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Winner of the J. Anthony Lukas Prize for Nonfiction in 1999.
ALL ON FIRE IS A BOOK ABOUT AN AGITATOR, AND ITS ARGUMENT CAN BE SIMPLY STATED. WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON (1805-1879) IS AN AUTHENTIC AMERICAN HERO WHO, WITH A BIBLICAL PROPHET'S POWER AND A PROPAGANDIST'S skill, forced the nation to confront the most crucial moral issue in its history. For thirty-five years he edited and published a weekly newspaper in Boston, The Liberator, which remains today a sterling and unrivaled example of personal journalism in the service of civic idealism. Although Garrison--a self-made man with a scanty formal education--considered himself "a New England mechanic" and lived outside the precincts of the American intelligentsia, he nonetheless did the hard intellectual work of challenging orthodoxy, questioning public policy, and offering a luminous vision of a society transformed. He inspired two generations of activists--female and male, black and white--and together they built a social movement which, like the civil rights movement of our own day, was a collaboration of ordinary people, stirred by injustice and committed to each other, who achieved a social change that conventional wisdom first condemned as wrong and then ridiculed as impossible.
Unlike most public men, Garrison pointedly encouraged conflict. He believed that agitation began with conviction of personal duty, and he consistently advocated the highest (some would say impossible) standards of moral citizenship. Most significant, Garrison did not shrink from the realization that the assault upon slavery would require a direct confrontation with American assumptions of white supremacy. He boldly coupled his demand for immediate emancipation with an insistence upon equal rights for black people, a principled stand whose moral clarity eluded every prominent political figure of his era. When emancipation finally arrived, it came therefore by indirection as a consequence of civil war and was accomplished in a halfhearted revolution that failed to achieve fully the moral transformation Garrison envisioned. In bitter irony, the end he most fervently desired--the abolition of slavery--came by the means--the physical coercion of warfare--that, as a pacifist, he most consistently abhorred. Even more ironic, Garrison the agitator found himself hailed in triumph as the moral symbol of a nation made virtuous by victory in a cause belatedly embraced and quickly abandoned.
A PRAYING PEOPLE
THE ABOLITIONIST'S FOREBEARS CAME TO AMERICA AS BOUND LABORERS. ON A SQUALLY DAY AT THE END OF MARCH 1770, STEWARDS FOR CAPTAIN WILLIAM OWEN OF THE ROYAL NAVY MUSTERED A COMPANY OF THIRTY-EIGHT indentured servants, including William Lloyd Garrison's maternal grandparents, aboard a two-hundred-ton Liverpool square-rigger berthed in the Mersey River. The ship, which Owen had recently purchased and re-christened with his own name, stood ready to depart for Canada, where the naval officer turned "lord of the soil" by a land grant from the Crown planned to employ his gang of seafarers, craftsmen, and farmers in founding a proprietary colony on an island at the entrance to the Bay of Fundy. The laborers, most of whom were unemployed Merseyside linenworkers and weavers, had temporarily bargained away their freedom in exchange for passage to Britain's latest North American frontier and the promise of eventual leaseholds on fresh and bountiful land.
When the servants, who had endured the humiliation of a forced march from Owen's estate fifteen miles upriver, found themselves herded into a cargo hold with barely five feet of headspace and tiers of wooden slabs jammed in as sleeping pallets, their spirits sank, for they had not signed away their liberty to be stabled like livestock. While the ship heaved and groaned, straining at its ropes in the stiff wind, the bondsmen became "riotous and disorderly," and Captain Owen--a fierce-looking officer who had lost an eye in a brawl and had his right arm shot off while capturing a French warship off Pondicherry--had to be summoned from a farewell dinner with his business partners to quell the disturbance personally.
