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1 introduction O n April 14, 1865, hours before Abraham Lincoln sat down for the last time at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison sat down for the first time in Charleston, South Carolina. More than three decades before, Garrison had founded the Boston Liberator , a newspaper dedicated to universal, immediate slave emancipation. In 1833, he helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), a group devoted to the same goal. And by the time he went to Charleston, Garrison had served as the society’s president for over twenty years. Only in the last few, however, had emancipation changed from a despised, minority opinion to the official policy of federal armies in a cataclysmic civil war. With the war now ending and a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery awaiting ratification, Garrison had come to Fort Sumter to attend a flag-raising ceremony at the invitation of Lincoln’s administration.1 Undoubtedly Garrison’s emotions about the trip were difficult to express, and not only because he met recently emancipated slaves, one of whom pressed a ten-dollar bill into his hand. Garrison’s emotions were also stirred because he could now celebrate a country he had long regarded with deep disillusionment— even disgust. That disillusionment had two main causes. Four million of Garrison ’s countrymen had been considered chattel property just three years before. But the abolitionists who had worked for three decades to abolish this evil met with nearly unremitting hostility, even in the “free states” of the North. Garrison once confessed to feeling more at home in Britain, which abolished slavery in its West Indian colonies only two years after he started his paper, and as recently as 1860, Garrison had objected to having the American flag wave over his head. Now, five years later, he literally helped pull the Star-Spangled Banner up the flagpole at Fort Sumter, accompanied by his friend of thirty-two years, British abolitionist George Thompson.2 The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery 2 Thompson was also at his side two years later when Garrison was toasted in London at a public breakfast held in his honor. It was Garrison’s fourth trip to Great Britain, and among the crowd were other British abolitionists who had supported Garrison for two decades or more. There was Richard Davis Webb, a Dublin printer. There was the lawyer William Shaen, longtime associate of William Henry Ashurst, who had once served as the London correspondent for the Liberator. These were two of the many reformers whom Garrison could recognize on sight. But dotting the crowd were also many internationally famous reformers, including John Bright, the meeting’s chairman; Victor Schoelcher, the French abolitionist; and John Stuart Mill, member of parliament for Westminster , author of On Liberty, and a leading figure for liberal thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic.3 Before 1867, Garrison and Mill had never met, and at first glance they had little in common. One was a lifelong printer and agitator, the other a statesman and philosopher. Garrison was the son of an alcoholic father and pious mother who never received much formal education; Mill, who was raised in the shadow of famous English philosophers like his father James Mill and the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, learned to read classical Greek at the age of three. But Mill knew about Garrison. In the 1830s, he had read about American abolitionists in the essays of the English writer Harriet Martineau. Mill had also followed Garrison’s career as an advocate of women’s rights, and he shared Garrison’s abhorrence of chattel slavery. It was thus only with slight exaggeration that Mill wrote, in 1865, that he had always regarded Garrison’s band of abolitionists “as the élite of their country, not to say of their age.”4 Two years later in London, Mill gave a laudatory speech in honor of Garrison, only a few days after the two men had shared a private moment at the House of Commons. At a special meal with members of parliament, Garrison sat next to Mill. And according to the journal of Frederick W. Chesson, who knew both men, Mill told Garrison upon “shaking hands with him, that there was no man in the world he was better pleased to see.” He later invited Garrison to visit his vacation home in France.5 Garrison proved unable to accept Mill’s invitation. But Garrison had already crossed the English...


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Subject Headings

  • Antislavery movements -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slavery -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Democracy -- Philosophy
  • Garrison, William Lloyd, 1805-1879.
  • Phillips, Wendell, 1811-1884.
  • American Anti-Slavery Society.
  • Abolitionists -- United States -- Biography
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