- William Lloyd Garrison and Giuseppe Mazzini: Abolition, Democracy, and Radical Reform by Enrico Dal Lago
This thought-provoking comparative biography joins recent works by Timothy Roberts, Caleb McDaniel, and others that internationalize the genesis of the American Civil War. Enrico Dal Lago juxtaposes the parallel and occasionally connected lives of North America’s most celebrated abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, and Italy’s iconic democratic nationalist, Giuseppe Mazzini. Dal Lago methodically examines these agitators’ activities within their own milieus and beyond their nation’s boundaries. His chapters offer specific comparisons of the two men’s contexts and agendas, but overall, the book’s most lasting impression is its broad-brush portrait of the liberal ideals, nationalist commitments, and cosmopolitan sentiments that energized these transatlantic radicals.
Garrison sought to cleanse the American republic by removing its sin of slavery through peaceful moral suasion; Mazzini aimed to liberate Italians from monarchy and foreign rule through a violent republican insurrection. Despite their different contexts and ideological groundings, they believed their projects of national regeneration were allied. “We shared the same hostility to every form of tyranny,” Garrison wrote in a posthumous introduction to Mazzini’s writings (192). Although Garrison drew inspiration primarily from British abolitionists, he admired Mazzini’s unswerving devotion to the cause of political freedom everywhere. Meanwhile, in articles written for the Liberator, Mazzini drew analogies between oppressed Europeans and American slaves. Both men’s writings amply illustrate Dal Lago’s point that the discourses of slavery and liberation circulated widely among transatlantic radicals to justify struggles against various oppressive institutions.
Dal Lago makes a good case for his unlikely pairing by noting uncanny parallels between these radicals’ lives. Garrison and Mazzini were born in 1805 under very different circumstances, and both were attracted to reform journalism. Each experienced an epiphany when imprisoned briefly in 1830 for publicizing their dissenting views. Within two years each established a radical journal (the Liberator and La Giovine Italia) and a society to implement its program (the New England Anti-Slavery Society and Young Italy). In the mid-1830s the men’s ambitions enlarged when [End Page 154] Garrison grew his regional group into the American Anti-Slavery Society and Mazzini organized Young Europe. Both faced challenges within their movements. Garrison split American abolitionists when he endorsed women’s rights and rejected political antislavery. Mazzini was confronted by militant socialists on the left and by moderates on the right who believed that nation building must precede republicanism. Both men paid for sticking to their principles as they watched pragmatic reformers bypass them in the 1850s. Garrison’s influence was eclipsed by the growing free-soil movement and Mazzini’s by a nationalist coalition that promoted Italy’s unification under the Savoy monarchy. The two men met only twice, once in midcareer and again in their twilight years, but their synchronized paths and mutual admiration come through clearly in Dal Lago’s treatment.
While he stresses their commonalities, Dal Lago takes some notice of his radicals’ divergent stands on religion, politics, and violent means. Gradually, perhaps too slowly because their stories are divided into segments, it becomes apparent that Mazzini was a committed lifelong revolutionary while Garrison relished the role of journalistic gadfly. In their own ways, however, both remained obstinate outsiders who grew increasingly out of touch with on-the-ground realities. As early as the 1848 European revolutions Garrison’s nonresistance creed began to dwindle into formulaic disclaimers that masked his acquiescence in righteous violence. When disunion came to the United States, it arrived not through the North’s secession, as Garrison preached, but the South’s, and it sparked a civil war that Garrison applauded. American slavery ended not by moral suasion but by violence, including John Brown’s conscious adaptation of Mazzini’s program for insurrection and guerrilla warfare. Mazzini, meanwhile, made the opposite mistake of Garrison’s by embracing a cult of insurrectionary secret societies, clinging to the illusion that Italy’s masses would spontaneously join a republican revolution...