understanding our difficulty acknowledging radical thought in our own culture allows students to sympathize more closely with a general public that was forced to confront Garrison’s doctrines.  While students are appalled by how Garrison was treated and thought of by mainstream society they come to appreciate that their own responses to instances of radical thought/behavior places them squarely in their camp.

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8 comments… add one
  • Craig Nov 17, 2010 @ 19:13

    The owner of the ship on which my German ancestors arrived in America in 1855 was Moses Grinnell, a prominent and outspoken abolitionist. My understanding is that abolitionists as a group in large measure controlled the shipping industry at that time and reaped enormous profits and personal influence from it.

    Shipping interests in the 17th century enabled slave trading and facilitated the growth of slave labor as a social institution well into the 18th century. Ending slavery in the 19th century would not have been accomplished without cooperation, participation end eventually leadership from the same shipping interests. Maintaining the Union blockade during the Civil War must have represented an enormous financial burden for shipping magnates.

    Steam engines were developed in the middle of the 18th century, but it took more than a century to develop a propeller that would make steam power a practical alternative to reliance on ocean currents and prevailing winds. Shipbuilding, wooden ships powered by sail, enjoyed an enormous boom from 1820 until 1880, yet it was an era that knew its fate was sealed, just as now we know that our reliance on fossil fuels will eventually be a relic of the past.

    What ties, if any, did Garrison have to maritime commerce?

  • Dick Stanley Nov 17, 2010 @ 15:26

    Gary Gallagher recently said all Civil War era Americans were racists. Did William Lloyd somehow escape this designation, or did his abolition not extend to integration?

    • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2010 @ 16:21

      I think Gallagher was emphasizing the extent of racisim in America as opposed to making a blanket claim about every single individual.

  • JMRudy Nov 17, 2010 @ 8:19

    Garrison’s radicalism has never bothered me much, but more his odd combination of radical rejection of discussing slavery and it’s future within the American political system and the radical rejection he expresses throughout the 1850s of the right of the fugitive to violently resist capture and strike blows at his captors. That fundamental split over the propriety of violence in freeing human beings that occurs across the movement between Garrison and Douglass, and the odd pairing of moral stances the two have on violence and constitutional alleviation of slavery, has always puzzled me and has not been studied nearly enough.

    It pains me that “Garrisonians” have a name, but Douglass’ adherents have no real concrete name. It speaks to the broad spectrum of different philosophies within the Abolition movement that the general public tends to miss when we paint “the abolitionists” as doing this or that.

  • Craig Nov 16, 2010 @ 17:42

    My high school debate coach was also my 11th grade history teacher. The class included two or more of the teams that competed for the school in debate. The history teacher asked for volunteers to debate the issue of whether the American colonies should declare independence from Britain. My partner and I volunteered, but because we were the school’s top debate team, the number three team from the squad was given the choice of affirmative or negative. The number three team chose the affirmative and assumed they’d already won as history was on their side. When the smoke cleared at the end of the debate not a single hand was raised in support of the resolution to declare independence.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 16, 2010 @ 17:54

      Why am I not surprised that you were on the debate team. 🙂

  • Allen Gathman Nov 16, 2010 @ 12:42

    Sounds like an excellent class. It’s all too easy to anachronistically identify with the radicals of the 19th century without realizing just how dangerous and far out they would have appeared at the time. I hope your students appreciate what they’re getting.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 16, 2010 @ 14:49

      Thanks Allen. I do what I can.

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