William Lloyd Garrison Opines on April 12, 1861

April 12, 1861 was the day hostilities commenced in the American Civil War. It also was the day William Lloyd Garrison published yet another issue of The Liberator, the most prominent and longest published abolitionist newspaper in the United States. Started in 1831 and published weekly, Garrison used The Liberator to push for the immediate abolition of slavery in the United States, and the newspaper became well-known for its blunt, uncompromising style.

Garrison, of course, no doubt had put the April 12 edition to type sometime before the Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter. However, when he composed this edition, it was clear that matters were rapidly moving toward war. So William Lloyd Garrison used the occasion to opine on the cause of the looming conflict, which he clearly attributed to slavery and not surprisingly blamed on the slave states.

Garrison wrote:

Within a few days at farthest, the cannon of the insurgents will be battering down the defences and slaughtering the defenders of the American Union.

Let us pause a moment and consider.

Slavery makes open war upon that Union which has so long been its protection and security.

For thirty years, the opponents of slavery have borne the imputation–which not one in a hundred of them deserved–of seeking their end through the dissolution of the Union.

In all this time, not a squadron has charged, not a platoon has fired, on the National flag and forces, under the inspiration of Anti-Slavery. Its advocates have been beaten at elections, hunted out of halls which they had hired and paid for, mobbed and maimed in the slave States, and generally proscribed and stigmatized in the free, without being goaded into hostilities. Only in Kansas, when compelled to choose between resistance and annihilation, have they been moved to repel force with force.

The Slave power, after enjoying undisturbed sway for half a century, has at length lost an election. Hereupon, it proceeds to treat hat election as a farce and a nullity, and defy those whom it invested with authority.

It has, while in power, loudly vaunted its fidelity and devotedness to the Federal Constitution. Losing power, it deliberately repudiates that charter, and adopts one radically different in its stead.

“The Union, the Union forever!” has been the vociferous cry of its servitors. Having lost an election, they treat that same Union as a hated curse, passing ordinances and raising armies for its overthrow.

“Let the laws be enforced!” it was thundered whenever the consciences of freemen revolted at the inhuman atrocities of slave-hunting in free States. But the moment the enforcement of the laws has devolved on Republicans, slavery denounces it as “coercion,” and insists that it is inaugurating civil war!

And in fact to very many, North as well as South, slavery is above the Union, above the laws, above the Constitution. Rebellion, in their view, is opposition to slavery; while love of slavery and love of the Union are synonymous.

They plead for Peace, meaning that there be no further resistance to slavery. “National Unity,” in their vocabulary, means a universal agreement that slavery is eminently right, and that it ought to be diffused universally and maintained forever. . . .

There is not even a pretence that the Federal Government has done or refused to do anything whereby this rebellion is justified. It has been pacific, forbearing, and most anxious to avoid a collision. It has allowed its troops to be disarmed, its arsenals to be robbed, its forts to be seized, its money to be stolen, and its revenues to be collected and appropriated by its open enemies. Through these high-handed villainies, a whole frontier has been open to savage incursion and massacre, until even Mexico threatens an invasion. It has seriously lost ground with its friends by vainly seeking to conciliate its implacable foes. At length the great slaveholding rebellion is ready to unmask its batteries and open fire on the most exposed and isolated of the National defences. The challenge of its opening cannonade will soon reverberate over the country. The Union flag on Fort Sumter is to be shot down by the rebel batteries unless speedily lowered by the devoted garrison. The American Republic now enters upon the gravest peril it has known since the treason of Arnold. God grant that it pass through them with undoubting reliance on the omnipotence of Justice, and emerge at length, however tried and tested, unwavering in its loyalty to Freedom and the Rights of Man!

So ironically, as the Civil War started, William Lloyd Garrison and the planters of the South were in agreement on a key point. At the heart of the conflict’s cause lay slavery.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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