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Instruments in the Hands of God: William Lloyd Garrison, Secession and the Coming War

William Lloyd Garrison
William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison had spoken of disunion for decades. His weekly newspaper, The Liberator, was helmed with the slogan: “No Union With Slaveholders.” From the 1840s, he had called the Constitution a “covenant with death” and even “an agreement with hell.” He saw the Union as a “hollow mockery,” a Union that had already been dissolved. “The time is rapidly approaching,” he wrote in 1842, “when the American Union will be dissolved in form, as it now is in fact.” 1Quotes from Garrison taken from Elizabeth R. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1859 (University of North Carolina Press, 2008) 152-153.

Garrison, of course, got what seemed to be his wish. A month an a half after the election of Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina elected to leave the United States. With this disunion in the Southern air, six more states would make their collective egress over the next month an a half. Still more would follow through the spring. In this piece, we’ll examine Garrison’s reaction. His dream seemed now to be coming true. His prophecy was now being fulfilled. But with the threats now come to life, how would this abolitionist react?

The Most of This Bluster

Garrison’s politics and feelings on slavery and abolition changed little after he eschewed the idea of colonization in the early 1830s. From then on, he was an immediatist and led some of the most radical of this leaning, white and black. On the eve of the election of 1860, The Liberator spoke of the earlier Southern calls for secession as “nearly ended,” at least in Washington. “The most of this bluster is for political effect,” it opined. Instead it claimed that rather than secede, the fire-eaters of the South would stop Lincoln’s inauguration through militia force. 2The Liberator, Nov. 2, 1860, 1. Available here. The article then goes on to talk about how this act would practically require secession.

Once the election was decided (and still weeks before secession), news from the South filled the pages. The South was assembling armies. Secessionists were holding meetings. But also there was ample voice given to Southern Unionists – or at least Southern anti-disunionists.  For a moment, “disunion” was a purely Southern thing.

Still, “No Union with Slaveholders” was the watchword. Along with the Southern military news ran a piece practically demanding that the South leave. “Their absence would be an incalculable and invaluable relief to the balance of the people of these United States.” In the end, however, the secession talk was painted as quixotic, made of “bad whiskey and worse logic.” There would be no secession – the talk of it every four years would play out. “Their bombast,” concluded the article, “is absolutely sickening.” 3The Liberator, Nov. 9, 1860. Available here.

Spiritual Over Carnal Weapons (However…)

As the days drew on, there was less bluff, less bluster. Until finally, there was only secession. Lincoln was still months away from his inauguration, and South Carolina was leading the calls for an independent Southern nation.

As the South continued to mull and process, Garrison continued work on the paper. Typically, he would have had numerous speaking engagements, but in the recent weeks, he had experienced a reoccurring throat illness that stole his voice. When asked to speak in Boston in early December he had to decline.

Garrison had been asked to speak on how slavery might be abolished. In a December 1st letter to journalist James Redpath, he briefly reiterated his views. These were the same as they had been “for the last thirty years,” and he saw no reason to change.

In three parts, he made his point. First, he held that slavery must be accepted as “self-evidently and eternally unjust.” Second, enslavers and their supporters “should be the objects of continual warning, entreaty, expostulation, rebuke, exposure and assault.” Third, “immediate and unconditional emancipation” and equal rights and protections the same as any white man.

“I believe in the immense superiority of spiritual over carnal weapons,” he maintained, “and so seek not the overthrow of slavery by a bloody process.” Yet, there was a glint of something more.

“But, assuredly, were I a convert to the doctrine of ’76, that a resort to the sword is justifiable to recover lost liberty, then would I plot insurrection by day and by night, deal more in blows and less in words, and seek through blood the emancipation of all who are groaning in captivity at the South.” 4William Lloyd Garrison to James Redpath, December 1, 1860, The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Volume IV (Belknap Press, Harvard, 1975) 702-704.


To Bawl Till She Is Hoarse

Two weeks later, on December 7th, The Liberator predicted that “the extremists, in favor of slavery, have met with a Waterloo defeat that is to last for all time to come.” If the Deep Southern states were to leave, this would require Republicans to become the conservatives and a new party to “take an advance step… in favor of freedom.” This new “progressive” party would squash slavery where it remained in what remained of the United States. 5The Liberator, Dec. 7, 1860, 1. Available here.