The gale blew itself out a few days later, and the Owen weighed anchor and dropped down past the great South Dock, where one hundred vessels a year readied for the "African trade" that supplied a different form of labor--slave labor--to the New World. Thousands of yards of English calicos and linens, tons of wrought iron and brass, and thousands of pounds of gunpowder sailed off to West African trading depots, where they were exchanged for shackled human cargoes to be crammed 'tween-decks and transported to British plantations in the West Indies and on the North American mainland. There enslaved laborers--bound not for a term of years but for a lifetime and, with their progeny, beyond as legal chattel--cleared the land and grew the cash crops whose transport back to England completed the vicious triangle. The business had grown so large that a wholly new dock that would enclose five acres of water was under construction at the Mersey shoreline just for Guinea-bound ships. Their cargoes brought such lavish profits--as much as thirty percent on each voyage, people said--to Liverpool's carriers and merchant brokers that most had cast a cold eye upon Owen's little farming scheme. They would leave Nova Scotia to small-time proprietors like Owen and the distressed English laborers who, as one editor scoffed, sailed off dreaming of "mountains of roast beef and rivers of rum." Yet, in the course of colonial development, the small shiploads of indentured servants in quest of land had peopled North America as surely as the slave traders and planters in search of profits. In the fifteen-year period between the end of the Seven Years War on the American continent and the outbreak of the Revolution, the transatlantic movement westward reached new heights, as a quarter million people--half from the British Isles and almost that many from West Africa--found themselves uprooted from one world and transplanted into another. People shaken out of the Hebrides or the Hausa villages along the Niger became part of vast labor systems that, within another century, would contend for supremacy on the battlefields of Virginia.
For the first three weeks of their voyage, those in steerage endured mountainous waves from "a high cross and confused sea" that poured into the hatchway of their gloomy quarters, drowning the cooking fire in the galley and prompting Owen to log woefully, "My landmen Sea-sick & sick of the Sea." Once they found calm sailing, however, Mary Lawless and Andrew Lloyd found each other. Mary was the daughter of the soldierly John Lawless, who had crossed the North Atlantic a decade earlier and fought on the Plains of Abraham (1759) under the martyred General Wolfe to wrest Canada from the French and now sought to partake of the fruit of that victory as a British settler. He had indentured himself as Captain Owen's barber and signed up his wife and daughter to cook and wash for the proprietor. Andrew Lloyd was a young Welshman who had grown up in a Protestant enclave in County Cork, as had Mary's mother, Catherine, and had come on board apprenticed to the Owen's master, Captain Plato Denny. By the end of the voyage in June 1770, friendship had ripened into romance, a romance so intense, the Garrison family tradition has it, that the couple rushed to marry on the day their ship landed in North America. In truth, they waited for the better part of a year, until the company's strenuous labor had raised on spacious Campobello Island in Passamaquoddy Bay a settlement that could boast marshland drained for hayfields, sturdy houses roofed with fine blue slate, and a prosperous trade in cordwood and codfish. Captain Owen presided over the work and, in the tradition of the country squire, served as both justice of the peace and chaplain. On March 30, 1771, Owen united Mary Lawless and Andrew Lloyd in marriage and genially presided over what he termed a "real and genuine Yankee frolic" with plentiful food, jigs and country-dances, and "much social glee."
Andrew Lloyd had made himself into a first-rate pilot in the notoriously tricky waters of 'Quoddy and the Bay of Fundy, and before the decade ended he had become master of the schooner Managuash and a prosperous carrier of salted fish, lumber, and furs in the trade among the provincial merchants of St. John, Windsor, and Halifax. While Mary's parents turned to farming land they had acquired on neighboring Deer Island, she and Andrew grew a family, eventually numbering thirteen children, on Campobello. They named their firstborn son Plato, to honor Andrew's former master, and they took great pride in their bevy of daughters, the eldest of whom, Frances Maria--the abolitionist's mother--proved to be both the family beauty and the source of its heartache.
Born in 1776, as the 'Quoddy folk tried to keep clear of the rebellion brewing in the older mainland colonies to the southwest, Frances Lloyd grew into a tall and sturdy young woman, as fully capable of butchering a moose or sailing a skiff as baking bread or sewing the clothes for her numerous younger sisters and brothers. She had a quick mind and, despite a lack of schooling, learned to love literature and write with fluency. The Lloyd children knew the spare rewards of a frontier household that grew its food, spun its wool, made its candles, sat on its hand-hewn maple benches, and slept under hand-sewn downy comforters. "I had enough to attach me to this world," Frances later told her own daughter, scarcely realizing what an isolated corner of the world she inhabited.
The 'Quoddy islands had floated in political limbo for many years after the American revolt. Since boundary commissioners appointed jointly by the Crown and the new U.S. government could not trace a continuous line through the tangled channels of Passamaquoddy Bay, the communities remained virtually autonomous enclaves. Frances had reached courting age by the time a settlement in 1798 allowed the Stars and Stripes to be raised over nearby Eastport and Moose Island, just a few hundred yards across the water from her home. Campobello and Deer islands were supposed to become part of the United States, too, but John Lawless and Andrew Lloyd joined a petitioning chorus that successfully kept them Britons and placed their land under the jurisdiction of the newly formed Canadian frontier province of New Brunswick.
