Vocal Abolitionism and The Genius of Universal Emancipation

Benjamin Lundy

Benjamin Lundy

On March 17, 1828, Garrison truly began his career as an abolitionist. It was on that evening that Garrison met Benjamin Lundy. Benjamin Lundy had a tremendous impact on Garrison. Though Garrison was a vocal writer on all sorts of issues before this time, his views on slavery were vague and without the emotion that would mark later years. Lundy saw the determination and energy that Garrison brought with him wherever he went and realized that he just needed to provide Garrison with information to allow Garrison to grow as an abolitionist.(1)

Their meeting occurred while Lundy was on a speaking tour of the northern states. He was attempting to convince New England reformers to support his efforts to promote the issue of abolition. His primary goal was to acquire new subscribers and sponsors for his newspaper, The Genius of Universal Emancipation, which, as the title suggests, dealt entirely and exclusively with the issue of abolishing slavery in the United States.(2)

Lundy and Garrison grew to respect each other over the next few days. Though they had admired each other's writing for quite a while, they had never met in person. Garrison in particular sought to understand the motivations of a man who was obviously poverty-stricken and constantly facing challenges in professing his beliefs and running his paper.(3) Garrison wrote several articles, letters, and editorials in praise of Lundy.(4) He described Lundy to the Boston Courier in 1828 as "a gentleman who has distinguished himself, for some years past, by his zeal and perseverance in favor of the oppressed sons of Africa" and cited him repeatedly in several subsequent letters to the editors of the Courier.(5)

In time, this respect would cause Lundy to return to New England and to ask Garrison to join him in Baltimore, where Lundy published the Genius. Garrison by October of 1828 had moved to Bennington, Vermont, where he had been invited to start his own paper. The paper had difficulty gaining much support. Meanwhile, Lundy was also having problems with the Genius. This led him to ask Garrison to join him while on a return speaking swing through New England. It appears that Lundy wanted Garrison to help him quite a lot, as Lundy walked the forty-odd miles from his last speaking stop and Bennington. After some consideration, Garrison agreed to join Lundy in Baltimore. Because of Lundy's effort and respect, Garrison would begin his long fight against slavery in Baltimore.

Baltimore and the Genius of Universal Emancipation

"Slavery is a monster and he must be treated as such -- hunted down bravely, and despatched [sic] at a blow."
-- Garrison in the Genius of Universal Emancipation, October 9, 1829

Garrison had an immediate impact on the Genius, from the simple layout and look of the paper to the tone and content of the message of abolition. While Garrison and Lundy both wanted the elimination of slavery, they disagreed on the course that the country should take in the elimination of slavery. Lundy opted for the more moderate path of gradual abolition, which would allow freedom in steps over time. Garrison, as was his way, argued for the immediate abolition of slavery. This was the only way possible in his eyes, as slavery was un-Christian and immoral on its face. To rectify this, it needed to be eliminated immediately.(6)

Column header for the Black List column

Because of their disagreement on this issue, Lundy and Garrison agreed to sign their articles to indicate who wrote it. In many cases, this would not have even been necessary, as it was fairly clear that certain columns were Garrison's. For example, Garrison revived a regular column to the paper called the Black List, a column dedicated to "the barbarities of slavery -- kidnappings [sic], whippings, murders."(7) It would be this column which would eventually land Garrison in jail and cause him to leave Baltimore.

However, before this happened, Garrison flourished in Baltimore. He attacked all areas of slavery with his words, never holding back a comment on slave traders and others supporting slavery. Because of his energy and strong voice, Garrison soon found many friends among the cities reformers, including free blacks and several Quakers.(8) He influenced many of his friends with his rhetoric but also learned a lot from them. In general, these were simpler people than the reformers he worked with in New England who carried less pretensions and were more pious in general.(9)

His friends, however, were unable to help Garrison when he pushed the Black List column a bit too far. In the November 13 and 20, 1829, issues of the Genius, Garrison published columns relating to the ship Francis. This ship was owned by a Newburyport man (Garrison's home town) named Francis Todd. He probably came to Garrison's attention solely because he was from Newburyport. In any case, Garrison found out that the Francis was shipping slaves from Baltimore to New Orleans. In his articles, he attacked Francis Todd and the captain of the Francis, Nicholas Brown. He blasted away at Francis Todd for lacking morality and the gentility of a New England gentleman. Of Nicholas Brown he wrote

