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21 1 the education of william lloyd garrison, 1818–1833 O n July 5, 1824, William Lloyd Garrison—then an eighteen-year-old journalist with Federalist inclinations in politics and Romantic tastes in poetry— delivered a patriotic oration in Newburyport, Massachusetts. It did not sound at all like the speech of a future Constitution-burner. On the contrary , like most Fourth of July orators, Garrison described the United States “government [as] the most enlightened, the most liberal, and the most virtuous on earth.” The American Revolution was “the pole-star of attraction,—the splendid, immaculate guide,—to all other nations, in their career after freedom.” In view of these facts, any American who was not filled “with patriotic ardor” was “a slave indeed—a monster.”1 Such lines reveal a Garrison now hardly recognizable, given the reputation he soon earned as a fierce critic of the Union. Yet long before—and even long after—Garrison declared the world was his country, threatened disunion, and burned the Constitution, he assigned the United States a special role as a republican model for the world. Two years before this speech, Garrison had already described the United States as “a model which no other nation under heaven can boast its equal, for correctness of sound republican principles.” And even in 1828, on the eve of his conversion to abolitionism, Garrison wrote and publicly read a poem that lauded American institutions: “our deeds and examples are laws to mankind.”2 Garrison’s youthful boasts about the nation partly mark the great distance he had traveled by the time he burned the Constitution thirty years later, on a different Fourth of July. His conversion to abolitionism would eventually make Garrison critical of American vanity; indeed, as early as 1829, Garrison had decided that “the moral and political tendency of this nation is downward,” and 22 Part I: Origins such censures only became more severe once Garrison became an abolitionist— a transformation as rapid as it was unexpected. When July 4, 1830, arrived, Garrison had just spent seven weeks in a Baltimore jail for accusing a Newburyport merchant of being a trader in slaves. By the next Fourth of July, he was editing the Liberator, and one year after that he already had a transatlantic reputation as an uncompromising abolitionist who described the Constitution as a document “dripping . . . with human blood.” By the time Garrison made his first Atlantic crossing in 1833, the patriotic apprentice from Newburyport had been reborn as a radical.3 Yet Garrison did not simply doff his youthful ideas about the United States, fold them up, and lay them aside as he began his radical career, like grave-clothes left behind at a resurrection. Even in his first antislavery speech, on July 4, 1829, Garrison described the Fourth as “a proud day for our country” that had given “an impulse to the world, which yet thrills to its extremities.” These views died hard, if they ever died at all. On the very day in 1854 when Garrison torched the Constitution, he first delivered a speech praising the Fourth of July as “the greatest political event in the annals of time.”4 Garrison made such statements because of his belief in republican government , which predated and outlived his abolitionism. As a young man he credited the American Revolution with “vindicat[ing] the omnipotence of public opinion over the machinery of kingly government” and for “[shaking], as with the voice of a great earthquake, thrones which were seemingly propped up with Atlantean pillars.” In 1854 he still believed that the principles of the American Revolution demanded the “eternal dethronement” of all despots everywhere. Even in 1865, as the Civil War drew to a close, Garrison rejoiced that Americans could finally fulfill their high calling as “world-wide propagandists in the cause of human liberty and republican institutions, through the power of a glorious example.”5 The roots of these wartime ideas about the nation lay as far back as the 1820s, the decade when Garrison first learned to see Americans as “worldwide propagandists .” In fact, far from being dislodged by his conversion to abolitionism in 1829, Garrison’s idea that the United States should be a model for the world played an underappreciated role in spurring his abolitionism in the first place. Garrison’s youthful patriotism was not incidental to his abolitionism but integral to it, and his formative years as an apprentice propelled and directed much of his later career. 23 The Education of...


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