Garrison began to fear that Lincoln would lean “southward” in hopes of appeasing the enslavers. However, events moved so swiftly that the President-Elect never had the chance. On November 7, the day after Lincoln’s election, the Judge himself had closed the Federal court in Charleston, fearing mobocracy. This inspired a half-dozen Federal officers in the city to resign. And this was on the very day the news of Lincoln’s victory had arrived!

That following day, the state legislature set a date for the secession convention – January 15. But this was too far in the future. On the 9th, the fire-eaters held an impromptu meeting. Less than a day later, and with this pressure at hand, the legislature re-decided, calling for a secession convention for December 17. 6William W. Freehling The Road to Disunion, Vol. 2 (Oxford University Press, 2007) Chapter 25.

To this new bluster, The Liberator reacted. “South Carolina continues to bawl till she is hoarse, ‘Secession!'” ran the paper. “Well, we want to see it! When shall we see it? Why such tardiness?”

As the initial fervor died down a touch, Garrison continued his taunting the following week. “We are apprehensive that, after all, our hopes of secession are to be blasted!” 7The Liberator, Dec. 14, 1860, 2. Available here.

If the Union Were Dissolved

Their hopes were, of course, not blasted. South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860. Following their secession, Garrison began to fear that the Republicans and Lincoln himself had taken too large a bite. Reprinting a letter from a Boston German-language paper, The Liberator saw that “those Republicans who cried loudest for victory, are frightened at their success.” It opined that it was “because they are either not inclined to enforce their platform, as moderate as it is, or because they think their king has no sufficient ability and will to do honor to that platform.”

It feared that “the conservative element of the Republican party” would take over “so that the progressive element… will have to make opposition against its own party.” And that was the best case scenario. 8The Liberator, December 31, 1860, 3. Available here.

As 1860 closed, Garrison could see almost no Union at all. With South Carolina out and at least six other states seriously considering the question, Garrison railed against the pro-slavery mobs in the North. With every abolitionist meeting held in New York City, Philadelphia and Boston being overrun by hordes, Garrison blamed “the American Union” for “this fury against free speech.”

“Were it not for the unhallowed union between the North and the South,” he penned, “no such cowardly and brutal mobs could be raised to beat down the dearest right, save personal liberty, that an American demands.”

Once more, Garrison urged disunion. “If the Union were dissolved,” he reasoned, “what interest would Boston’s conservative men have in suppressing free speech? None.” He saw the separation of North and South as a way to “not only liberate the negroes, but liberate Boston, and make respectable citizens of its well-dressed rioters.” 9Ibid., 4.


Hail the Approaching Jubilee

Garrison kicked off 1861 not with a lamentation over South Carolina’s secession, but ecstasy.

“At last the covenant with death is annulled and the agreement with hell broken,” he penned, “and ere long, by all the slaveholding States, for their doom is one.” He saw the end result of secession as abolition – immediate in the North, through possible insurrection in the South.

“Hail the approaching jubilee, ye millions who are wearing the galling chains of slavery; for, assuredly, the day of your redemption draws nigh, bringing liberty to you, and salvation to the whole land!” 10The Liberator, Jan. 4, 1860, 3. Available here.

With these words, those of the Upper South, who had not yet held their secession conventions could claim that Garrison was no better than a South Carolina disunionist.

“Hear him,” said Virginia’s Sherrard Clemens on the floor of the United States House two weeks later, “in a voice so familiar that it sounds like one which ere-while run out from the portico of the Mills House in Charleston.” 11Speech of Hon. Sherrard Clemens, of Virginia, in the House of Representatives, January 22, 1861. Available here. In April, Garrison penned a fine refutation of this, which appeared on page 2 of The Liberator, April 19, 1861. “Southern Secessionists and Northern Disunionists” Here.

How to Save the Union

Garrison was no sabre-rattler. He had preached pacifism for decades.  He blamed slaveholders for uprisings, including John Brown, which he labeled as “well-intended, but sadly misguided.” 12The Liberator, Oct 28, 1859. Here.


By January 11, 1861, Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama joined South Carolina. Now with these four banded together, Garrison might have begun to question his calls for disunion. Instead, in a piece entitled “How to Save the Union,” Garrison laid out a simple plan of his own.

As he saw it, the trouble stemmed from the Fugitive Slave Law and the refusal by many in the North to abide by it. Yet he saw in the North many anti-black and anti-abolition advocates. These same mobs were disrupting and shutting down abolitionist meetings. To Garrison’s plan to save the Union, they would be essential.