Not until the preachers came to Passamaquoddy did Frances Lloyd realize that there could be satisfactions beyond the unchanging round of island life. As if to compensate for their disinclination to political upheaval, Nova Scotians underwent a religious revolution in the 1780s that awakened unchurched frontier families into a "pious frenzy" marked by what the Episcopal bishop of Nova Scotia ridiculed as a "rage for dipping." Baptists preaching the pietistic gospel--the belief that salvation could be obtained through an emotional "new birth" in loving fellowship with Jesus Christ--had roused the western counties with prayer meetings of unparalleled excitement. By the light of blazing birchbark torches repentant sinners groaned and sang and cried out in religious ecstasy, and people rode twenty, thirty, even fifty miles to join their brethren in such wondrous outpourings of the spirit.
The revival, which spread from maritime Canada across the hinterland of northern New England, had begun with Henry Alline (1748-1784), the frail son of a Rhode Island family that had sought opportunity in Nova Scotia. Young Alline had scanty schooling and worked off and on as a tanner and currier, until he experienced a religious conversion that suffused "his whole soul with love" and propelled him into a strenuous preaching career in which he traveled hundreds of miles every year by boat, horse, and snowshoe, stirring religious fervor across the province and leaving, like trail blazes, hosts of converted sinners and scores of independent churches.
Frances Lloyd was only eight years old when Alline sailed her coast on his final tour in 1784, but other itinerant preachers came in his wake. Their appearances became great religious festivals. Families came from all over the bay, lodging in their boats for the several nights of a revival meeting. There were only three ordained ministers in the vast tract between Campobello and the Penobscott River, and these stolid Anglicans had a disinclination to travel. The "New Lights" kindled by Alline, however, would take the gospel anywhere, especially to unchurched districts like 'Quoddy, and they remained less concerned about the form of the new churches that sprang up than they did about the drama of salvation that brought souls back to Christ and the redemptive power of perfect love. The nascent religious community at 'Quoddy remained an ecumenical one for many years; when the first church was convened, on Moose Island in 1794, it imposed no sectarian tests for membership and called no permanent minister to its pulpit.
Frances Lloyd heard her first preaching in meadows and barns. She went with the other young women of the island, wearing short loose gowns and aprons tied about their heads, in a frolicsome spirit, as much to socialize as to pray. The boisterous and proud Frances, indeed, scoffed at those folk who were so easily overcome and fell to shouting and confessing their sins. Yet she felt her own stout heart beginning to melt under the heat of the preaching, and one night she began to weep. Her soul grew restless, her discontent palpable; she came to sense the power of that majestic God who divided the flames of fire and shook the wilderness. She, too, groaned in sin and cried out for mercy. For the peace of her soul she called on Christ to be her Savior, and, in the words of an Alline hymn, her cutting anguish ceased and she found a strength divine.
Frances embraced the "personal religion" of the dissenters and broke the binding ties with her parents. She seldom spoke of it again, but a family legend grew up that Mary and Andrew Lloyd, who had remained partial to the Anglican orthodoxy that had come over with them on the Owen, would not recognize the workings of grace. They regarded Frances's conversion as another unbecoming, even dangerous, outcropping of her willfulness and pride. Turning their headstrong eldest daughter out of their house, they sent Frances to live with her grandparents on Deer Island.
She also spent a good deal of time in Eastport, where she taught in the community school and conducted prayer meetings. Occasionally she read from the printed sermons of the evangelical leaders, but more often she spoke extemporaneously from the promptings of her heart. The gatherings were popular, and the powerful young woman at the pulpit attracted not only the faithful, but the restless sparks of the neighborhood. One night as she was leaving prayer meeting, her shoulders wrapped in a woolly coat against the chill, a young man she had never seen before came up to her and boldly asked, "Miss Blue Jacket, may I walk you home?" Frances rebuffed him, but when a few weeks later she received a letter, fervent in both poetry and piety, from this erstwhile escort, whose name was now revealed to be Abijah Garrison, she had no trouble remembering the way he had looked at her and she hesitated not a bit before accepting his invitation to correspond.
