These days, no one likes a radical, especially one who makes unpopular statements or questions the government. The same can be said for our 19th-century counterparts. They, too, did not like a trouble-maker, particularly William Lloyd Garrison, who was born 208 years ago today, on December 12, 1805. A familiar figure to the women’s rights leaders and daughters I have studied, this Newburyport, Massachusetts native became the most outspoken abolitionist in America. At a time when North and South alike still tolerated the great evil of slavery, he called for immediate and complete abolition.
What is less known about Garrison is his staunch defense of women’s rights. He became the inspiration that led many New Yorkers to insist on women’s as well as slaves’ rights. We could view four periods of Garrison’s life through four New York women, each of whom saw him from a different vantage point.
Martha Wright, sister to Lucretia Mott and planner of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, met the twenty-eight-year-old Garrison in 1833 when he founded the first Anti-Slavery Association in Philadelphia. The encounter changed her forever. She followed his lead for the next thirty years, finding inspiration from him and expressing impatience at those who hesitated about emancipating slaves immediately. Martha and her family walked the talk by welcoming fugitive slaves into their home, part of the Underground Railroad Station.
When Garrison tempered his politics enough to nominate Abraham Lincoln for a second term as President in 1864, Martha clung to her belief in Garrisonian abolitionism. She did not trust Lincoln to free the slaves, even though he had provided an Emancipation Proclamation, because she had incorporated Garrison’s radical philosophy into her mind and heart. (Martha Wright to David Wright, March 20, 1864)
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was also touched by Garrison. When she was banned to separate and silent seating at the 1840 World Antislavery Meeting in London, Garrison acted. Upon discovering the disgraceful situation, he refused his own credentials for the convention and sat with Elizabeth and the other women. Like Martha, Elizabeth never wavered in her support for him.
Martha Wright would deepen her personal relationship with Garrison as they both raised children to the age of marriage. Much to her delight, her daughter, Ellen Wright, met and fell in love with William Lloyd Garrison, Jr. When the young man announced that their marriage would join the two reform-minded families, Martha was honored. So was Garrison. The engagement exposed a tender side to the former radical abolitionist, now fifty-nine.
He wrote to his future daughter-in-law, “My Dear Ellie, I trust [the engagement] will prove acceptable to your beloved parents, whom I have long been proud to reckon among my most esteemed friends, and to all your brothers and sisters. The contemplated relation is one of such solemnity in its nature, and of such importance in its consequences, that parents especially may well be excused for feeling the greatest solicitudes in regard to its formation. As yours shall
know more and more the object of your choice, I trust that they will be fully satisfied that he is worthy of their esteem and of your love.” (William Lloyd Garrison to Ellen Wright, Feb. 19, 1864)
Another daughter had the opportunity to meet her mother’s hero. When Harriot Stanton, was unsure how to resolve plans for her future, Elizabeth Cady Stanton suggest she visit Garrison. By this time, Garrison he was a changed person from the young radical Elizabeth had known. Failing in health and lacking an ability to garner support for his Reconstruction ideas, Garrison had suffered gravely. What kept his spirit alive was his grandchildren. Born to Ellen and William, Jr., the five gave him a new reason to struggle on with life. In 1879, Harriot was also struggling: after graduation from Vassar she felt undirected. She traveled to Roxbury, Massachusetts, to the seventy-four-year-old Garrison’s home.
When Harriot asked him what she should do with her life, Garrison said, “Seize the first bit of work that offers if it is honest and honorable. It will lead to something better.”
It was welcome advice. Within a few weeks of visiting Garrison, Harriot accepted an offer to go to Germany as the paid companion and tutor for two wealthy American girls. It would eventually lead to more than twenty years in Europe, a very happy marriage to an Englishman, and an opportunity to make her mark on the British women’s rights movement.
Within a few months of Harriot’s visit, Garrison died. During his life, short to our contemporary standards, he altered his political positions from radical to what we might call mainstream. Most historical accounts remember him most for his extreme politics. Adding a personal chapter to his life through the women I research broadens his life and reminds us that we each have more than one side. In days when we are forced to accept sound bites to describe our leaders, it might be good to visit them with grandchildren on their knees and hear what really makes them tick.