“Suppose, now, the Fugitive Slave Law should be so altered or amended that when a ‘chattel’ escaped to another State, his place should be supplied by some white pro-slavery advocate of that State. By this plan, the new incumbent, instead of being troublesome, would be in a better position to strengthen the Slave Power by quieting all tendencies toward liberty by his fellow-slaves.”

In this way, he concluded, “these men would be placed in a sphere they so much admire, for others, and the free States be gradually rid of this non-progressive, pestiferous class of minds… Then shall the freedom-loving portion of the people find themselves delivered of those foul obstructions, that but impede all onward and upward progress.” 13The Liberator, Jan. 11, 1861. Here .

A Joyful Prospect

This piece of satire aside, Garrison and the rest of the country watched the Union dissolve. “Dark as the times are,” he wrote to a friend on January 19, the date of Georgia’s secession, “beyond them all is light. I would have nothing changed, for this is God’s judgment day with our guilty nation, which really deserves to be visited with civil and servile war, and to be turned inside out and upside down, for its unparalleled iniquity.”  14William Lloyd Garrison to Oliver Johnson,  January 19, 1861, The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Volume V (Belknap Press, Harvard, 1979)   6.

Now, he seemed to be welcoming the war. Many were at this point, of course. Nobody knew what it might bring. But Garrison was hoping not only for a civil war, but a full slave uprising.

On the eve of Louisiana’s secession, this theme of a light in the beyond was continued. Garrison, writing in The Liberator, began to understand that some Republicans were indeed on his side.

Though the abolitionist preachings had been “despised,” he believed that “these principles have been working like leaven in the mass of Northern society.” Now he was seeing that “a portion of the Republican party has become fixed in the determination to yield no more – to make no further concession.” This change allowed “the joyful prospect, first of a secession of the South, which must end in the utter overthrow of slavery, and next, the formation of a truly free Northern Confederacy. 15The Liberator, Jan 25, 1861, 3. Here.

Lincoln is True Game

During the time between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, the President-Elect kept himself almost entirely away from the public sphere. This led to much speculation on where he actually stood upon developments.

Garrison’s mind might have been put at ease in early February, shortly after Texas, the final Deep South slave state to secede, left the Union. He was shown a copy of a letter written by William H. Herdon, Lincoln’s law partner. In it, Herndon insisted that “Lincoln yet remains firm as a rock. He is true game, and is strong in the faith of Justice, Right, Liberty, Man, and God.” Herndon wrote that Lincoln often said that “rather than back down – rather than concede to traitors, his soul might go back to God from the wings of the Capitol.” 16W.H. Herndon to S.E. Sewall, February 1, 1861. As printed in Wendell Phillips Garrison William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879; the Story of His Life, Vol. 4 (Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1889) 16n.

“It is much to the credit of Mr. Lincoln,” wrote Garrison in reference to the letter, “that he has maintained his dignity and self-respect intact, and gives no countenance to any of the compromises that have yet been proposed.” 17Ibid., 16.

Like a Felon of the Deepest Dye

Lincoln’s silence was broken when he made his way from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, DC. At each stop, the President-Elect spoke some few words, though mostly they were vagaries. The larger issue at hand was how exactly to get Lincoln through to the capital.

“Think of the necessity for Mr. Lincoln to get through Baltimore in the darkness of night, as if he were a felon of the deepest dye!” penned Garrison to Senator Charles Sumner on February 26.

With a thought only slightly beyond that, he asked: “What will inauguration day bring forth? Heaven only knows. There is no crime too dreadful to be committed by the dealers in human flesh.” 18William Lloyd Garrison to Charles Sumner, February 26, 1861, The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Volume V (Belknap Press, Harvard, 1979) 11.

Moral Confusion and Darkness

Despite the possible plot to assassinate Lincoln en route to Washington, the President-Elect quietly arrived in the dawn hours of February 23. On March 4, without incident, Lincoln was sworn in and delivered his Inaugural Address. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists,” spoke Lincoln. “I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” 19Abraham Lincoln “First Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1861. Here.

Lincoln's Inauguration, 1861.
Lincoln’s Inauguration, 1861.

Garrison found in himself a few kind words for the new President. “It must be conceded, even by his bitterest opponents,” Garrison admitted, “that the new President has met the trying emergency with rare self-possession and equanimity.” He referred to Lincoln’s arguments against secession as “compact and conclusive.”

