William Lloyd Garrison’s Purity

William Lloyd Garrison

We left William Lloyd Garrison moving the goalposts. Charles Sumner betrayed the antislavery cause by not submitting promptly a petition for the release of Messrs. Drayton and Sayers, smugglers of fugitive slaves. Sumner spent that time working quietly for their pardon, but Garrison didn’t know and didn’t care. When pressed by the National Era, another antislavery paper, on the issue, Garrison shrugged off the whole Drayton and Sayres affair. Helping free people imprisoned for freeing slaves doesn’t appear to have excited Boston’s purest abolitionist nearly so much as getting a nice antislavery speech out of his new Senator.

The next week, Garrison took up the question again and said as much directly. He first insisted that the two prisoners didn’t have the ability, from inside a jail, to make meaningful judgments on their own case. But even if they did:

we repeat, this is comparatively a trifling matter. We complain, and must continue to complain, that Mr. Sumner has allowed six months and a half to pass away at Washington, without opening his lips for the millions in bonds, whom he was sent there to represent. It is useless to blink this out of sight, or try to apologize for it. The omiossion amounts to a positive dereliction of duty. In Faneuil Hall Mr. Sumner could declare, long ago-‘We demand first and foremost‘ [Garrison’s emphasis] the INSTANT REPEAL of the Fugitive Slave Bill,- a Bill which he branded as ‘most cruel, unchristian, devilish, detestable, heaven-defying; setting at naught the best principles of the Constitution and the very laws of God.’

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Anyone could look askance at Sumner’s silence in light of his previous rhetoric. The new senator had spoken himself into a corner during the campaign. But Garrison’s remarkable indifference to the plight of two men held for aiding fugitive slaves, the very thing that the Fugitive Slave Law prohibited, remains striking. He deserves points for not focusing entirely on the plight of white men when speaking against slavery, but his opposition to the law, his sympathy for slaves, and his indifference to people who have taken real action to help the slaves by smuggling them to freedom do not sit easily together. Garrison made no bones about it either, describing the present state of affairs that Sumner found so tolerable as

men, women and children are hunted daily, and ruthlessly shot down or dragged back to bondage.

Yet men who struck against that order and helped the enslaved rescue themselves from such horrors get a shrug. Even at the most sympathetic reading, Garrison seems more intent on vindicating himself about the fundamental corruption and uselessness of politics rather than securing material aid to fugitive slaves or their helpers. A speech would do more, to Garrison. Twenty years into his career as an outspoken abolitionist, he still believed that the right words from the right man at the right time would forge a great wave of manumission.