Of captain Nicholas Brown I should have expected better conduct. . . . [He] should be sentenced to solitary confinement for life . . .(10)

He then sent a copy of the article to the Newburyport Herald and to Todd himself. The result of this bravado was a suit for libel filed by Todd on behalf of himself and Nicholas Brown. The State of Maryland then charged him with "contriving and unlawfully, wickedly, and maliciously intending to hurt, injure, and vilify" Todd. Both he and Lundy were named in both suits, though Lundy's name was eventually dropped because he was out of town when the articles were printed. In the criminal case, Garrison was eventually found to have written libel and fined $50 and court costs. Since he didn't have the money and Lundy was unable to raise it for him, Garrison was sentenced to six months jail time to pay off his debt.(11)

While in jail, Garrison was not idle. If the jail sentence was hoped to silence him, the judge and prosecution were sadly mistaken. While in jail, Garrison wrote numerous letters and even a small pamphlet, A Brief Sketch of the Trial of William Lloyd Garrison, for an Alleged Libel of one Francis Todd, of Massachusetts, which described his case and attacked the courts of Maryland and the prosecutor.(12) He had also written several sonnets while in prison. Among the many letters written during his prison term, he wrote several to those people directly involved in the case. Garrison wrote to Francis Todd,

As a New-England man, and a fellow-townsman, I am ashamed of your conduct. How could you suffer you noble ship to be freighted with the wretched victims of slavery . . . Sir, I owe you no ill-will. My soul weeps over your error. I denounced your conduct in strong language -- but did you not deserve it?

He also sent letters to the prosecuting attorney as well as the judge in the case, a Mr. Nicholas Brice, praising him to the point of insult. Letters were also sent to the editors of various newspapers, including the Boston Courier and the Newburyport Herald, either thanking them for their support or defending his own honor and rightness in his cause.(13)

Eventually, Garrison was able to pay his fine off after seven weeks due to the generosity of Arthur Tappan, a New York philanthropist, who had learned of Garrison's situation from the pamphlet that Garrison had published while in jail. He wanted to allow Garrison to continue to write the Genius, though that would end up being impossible. The civil suit brought by Francis Todd was still pending. Because the case was going to take several months to come to trial, and Garrison was now poor and unemployed (he and Lundy had amicably agreed to part ways), Garrison left Baltimore and Maryland, consequently escaping the court's jurisdiction. The case eventually went by default to Todd and Garrison was fined $1000, a sum which he would never pay.(14)

It is interesting to note that had Garrison pursued the details of the shipment the Francis was carrying that day in 1829, he might have learned that the slaves attempted to escape. They were hunted down in a nearby forest and brought back to the ship terrified and shivering. This piece of information may have swung the case in his favor. Garrison, however, never really followed through on researching stories, but placed a lot of faith in hearsay. In this way, he was not a reporter but a voice of conscious for the country. In Baltimore, he raised his voice high and brought a strong abolitionist voice back into the city.(15)

1. Merton L. Dillon. Benjamin Lundy and the Struggle for Negro Freedom. Urbana: U of Illinois P., 1966, pp. 132-34, 138 and Thomas, pp. 74-75.

2. Dillon, p. 128.

3. Dillon, pp. 132-3.

4. Dillon, p. 133 and Thomas, p. 81.

5. Walter M. Merrill, ed. The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, v. 1. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971, pp. 63-68.

6. The information in the preceding paragraphs was compiled from various sections of Thomas, Dillon, and from Garrison's own letters contained in Merrill.

7. Thomas, p. 108 and Dillon, p. 156.

8.Thomas, p. 101 and Dillon., p. 145.

9. Thomas, p. 101.

10. Thomas, pp. 108-9, Dillon, p. 156-7, and the Genius of Universal Emancipation, November 20, 1829, p. 83.

11. Trial details taken from Thomas, pp. 109-11, Dillon, pp. 157-8, and Garrison's own retelling of the story of the trial, A Brief Sketch of the Trial of William Lloyd Garrison, for an Alleged Libel of one Francis Todd, of Massachusetts, a pamphlet in which he rails mercilessly against the courts in Maryland.

12. Thomas, p. 112.

13. All information dealing with the letters sent while in jail is taken from Merrill, pp. 91-103.

14. Merrill, p. 93 and Thomas, pp. 110-115.

15. Thomas, p. 110.