All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery

By Symington, Timothy | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery


Symington, Timothy, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery, St. Martin's Griffin, New York, 1998.

William Lloyd Garrison, often simply referred to as the Editor, had a much more significant historical role than most people realize. He was the founder and editor of the abolitionist paper The Liberator, and he was a central figure in early nineteenth century US history. Henry Mayer succeeds in giving Garrison his due in an exhaustively detailed work. This biography of Garrison covers not only his entire life, but also the life of the abolition movement. Mayer focuses on Garrison's idealism, how it developed within a religious upbringing to how it directed his actions throughout his life.

Garrison, raised by his mother, fell into printing as an occupation, which happened to be quite ideal for his abilities. He was swept up in the revival movements of the 1820s and soon developed a passionate hatred towards slavery and a sense of bitterness towards the slave owners. Garrison, however, was unlike other social reformers: his convictions were pure and, unfortunately for him and others, uncompromising. Garrison's only compromise was a lapse of judgment when he advocated gradual emancipation in a speech. He spent a great deal of time and energy recanting that speech, vowing to be an uncompromising crusader.

A great deal of Garrison's early efforts regarding slavery is devoted towards discrediting the American Colonization Society, which sought to send freed negroes to a colony in Africa. The rationale to this was the belief that the races could not co-exist in the United States. Garrison's own publication, Thoughts on African Colonization, became as widely read as David Walker's Appeal, and it became required reading for the immediatists (seeking immediate abolition). Not only was Garrison the most significant abolitionist of the nineteenth century, he was one of the first to advocate complete civil rights for all negroes. …

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