Abijah Garrison was no stranger either to prayer meetings or to strong-willed women. His mother, Mary Palmer Garrison, had defied her family by leaving the Congregational Church, where her father was a deacon, to take up with the Baptists, and when the Rev. Henry Alline came up the St. John River to preach at her little village of Maugerville, New Brunswick, Mary Garrison could be counted as part of the rejoicing company "that went with [him] from place to place, sometimes six or seven boats loaded with people." Abijah himself, born in 1773, was old enough to remember how the fervent crowds lined the riverbank during Alline's visit in 1779 and. pressed their little children toward the Gospel messenger.
Like Frances Lloyd, Abijah had grown up in an isolated but determined farming community that counted his parents among its pioneer settlers. They had built their township along a remarkably fertile alluvial flat running between the St. John River and a parallel smaller stream, the Jemseg, that poured out of a large backwoods lake. The Palmers had come to the Jemseg region in 1764 from Newbury, Massachusetts, in association with nearly one hundred other Essex County families drawn by generous land grants that had enticed them into believing that "a new New England" could arise in the fruitful valleys of maritime Canada. At the outset of the enterprise, daughter Mary had married Joseph Garrison, a thirty-year-old migrant probably descended from Huguenots who had crossed the Atlantic to escape French persecution. This long-faced quiet man lived contentedly in the Palmers' shadow. He had a township allotment of five hundred acres upriver by one tract from his father-in-law's; he let his wife name the children (there would be nine all told) with Palmer names; the children all looked like Palmers, too, fair-skinned and fair-haired, with the jolly air and sanguine temperament of their mother and her adventurous kinfolk.
The Yankee settlers prospered in the new country of lush grainfields, rivers abundant with salmon, trout, and sturgeon, and extensive forests of conifers and hardwoods that afforded a cash crop. Maugerville monopolized the trade in naval masts that made New Brunswick a valuable province, and squadrons of men labored intensively to bring down the mighty trees and haul the tall trunks to the river. Abijah and his brothers also went with their father on lumbering expeditions that hewed smaller white oak timber for barrel staves, which they sold in St. John. A few pennies went to the deacon's son who kept school several months each winter, and Abijah learned to read and write with tolerable grace. He did not learn to accept the life of a farmer and lumberjack, however, and by the early 1790s he had left the Jemseg to work as a seaman with a firm of St. John merchants who kept a few vessels busy in regular trade with their old hometown of Newburyport in Massachusetts.
Soon he was sailing under two flags. After 1793, with Britain and France at war and the neutral Americans grabbing more and more of the carrying trade with the West Indies, the seaports of the United States did their best to entice British sailors into the American merchant service. American seaman's papers, which might protect a British tar from being impressed into the Royal Navy, could be obtained in such an easy charade that, like many of his shipmates, Abijah Garrison found it prudent to get himself "naturalized." On a voyage into Newburyport in March 1797, he strolled over to the Custom House and enrolled under the U.S. Seamen's Protection Act. The clerk neatly inscribed his name in the huge folio registry and, inquiring as to Garrison's place of birth, ambiguously recorded the mumbled answer as "Brunswick," adding one more "ditto" to a long column labeled "Nativity in the United States." Garrison received certificate number 427, which described the young sailor as twenty-four years old, five feet ten inches in height--tallish compared to other registrants on the page--and of "fresh" complexion, a term that politely melded the Palmer fair skin with the blood-red birthmark that blotched Abijah's face and ran under his chin like a muffler.
Garrison eventually worked his way up to become a capable pilot and a "sailing-master" in charge of navigation in the merchant fleet. In July 1798, while working on the schooner Boyne, Abijah put in at 'Quoddy, telling a friend that he'd come in search of "Lady Fr -----_.... s," the young woman with whom he had corresponded. Having duplicated Andrew Lloyd's rise in the world, the young mariner proposed to take Lloyd's feisty daughter in marriage. The 'Quoddy captain assented, and after their marriage in December 1798, Abijah brought his bride, whom he dotingly called Fanny, back to the Jemseg to live among his kinfolk during his absences at sea. Joseph Garrison had died in 1783 when Abijah was ten, and his mother had supported her family as a midwife, an occupation she continued after remarriage to another quiet farmer, Robert Angus. Theirs was a hospitable and pious home, and Fanny was grateful for their sympathetic care, especially after her firstborn child, a daughter named for Abijah's mother, died in infancy.