He even had a few pleasantries for the newly-ascended party: “No party was ever more loyal to the Constitution, as interpreted for seventy years by the nation, than the Republican party.” This was more of a back-handed compliment than anything, however as they had “confined itself to one issue – the non-territorial extension of slavery.”

When it came to Lincoln’s non-intervention with slavery where it existed, or even the old three-fifths representation, Garrison, of course, took issue. He railed against Lincoln’s acceptance of the Fugitive Slave Law. “What moral confusion and darkness have we here!”

He applauded Lincoln, whom he saw as “anxious to have ‘the safeguards of liberty’ provided for free colored person,” but doubted he – or anyone – could make it happen. 20The Liberator, March 8, 1861, 2.

Friends Do Not Behave in This Manner!

“We are not enemies, but friends,” said Lincoln in the close of his address. This Garrison could not stomach.


“Friends do not behave in this manner! The break is natural, inevitable, and not to be repaired – it is the result of the ‘irrepressible conflict’ between Justice and Oppression, Right and Wrong, which admits of no conciliation or compromise. Therefore, the time has come for decisive action! There be no civil war, but a separation between the free and slave states, in the spirit of Abraham and Lot. The ‘covenant with death’ must be annulled, the ‘agreement with hell’ must no longer stand.”

Garrison concluded his rebuttal by calling for the North to be free so that she may “fashion her own institutions, and dictate her own policy, leaving the South with all her dread responsibilities resting upon her own head.”

Slavery, he held, could not last long without Northern support. The South “cannot long uphold her tottering slave system – speedy emancipation will follow – and the final result will be the formation of a Union stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, one in spirit, in purpose, in glorious freedom, the bitter past forgotten, and the future full of richest promise!” 21Ibid.

No Needless Turning

Garrison was backing off, and called for others to do the same. “Now the civil war as begun,” he wrote less than a week after the Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter, “it is for the abolitionists to ‘stand still, and see the salvation of God,’ rather than to attempt to add anything to the general commotion.”

He had called for disunion, for the South to leave and choke to death its own institution of slavery. He had not called for war. Garrison now saw Lincoln, the Republicans, and even those opposed as “instruments in the hands of God to carry forward and help achieve the great object of emancipation, for which we have so long been striving.”

Meetings and rallies might have to be canceled so that there would be “no needless turning of popular violence upon ourselves.” And yet, he warned that there should be no compromise upon the principle of abolitionism. 22William Lloyd Garrison to Oliver Johnson, April 19, 1861, The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Volume V (Belknap Press, Harvard, 1979) 17.

Because of this, the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society was postponed until the following year. 23The Liberator, April 26, 1861, 2. Here. But that was not to say the fiery rhetoric would cease. Rather, The Liberator continued as usual, often with little change from the pre-war days. Both Garrison and his paper would continue to critique both Lincoln and any policy that could be seen as anti-abolitionist.

But What of Peace?

By the middle of June, secession was complete. Though no large battles had yet been waged, it was clear that two tremendous and opposing armies were arrayed for war. Garrison had always been for peace. Now, with peace so clearly out of the picture, and with his support of the war increasing, Garrison steadied himself against the barbs of his own critics. When they asked him “what of your peace principles now?” he had an answer.

Garrison maintained that the peace principles were “as beneficent and glorious as ever.” In fact, war was a fine reminder of this truth.

“If they had been long since embraced and carried out by the people,” he admonished, “neither slavery nor war would now be filling the land with violence and blood.”

William Lloyd Garrison, who long ago took a stand against slavery, now found with the present war it was “impossible not to wish success to the innocent, and defeat to the guilty party.”

“The war must go on to its consummation; and among the salutary lessons it will teach will be the impossibility of oppressing the poor and the needy, or consenting thereto by entering into a ‘covenant with death,’ without desolating judgement following in its train. ‘Because ye have no proclaimed liberty every man to his brother, and every man to his neighbor, behold, I proclaim liberty for you, saith the Lord, to the sword, to the famine, and to the pestilence.”

Throughout the rest of the war, Garrison would continue, through The Liberator to assert the values of abolition, peace, and equality. The war changed everything for the United States, but for Garrison, though it effected him deeply, he saw it as one more instrument to be employed in the ultimate destruction of slavery.

Unidentified United States soldier.
Unidentified United States soldier.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.