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Garrison And His "Liberator"(183l) By Goldwin Smith


Emancipation immediate, unconditional, and without compensation—such was the platform on which Garrison had now taken his stand, and such were the doctrines which the Liberator, as soon as it got fairly under way, began to preach. The first article followed upon the belief in the utter wrongfulness and sinfulness of slavery, which was the necessary basis of the moral and religious movement, and in grasping which Garrison had fasped the sole and certain assurance of victory. If man could have no property in man, he could no more have property for a day than forever. The slave was at once entitled to his freedom; he was entitled to set himself free if he could by flight or by insurrection. If the slaves who were shipped in Mr. Todd's vessel had risen upon the crew, tumbled into the hold or even killed those who resisted, and carried the vessel into a free part, they would have been doing right in the eyes erg all but the slave owner and his friends. For the same reason it was logical to protest against any condition not imposed in the interest of the slave. But conditions might be imposed in the slave's interest, to smooth and safeguard a transition which no reasonable man could believe to be free from peril. The policy of provisional apprenticeship was adopted for that purpose by the British Parliament, and tho without practical success, certainly without moral wrong.

But in refusing to sanction compensation to the slave-owner, Garrison would surely have gone astray. What is or is not property in the eye of morality, morality must decide. What is or is not property in a particular community is decided by the law of that community. The law of the American community had sanctioned the holding of property in slaves, and tho the slave was not bound by that law the community itself was. Men had been induced to invest their money in slaves under the guarantee of the public faith, and emancipation without compensation, so far as the republic was concerned, would have been breach of faith and robbery. The slave owner had sinned no more in holding slaves than the State had sinned in sanctioning his possession, and if a sacrifice was to be made to public morality, equity demanded that it should be made by all alike.

The British legislature, overriding extremist proposals, acted upon this principle; and it did right. What the conscience of the individual slave owner might dictate to him was another affair. To declare that there should be no compensation, and thus to threaten a powerful body of proprietors with beggary, would have been to make the conflict internecine. After the Civil War it was sorrowfully recalled that the price of the slaves would have been about six hundred millions, which would have been a cheap redemption from a struggle which cost eight thousand millions of dollars, besides the blood and havoc. If the Liberator had been instrumental in preventing such a settlement a dark shade of responsibility would rest upon its pages.

But it is not likely that the settlement ever could have taken place. Not the commercial interest alone of the slave-owner, but his political ambition and his social pride were bound up with the institution. If he had been willing to part with his crops of cotton and tobacco, he would not have been willing to part with his aristocracy. Nor would it have been easy, when the State had paid its money, to enforce the real fulfillment of the bargain. Even now, when the South has been humbled by defeat, it is not easy to make her obey the law. Nothing more than the substitution of serfage for slavery would probably have been the result. Any such scheme, however, would scarcely have been feasible for a government like that of the American republic. The redemption of the slaves in the West Indies had been conceived and carried into effect by the imperial government and Parliament, acting upon the dependencies with autocratic power. A czar conceived and carried into ef fect the emancipation of the serfs in Russia But a measure of this kind could hardly have been conceived, much less could it have been carried into effect, amid the fluctuations of popular suffrage and the distractions of political party. It is probable that the conflict was really irrepressible, and doomed to end either in separation or civil war.

The salutatory of the Liberator avowed that its editor meant to speak out without restraint. "I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. 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 hands 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 promise was amply kept. Some of Garrison's best friends, and of the best friends of his cause, complained of the severity of his language, and their complaint can not be set aside as unfounded. Railing accusations are a mistake, even when the delinquent is Satanic. Unmeasured and indiscriminate language can never be justified. Washington had inherited an evil kind of property and an imperfect morality in connection with it; but no one could have called him a manstealer; and there were still owners of slaves to whom the name as little belonged. Citations of the controversial invective of Luther and Milton will avail us nothing; the age of Luther and Mi!ton was in that respect uncivilized. A youth dealing with a subject on which his feelings are excited is sure to be unmeasured.

However, it was to the conscience of the nation that Garrison was appealing; and an appeal to conscience is unavoidably severe. Nothing will warrant the appeal but that which necessitates severity. The voice of conscience herself within us is severe. In answer to the clergymen who shrank from him, or protest to shrink from him, on account of the violence of his language, Garrison might have pointed, not only to passages in the Hebrew prophets, but to passages in the discourses of Christ. He might have reminded them of the language in which they were themselves, every Sunday in the pulpit, warning men to turn from every sin but slavery. With no small force he pleaded that he had icebergs of indifference around him, and it would take a good deal of fire in himself to melt them. To hate and denounce the sin either in the abstract or as that of a class or community is not to hate or denounce the individual sinner. To an individual slave-owner who had shown any disposition to hear him, Garrison would have been all courtesy and kindness. We may be sure that he would have clasped at once to his heart any slave owner who had repented. Having to use his own figure, taken in his hand the trumpet of God, he resolved to blow a strong blast. He could not believe that there was a sin without a sinner, nor could he separate the sinner from the sin. There was much wrath but no venom in the man. If there had been venom in him it would have belied his countenance and deportment. Miss Martineau, not an uncritical observer, was profoundly imprest with the saint-like expression and the sweetness of his manner. In private and in his family he was all gentleness and affection. Let it be said, too, that he set a noble example to controversial editors in his fair treatment of his opponents. Not only did he always give insertion to their replies, but he copied their criticisms from other journals into his own. Fighting for freedom of discussion, he was ever loyal to his own principle.

What is certain is that the Liberator, in spite of the smallness of its circulation, which was hardly enough to keep it alive, soon told. The South was moved to its center. The editorials probably would not have caused much alarm, as the slaves could not read. What was likely to cause more alarm was the frontispiece, which spoke plainly enough to the slave's eye. It represented an auction at which "slaves, horses, and other cattle" were being offered for sale, and a whipping post at which a slave was being flogged. In the background was the Capitol at Washington, with a flag inscribed "Liberty" floating over the dome. There might have been added the motto of Virginia, Sic semper tyrannis and perhaps some extracts from the republican orations with which the South was celebrating the victory of French liberty over Charles X.

On seeing the Liberator the realm of slavery bestirred itself. A Vigilance Association took the matter in hand. First canoe fiery and bloodthirsty editorials; then anonymous threats; then attempts by legal enactment to prevent the circulation of the Liberator at the South. The Grand Jury of North Carolina found a true bill against Garrison for the circulation of a paper of seditious tendency, the penalty for which was whipping and imprisonment for the first offense, and death without benefit of clergy for the second. The General Assembly of Georgia offered a reward of five thousand dollars to any one who, under the laws of that State, should arrest the editor of the Liberator, bring him to trial, and prosecute him to conviction. The South reproached Boston with allowing a battery to be planted on her soil against the ramparts of Southern institutions.

Boston felt the reproach, and showed that she would gladly have supprest the incendiary print and perhaps have delivered up its editor; but the law was against her, and the mass of the people, tho wavering in their allegiance to morality on the question of slavery, were still loyal to freedom of opinion. When a Southern Governor appealed to the Mayor of Boston to take proceedings, the Mayor of Boston could only shake his head and assure his Southern friend that Garrison's paper was of little account. The reward offered by the General Assembly of Georgia looked very like an incitement to kidnapping. Justice to the South requires it to be said that nothing of the kind was ever attempted, nor was the hand of a Southern government visible in any outrage committed against Abolitionists at the North, tho individual Southerners might take part, and the spirit of the Southern fire-eater was always there.