Later, with Abijah content for a time to work as a pilot in the Bay of Fundy, the Garrisons set up for themselves in rooms on Duke Street in the little seaport of St. John, where a son, James, was born in 1801 and a daughter, Caroline, in 1803. It became harder and harder to supply his family, Abijah found, as the maritime provinces suffered under wartime trade Restrictions and the sluggish economy was worsened by a severe drought that made even bread and vegetables scarce. Having floated hither and yon in search of the right situation, the navigator decided upon a course correction. "I have been following the rule of false position, or rather permutation, these seven last years, and have never been able to solve the question to my satisfaction till now," Abijah wrote. This time, however, he was sure that the answer lay in relying upon his American sea papers to make a permanent move to Newburyport, a thriving place where he had good connections and high hopes for promoting his family's welfare.
Newburyport lay in the northeasternmost corner of Massachusetts at the mouth of the Merrimack River, tucked into a long crescent on the south riverbank. The town's spires glittered white against water dark with silt from distant New Hampshire hills. To go from the thin harvests and somnolent wharves of eastern Canada to prosperous Newburyport, with its mile-long waterfront a forest of masts and its docks piled high with cargoes from the Indies, East as well as West, seemed to these immigrants from isolated New Brunswick to be like a voyage to London itself. Newburyport was the third-largest place in Massachusetts, with only Boston and Salem outranking it in both tonnage and people. As home to five thousand souls, Newburyport had the attributes of a real town, with church towers and crisscrossing streets (some paved with stones and illuminated by torches at town expense), a public market noisy with vendors and redolent of beef on the hoof and oysters in the shell, and a new courthouse designed by the same man who had done the State House at Boston. There were fine mansions on the high street, an elegant mall lined with poplar trees where the "topping folks" could promenade, blocks of brick buildings filled with shops, booksellers and printing offices, and enterprising merchants who subscribed to the grand projects--an arched bridge across the river, a turnpike running straight as an arrow all the way to Boston--that would earn the town an even brighter mark on the map of commerce. The delighted Abijah took a good look around and exclaimed, "Money is as Plenty here as goods."
Opportunity drew Garrison to Water Street, where two dozen merchants had broad wharves--each a commercial village unto itself--jutting out into the Merrimack. In 1805 Newburyport had at least 176 vessels registered to its townsfolk, and in the month of Abijah Garrison's arrival, this fleet had brought freight valued at more than $800,000 into the port. English woolens, Russian linen sheetings, Swedish iron, French glassware, and Dutch gin each had a place in the trade, along with paint and ribbons and cheese and nails and parasols and writing paper. For all these goods, and more, Newburyport had shipped out vast quantities of dried fish, planks and shingles, bricks, candles, cordage, corn, and rum distilled directly at Coffin's and Brown's docksides from molasses brought up from the West Indies, along with sugar to be reexported to the Baltic. The town also built the ships it sailed, using stout timbers from the Merrimack back country and equipping the vessels with sails and rigging, pumps and blocks, and iron fixtures all done in the port's workshops. "Come here if you can," Abijah urged his brother Joseph. "There is more than fifty ways you might find employment, and always have the Cash as soon as the work is done."
Roaming the docks in search of a suitable berth, Abijah spurned opportunities to work in the waters he knew best. He declined good wages for piloting Newburyport traders through 'Quoddy's vexing currents and not even thirty dollars a month could tempt him into the Labrador fishery. More could be made by sailing toward the tropics. He made short voyages to Virginia for loads of corn and flour (buying and selling part of the cargo himself at a tidy profit) and longer ones to Guadeloupe for molasses, sugar, and crates of oranges, tamarinds, and other tropical bounty. At last, it seemed, he had found his way.
Fanny Garrison, too, had found opportunity in Newburyport, and hers was an abundance of the spirit. For several years before her arrival, the Baptists had excited some interest. A revival, originating in the Prospect Street Congregational Church in 1802, had spread through town and rekindled interest in evangelical religion. Weekly prayer meetings sprang up: kindred spirits gathered in someone's house to exhort each other with phrases of Scripture twined around the testimony of their hearts. The Baptists--with their fervid piety and ecstatic worship forms, their voluntary submission to each other's loving concern, and their eagerness to keep faith with the gospel rules of the early church--offered a striking contrast to the staid and settled ways of the town's Congregational churches. The port's leading ministers, whose sermons on "commonplace topics in commonplace language" had bored the young law student John Quincy Adams when he had clerked in the town in 1786, still held their pulpits two decades later and shook warning fingers at the "flimsy sect" of Baptists who challenged them.
