William Lloyd Garrison (December 12, 1805 – May 24, 1879) was a prominent American abolitionist, journalist, suffragist, and social reformer.
He is best known as the editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, which he founded with Isaac Knapp in 1831 and published in Massachusetts until slavery was abolished by Constitutional amendment after the American Civil War.
He was one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He promoted “immediate emancipation” of slaves in the United States. In the 1870s, Garrison became a prominent voice for the woman suffrage movement.
Garrison was born on December 12, 1805, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, the son of immigrants from the British colony of New Brunswick, in present-day Canada. Under An Act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen, Abijah Garrison, a merchant sailing pilot and master, had obtained American papers and moved his family to Newburyport in 1806. The U.S. Embargo Act of 1807, intended to injure Great Britain, caused a decline in American commercial shipping.
The elder Garrison became unemployed and deserted the family in 1808. Garrison’s mother was Frances Maria Lloyd, reported to have been tall, charming, and of a strong religious character. She started referring to their son William as Lloyd, his middle name, to preserve her family name. She died in 1823, in the town of Springfield, Massachusetts.
Garrison sold home-made lemonade and candy as a youth, and also delivered wood to help support the family. In 1818, at 13, Garrison began working as an apprentice compositor for the Newburyport Herald. He soon began writing articles, often under the pseudonym Aristides.
Aristides was an Athenian statesman and general nicknamed “the Just.” After his apprenticeship ended, Garrison and a young printer named Isaac Knapp bought their own newspaper in 1826, the short-lived Free Press. One of their regular contributors was poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier.
In this early work as a small town newspaper writer, Garrison acquired skills he would later use as a nationally known writer, speaker and newspaper publisher. In 1828, he was appointed editor of the National Philanthropist in Boston, Massachusetts, the first American journal to promote legally-mandated temperance.
At the age of 25, Garrison joined the anti-slavery movement, later crediting the 1826 book of Presbyterian Reverend John Rankin, Letters on Slavery, for attracting him to the cause.
For a brief time he became associated with the American Colonization Society, an organization that promoted the resettlement of free blacks to a territory (now known as Liberia) on the west coast of Africa. Although some members of the society encouraged granting freedom to slaves, others considered relocation a means to reduce the number of already free blacks in the United States.
Southern members thought reducing the threat of free blacks in society would help preserve the institution of slavery. By late 1829–1830, “Garrison rejected colonization, publicly apologized for his error, and then, as was typical of him, he censured all who were committed to it.”
Garrison spent more time at home with his family. He wrote weekly letters to his children and cared for his increasingly ill wife, Helen. She had suffered a small stroke on December 30, 1863, and was increasingly confined to the house.
Helen died on January 25, 1876, after a severe cold worsened into pneumonia. A quiet funeral was held in the Garrison home. Garrison, overcome with grief and confined to his bedroom with a fever and severe bronchitis, was unable to join the service. Wendell Phillips gave a eulogy and many of Garrison’s old abolitionist friends joined him upstairs to offer their private condolences.
Garrison recovered slowly from the loss of his wife and began to attend Spiritualist circles in the hope of communicating with Helen. Garrison last visited England in 1877, where he met with George Thompson and other longtime friends from the British abolitionist movement.
Suffering from kidney disease, Garrison continued to weaken during April 1879. He moved to New York to live with his daughter Fanny’s family. In late May, his condition worsened, and his five surviving children rushed to join him. Fanny asked if he would enjoy singing some hymns. Although he was unable to sing, his children sang favorite hymns while he beat time with his hands and feet. On May 24, 1879, Garrison lost consciousness and died just before midnight.
Garrison was buried in the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood on May 28, 1879. At the public memorial service, eulogies were given by Theodore Dwight Weld and Wendell Phillips. Eight abolitionist friends, both white and black, served as his pallbearers.
Flags were flown at half-staff all across Boston. Frederick Douglass, then employed as a United States Marshal, spoke in memory of Garrison at a memorial service in a church in Washington, D.C., saying, “It was the glory of this man that he could stand alone with the truth, and calmly await the result.”
Garrison’s namesake son, William Lloyd Garrison (1838–1909), was a prominent advocate of the single tax, free trade, woman’s suffrage, and of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. His second son, Wendell Phillips Garrison (1840–1907), was literary editor of the The Nation from 1865 to 1906.
Two other sons (George Thompson Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, his biographer and named after abolitionist Francis Jackson) and a daughter, Helen Frances Garrison (who married Henry Villard), survived him. Fanny’s son Oswald Garrison Villard became a prominent journalist and a founding member of the NAACP.