Mudgett: William Lloyd Garrison

Jan 14, 2013

http://www.vpr.net/audio/programs/56/2013/01/Mudgett-0115 Mudgett- William Lloyd Garrison_011413_Jill Mudgett_for bigger things.mp3

(Host) This week commentator and historian Jill Mudgett has been thinking about the latest media depiction of the American past, and about the character traits of one of our most cherished historical figures.

(Mudgett) The new three-part PBS documentary, The Abolitionists, is the latest media production released to coincide with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

PBS's Abolitionists narrows the broad topic of antislavery activism by focusing on five major figures, including the great newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison. Here viewers are reintroduced to the Garrison of U.S. history courses: serious, principled, and unyielding in his growing calls for immediate abolition.

PBS's Garrison is a likeable figure - admirable in his unwillingness to compromise - but in life he was not above burning bridges or ending friendships with other abolitionists over differences of strategy.

The documentary picks up Garrison's story in Bostonin 1828, early in his newspaper career. What viewers don't learn is that Garrison left shortly thereafter for Bennington, Vermont, where he spent nearly seven months editing a political newspaper called The Journal of the Times. Only 22 when he arrived in Vermont, Garrison was already keenly interested in antislavery and managed while in Benningt onto secure 2,000 signatures for an antislavery petition to Congress.

But Garrison was frustrated. Publicly in the pages of the paper he praised the landscape and the common sense of his Vermont readership, but in truth he didn't love Bennington or the newspaper job. After resigning from the paper, he wrote to a friend about his commitment to antislavery and about the state he intentionally misspelled as Varmaount, - V-A-R-M-A-O-U-N-T - claiming to care not whether I again see an inch of its territory and promising what he called a queer description of Green Mountain bipeds and quadrupeds upon his return to Boston.

Letters like that one reveal a fact about Garrison that's usually left out of textbooks and documentaries: Garrison was funny... and punny. In that same letter he teased his friend, I have been debating how to address you... As I feel just in the mood for barking and scratching, methinks I will be both dog-matical and cat-egorical. Bow-wow-wow-wow! Really, if you want a well-rounded picture of Garrison, I think you have to imagine him barking.

It's important to keep in mind that Garrison was young and single, and Bennington hadn't done much for his love life. He looked forward to seeing young women at an upcoming social event in Boston, writing, Oh, the thought is most exhilarating, to one who has been encompassed by ugly mountains for about seven months, and hardly seen a human being, or a bearable phiz, - that is: face - the whole time. Poor Lloyd!

In later years, as Vermont 's commitment to the abolition of slavery grew, Garrison would say plenty of nice things-publicly and privately-about Vermont. Though he remained a lifelong punster, in those later correspondences about Vermont Garrison is the serious activist we've come to recognize: sober, earnest, and on message. I appreciate that about him, just as I do the blend of playfulness and purpose that characterized a younger Garrison, who departed Bennington for bigger things.