Book review: an abolitionist hero shows power of revolutionary press

Editor’s note: January 1 marks the anniversary of the day in 1831 when The Liberator [anti-slavery] newspaper began publishing in Boston. This book review was published in the peoplestribune.org in June, 1999.

Napoleon once said that the way to learn the art of war is to study the lives of the great commanders. The same principle applies to the art of propaganda. Those who seek to stir society’s conscience today should study the work of the propagandists of the past. A new biography of the newspaper editor who launched a crusade against slavery is a good place to start.

“All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery,” by historian Henry Mayer, recounts how an obscure New England boy grew into America’s leading opponent of slavery – and, in the process, shook this country out of its moral lethargy.

Mayer’s richly detailed study fills a void; it is the first full-length biography of William Lloyd Garrison in 30 years. The title of “All on Fire” comes from the sharp response that the often-impassioned Garrison gave to a friend who begged him to moderate his tone – “I have need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt.”

As Mayer shows, Garrison combined a deep religious faith and intense moral outrage at slavery with some very practical skills. Unlike some abolitionists, Garrison did not hail from the elite. Garrison’s maternal grandparents came to the New World as indentured servants. Garrison himself was born into a poor family in 1805 and became a printer’s apprentice almost as soon as he became a teen-ager. He developed into an expert compositor and editor, deftly employing those skills to appeal to the reading public’s conscience.
For more than three decades, Garrison edited The Liberator, a fiery newspaper dedicated to exposing the slave system and anyone and everyone who collaborated with it. Its first edition appeared on January 1, 1831, issued from a Boston printing office in the shadow of the Bunker Hill Monument. Mayer describes its first editorial this way:

“The Liberator, [Garrison] promised, would make slaveholders and their apologists tremble. He would redeem the nation’s patriotic creed by making ‘every statue leap from its pedestal’ and rouse the apathetic with a trumpet call that would ‘hasten the resurrection of the dead.’ … ‘I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice,’ Garrison pledged. ‘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 … but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present.’ He drove the point home with staccato phrases: ‘I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch.’ Then he reached into the upper case and added one more promise: ‘— AND I WILL BE HEARD.’”

On one level, “All on Fire” is a straightforward, chronological account of Garrison’s life and how, for 35 years, he nobly sacrificed his time, safety and health to keep the promise made in that editorial. But because Garrison was such a central figure in the abolitionist movement, the book cannot help but give the reader a sense of how the abolitionist movement grew up around a newspaper. Mayer describes how The Liberator helped develop different organizations of propagandists at different stages in the fight against slavery. Implicit in Mayer’s life of Garrison is the message that an organization of propagandists develops around the revolutionary press.

In the case of The Liberator, some abolitionists wrote for the newspaper; others sold it; and still others organized subscription campaigns or arranged speaking engagements for the newspaper’s representatives. Mayer fills “All on Fire” with fascinating glimpses of how this work was done, details that illustrate the abolitionists’ combination of moral fervor and practicality.

For instance, in one unforgettable passage, he describes abolitionist leader Angelina Grimke Weld bravely giving “the speech of her life” even though an enraged mob was trying to break into the meeting room where she was speaking. “With the practiced speaker’s confidence,” Mayer points out, “she did not neglect the details of organization, urging her audience to buy the pamphlets, subscribe to the newspapers, circulate the petitions, and in every way ‘come up to the work.’” Angelina Grimke Weld made those remarks “[w]ith brickbats flying and glass shattering against the blinds” of the large auditorium she was speaking in. Who cannot admire a propagandist like that?

Historian Howard Zinn has expressed his hope that “this eloquent, powerful biography” will inspire the coming generation “to do for our time what Garrison did for his.” That’s the spirit in which a revolutionary should approach this work. “All on Fire” should be read not as a description of battles fought long ago, but as a study of how to wage a propaganda war by going on the moral offensive.

The world needs such a propaganda war today. After one of his visits to England, Garrison wrote to a friend: “To think that God … has filled this earth with abundance for all, and yet that nine-tenths of mankind are living in squalid poverty and abject servitude in order to sustain in idleness and profligacy the one-tenth!” Clearly, the abolitionists’ work is not yet finished. We too have mountains of ice to melt. Like William Lloyd Garrison, we should being that process by building an organization of propagandists around the revolutionary press.

“All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition Slavery” by Henry Mayer is available in paperback from W.W. Norton and Company (ISBN: 978-0-393-33236-0).

This article originally appeared in the June 1999 edition of the People’s Tribune.

We encourage reproduction of this article so long as you credit the source.
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