William Lloyd Garrison, Libel, and Speaking Truth to Power

William Lloyd Garrison
William Lloyd Garrison
Brought up for libel charges on a political basis, William Lloyd Garrison became one of the strongest advocates against slavery in the 1830s. Though the government tried to silence him, he continued to use the free press to detail the evils of slavery.

For a month now, I have written this daily blog to help me remember the greatness of this country and the Constitution. Though the writings of Justice Douglas and the myriad of documents online, I remain invigorated by the spirit of America in the face of horrors and authoritarianism. Like the subject of today’s almanac entry, I will stand against the belittling of the free press. Although I do not own a newspaper and I do not have the resources for my own reporting, like William Lloyd Garrison, I will stand to my truths and not compromise when others say to respect the government.

My Country – William Lloyd Garrison

In 1829, William Lloyd Garrison started a newspaper and printed the name of a Newburyport, Massachusetts merchant. The merchant owned a ship engaged in slave traffic, which carried slaves from Annapolis to New Orleans. Due to this business, Garrison claimed that the merchant should be sentenced to solitary confinement for live. And that he deserved the “lowest depths of perdition.” On February 19, 1830, William Lloyd Garrison was indicted for libel.

What is Libel?

Libel is a method of defamation expressed by print, writing, pictures, signs, effigies, or any communication embodied in physical form that is injurious to a person’s reputation, exposes a person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, or injures a person in his/her business or profession.”

However, a defamatory statement is

  1. a false statement of fact communicated negligently or intentionally or published to a third party, and
  2. that causes injury or damage to the subject of the statement.

If a statement is true and causes a person no damages, no claim can exist.

Genius of Universal Emancipation

Benjamin Lundy recruited William Lloyd Garrison to write for his anti-slavery paper, the Genius of Universal Emancipation. Although Lundy brought Garrison into the abolitionist movement, Garrison quickly surpassed his boss’s feelings of a gradual move towards emancipation. Garrison created a feature, “The Black List,” which reported the brutalities of slavery. The shipper, Francis Todd from Newburyport, MA, became one of the subjects of this column.

The Black List – The Ship Francis

Of captain Nicholas Brown I should have expected better conduct. It is no worse to fit out piratical cruisers, or to engage in the foreign slave trade, than to pursue a similar trade along our own coasts; and the men who have the wickedness to participate therein, for the purpose of heaping up wealth, should be SENTENCED TO SOLITARY CONFINEMENT FOR LIFE;they are the enemies of their own species—highway robbers and murderers; and their final doom will be, unless they speedily repent, to occupy the lowest depths of perdition.

I know that our laws make a distinction in this matter. I know that the man who is allowed to freight his vessel with slaves at home, for a distant market, would be thought worthy of death if he should take a similar freight on the coast of Africa; but I know, too, that this distinction is absurd, and at war with the common sense of mankind, and that God and good men regard it with abhorrence.

I recollect that it was always a mystery in Newburyport, how Mr. Todd contrived to make profitable voyages to New Orleans and other places, when other merchants, with as fair an opportunity to make money, and sending at the same ports at the same time, invariably made fewer successful speculations. The mystery seems to be unravelled. Any man can gather up riches, if he does not care by what means they are obtained.

The Francis carried off seventy-five slaves, chained in a narrow space between decks. Captain Brown originally intended to take one hundred and fifty of these unfortunate creatures; but another hard-hearted shipmaster underbid him in the price of passage for the remaining moiety. Captain B., I believe, is a mason. Where was his charity or brotherly kindness?

(Genius of Universal Emancipation, Lundy, Vol. 1, Third Series, April, 1830, pg. 99)

The Libel Trial of William Lloyd Garrison

Garrison saw the trial as an example of the destruction of the free press. Seems right as he had told the truth. But he was brought up with libel charges nonetheless. After a short trial, the judge convicted him and sentenced to 6 months in prison. He served 7 weeks. During that time, William Lloyd Garrison wrote his thoughts of the trial into a brief sketch. He concluded the portion about the trial with the following:

Deeply as I am indebted to my editorial brethren throughout the country, for their kind expressions toward me, I solicit them to publish the facts growing out of this trial, and to make such comments as may seem expedient. I think it will appear, that the freedom of the press has been invaded, and that power, and not justice, has convicted me; and I appeal to the people for a change of the verdict. Certainly, the fact would astonish all Europe, if it were trumpeted in that quarter, that an American citizen lies incarcerated in prison, for having denounced slavery, and its abettors, in his own country!

The Liberator

Liberator by William Lloyd Garrison

On January 1, 1831, he published the first issue of his own anti-slavery newspaper, the Liberator. At this point, William Lloyd Garrison advocated the immediate emancipation of all slaves. Garrison never wanted to compromise and ended up causing rifts with many other progressive leaders, including Frederick Douglass. Garrison fought slavery up until the Emancipation Proclamation, which he lived to see. He continuously published The Liberator, even though it had a very small readership.


William Lloyd Garrison was a firebrand. He did not want to waiver and felt strongly about the evils of slavery. His zealotry, though, becomes the reason we learn his name in history classes. He looked to the morality of the issue from a human standpoint. People perverted religion and the Bible to endorse slavery. And he felt no man can look at those practices and have a soul.

As we stand in front of an administration that may punish through ridiculous lawsuits to halt the press, remember Garrison. Power works to stop those who speak against it. And sometimes, you need to forgo compromise for a legitimate right. One must consider what that stands for when others may find your legitimate right, a wrong.

Daily Briefing

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Daily Distraction

This summer, DuckTales returns to TV. All my Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck comics come to life once more!

Back to high school I go! I will need to walk my dog between commercial breaks to relive my youth.

One Sentence Story

He is bobbing for the kibble piece that fell in his water bowl but has only managed to get all of the water that once was in the bowl onto the floor as the kibble continues to float past his tongue in the bowl.

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