Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical

All On Fire
by Jeff Landauer

William Lloyd Garrison was a radical abolitionist. He was radical because of his stance that the words in the Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal," apply to everyone, and he was radical because of the way he defended that stance -- upon moral grounds without regard to the vested interests or sensibilities of others. He held that "Immediate, unconditional emancipation, without expatriation, was the right of every slave, and could not be withheld by his master one hour without sin."

Garrison used his newspaper, The Liberator, as his platform for agitation against slavery. It ran weekly, uninterrupted for 35 years and only stopped after the signing of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. In his first issue, he wrote about slavery:
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 retreat a single inch; and I will be heard.

In 1831 when he started The Liberator, the only mainstream debate about slavery taking place was between those that thought slavery to be a benevolent institution, with masters taking fatherly care of their slaves, and those who thought slavery should end by slaves being gradually freed and shipped back to Africa. His principled stance and belligerent writing style made him an enemy of both Southerners and those involved in the benevolence movements in the north. When he started his career, he had virtually no allies and virtually everyone as an enemy, so he attacked everyone on all sides of the issue.

He attacked the American Colonization Society (ACS), the dominant anti-slavery organization that supported gradual abolition coupled with colonization, with constant barrages in The Liberator and his book Thoughts on African Colonization published in 1832. He held "gradualism" woefully insufficient and the proposal to re-colonize Africa with freed American Slaves inherently racist, undermining real efforts to end slavery. His efforts quickly destroyed support for the ACS and cleared a path for a true call for emancipation, but he was constantly at war with many fellow abolitionists over the years who were either not principled enough or called for compromising political action as the means for change.

Garrison also attacked those defending slavery. He attacked so viciously that he was jailed in Baltimore for libel, almost lynched twice by angry mobs, and had a reward on his head of $5000 from the legislature of Georgia who wanted to try him for libel and sedition.

Week after week, The Liberator with its fiery rhetoric issued forth from his small printing press. It was outlawed in many southern states as seditious, with fines and jail time for anyone subscribing. Postmasters would tear it up rather than deliver it, so that many copies had to be sent in plain envelopes. Despite low circulation and efforts by both Southerners and Northerners to suppress it, The Liberator had its influence.

In addition to editing his paper, William Lloyd Garrison was the driving force for the foundation of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, the first benevolent organization dedicated to the immediate abolition of slavery. He then helped to found and was president of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which displaced the ACS and brought calls for immediate abolition to the entire country.

A most inspirational book to read is All On Fire by Henry Mayer, an excellent biography of Garrison. You will get an interesting story about how one man was instrumental in righting an egregious wrong; but more interesting today than his accomplishments is his method of accomplishment.

He was never moderate or compromising. He didn't tone down his rhetoric to appease other abolitionists. He worked toward his goal of freedom for all, black and white, with his uttermost determination and zeal.
Yet even Samuel May [Garrison's friend and fellow abolitionist], who understood more than most the dramaturgy of Garrison's editorship, once entreated him to be more temperate. While out for a walk in early spring, Garrison listened "patiently and tenderly," May recalled, as the other man rehearsed the concerns of their more timorous friends. Then, however, Garrison exploded, insisting that he would only soften his language "when the poor downtrodden slaves tell me that I am too harsh."

"O, my friend," urged May, "do try to moderate your indignations, and keep more cool; why, you are all on fire."

Garrison stopped walking and looked straight at his beloved friend. He laid his hand upon May's shoulder with "a kind, but emphatic pressure" and speaking "slowly, with deep emotion," said:

"Brother May, I have need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt."

(Henry Mayer, All On Fire 119-120)
Garrison's zeal was a calculated zeal -- calculated as the only way to accomplish his objective of moving a seemingly immovable society -- of melting gigantic mountains of ice. In his private life he was quiet and reserved, but in his newspaper columns and at the podium on the lecture circuit he was like a fiery demonic preacher applying the principles of the founding fathers consistently and giving no quarter to any who stood in the way of immediate abolition.

For me, William Lloyd Garrison's calculated radical zeal has come to be embodied in the phrase all on fire. To be all on fire is to accept no compromise with evil and to accept nothing less than what's right. It is the deepest commitment to principles and the importance of ideas. It is not merely doing or saying what is sufficient to make one's point understood -- it is radical over-the-top agitation, actively working for the world as it can and should be. If there isn't an angry mob outside your house wanting to lynch you, then you clearly aren't all on fire.

 In his essay, Civil Disobedience, Garrison's contemporary Thoreau suggests that the proper response to the machinery of state gone bad is to "Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine." Refuse to pay taxes, don't cooperate in any way with government, deny that you are subject to unjust laws. Many Objectivists follow this route as far as practical, which is usually not very far at all. It is no longer as easy to dodge the taxman as it was in 1849.

Creating friction in the machinery of state may ease one's conscience, but it does little to break that machinery. William Lloyd Garrison would never settle for mere friction. He reaches for the sledgehammer.

The political dynamic of Garrison's time was that one could not advocate the abolition of slavery without being attacked as trying to weaken the union. Though the South was constantly using secession as an instrument of blackmail upon the North, Garrison turned secession around and proclaimed, "No Union With Slaveholders" as one of his major rallying cries. He attacked the constitution as a flawed document that sanctioned slavery. He wrote, "The compact which exists between the North and the South is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell." And he once went so far as to publicly burn the constitution at an anti-slavery rally.

Being all on fire is not simply sitting in judgment of the world, giving or withholding one's sanction ruthlessly. Nor is speaking passionately about a topic only when it comes up. These are examples of what I call passive integrity -- doing what you know is right when action is called for. But active integrity is sallying forth and seeking action, declaring war on the enemy and attacking him before he knows what's going on. Being all on fire is not just being emphatic and deliberately passionate, it is not just being extremely principled, it is going out and actively molding the world to one's principles.

I say, if you're going to do something, you should either do it all the way or don't bother. William Lloyd Garrison gave us a template for what political agitation and moral persuasion can and should be like. But he also gave us a template that can be applied much more broadly. If you're going to do anything, do it uncompromisingly, with deliberate zeal, and with no heed to the moderate sensibilities of others. Don't merely do what may suffice, do ten times that and then keep hammering away at your task until your goal is accomplished. Bring on the angry mobs.

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