Newburyport was feeling the reverberations from the religious tumult Henry Alline had created in the Nova Scotia of Fanny Garrison's childhood. That awakening had prompted two decades of religious revivals all across northern New England, which had led to the rise of hundreds of loosely organized dissenting groups that abandoned orthodox Calvinism and the established Congregational Church for an evangelical religion directly attuned to the new birth and open to charismatic preaching and spontaneous, communal expression. In one region it would be itinerant Methodists or Baptists, in others it would be Universalists or Freewill Baptists or zealous preachers simply calling themselves Christians, but everywhere the awakening was a populist insurgency that elevated the individual conscience and disdained the ordained clergy, cherished the words of the Bible and spurned formal theology, gave ordinary people a voice and challenged traditional church organizations.
The Baptist revival that drew Fanny Garrison into its company was taking place within earshot of the tomb of the eighteenth century's most celebrated evangelist, the Rev. George Whitefield, who had preached three times in Newburyport and had collapsed and died there in 1770. A woman named Martha Farnham held prayer meetings in her modest house on School Street behind the big Federal Street Presbyterian Church where Whitefield lay buried. Across the way a group of artisans prayed at the house of carpenter Moses Short, and by the spring of 1805, just at the time the Garrisons moved to town, the two meetings had gathered themselves into a church, issued a call for a minister, and found a regular place of worship in a schoolhouse on the river flats below the port.
Like her Biblical namesake, Martha Farnham knew how to minister to people's needs. ("Her friends knew her worth" would be engraved on her tombstone.) She found room in the house on School Street for the Garrisons, and she took Fanny, with two toddlers to care for and a third child expected by winter, under her wing. Two years younger than Fanny, Martha was married to a mariner fifteen years her senior, and with their husbands both absent for long periods, the women's friendship easily ripened. Martha had an infant daughter, Harriet, and when Fanny gave birth on December 12, 1805, to her second son, named William Lloyd--to honor both Abijah's youngest brother, a gravely pious schoolteacher, and her own family--the women cared for the babies together.
They also became sisters in Christ ("the best of bonds"), sharing conduct of the weekly prayer meetings on School Street, where Fanny's strong voice led hosannas to the Lamb of God. "My heart grows warm with holy fire and kindled with a pure desire," she would sing; "Come my dear Jesus from above and fill my soul with sacred love." In the cramped house of Martha Farnham--"the tender sympathisizing friend of my Bosom"--Fanny Garrison declared that she had found a "happy Mansion."
Abijah Garrison missed the vitality of the Farnham house. "It seems seven years to me since I saw you last," he complained to Fanny in November 1806 from Guadeloupe; "I cou'd with pleasure this moment give all I shall earn this voyage to be present with you and my children. May God bless you [and] preserve you in health is the prayer of your affectionate husband." Heartfelt words no doubt, yet when wages dried up a year or so later, Abijah found family life impossibly burdensome.
It was Abijah's misfortune to have left Nova Scotia just before its hard times eased and to have resettled in Newburyport just before its trade collapsed. This was less a function of the rule of false position than it was the reverberations from the Napoleonic Wars. As France and Great Britain entered the final phase of their struggle for European domination, each sought to cripple its opponent by economic warfare. While the United States made sophisticated legal claims for a neutral party's right to trade with all belligerents, the warring nations preyed on American ships and sailors and adopted regulations intended to drive Americans from the lucrative carrying trade they had developed since they had become independent. Britain now took steps to promote Halifax and St. John as major distribution points for North American trade, and as Nova Scotia flourished, New England's West Indian trade greatly suffered. In response, the Jefferson administration, hoping both to vindicate neutral rights and to avoid expensive and degrading involvement in the sordid wars of the Old World, undertook a high-minded diplomatic policy of peaceable coercion that culminated in December 1807 with a complete embargo on U.S. trade with Europe. The boycott placed few immediate burdens upon the agrarian heartland that supported Thomas Jefferson, but it stifled the seaports of Federalist New England.
Abijah Garrison and hundreds like him lost their livelihoods. By springtime Newburyport counted seventy idle vessels laid up in port, and its newspaper editor grouchily named the grass growing up on the wharves as the chief product of "Farmer Jefferson's embargo." In December 1808 the muffled drums and tolling bells of a funeral procession marked the first anniversary of the embargo in Newburyport, as shabbily dressed sailors dragged a dismantled ship through the streets, its helmsman carrying a placard with the pathetic inquiry "Which way shall I steer?"
Fanny's husband did not march in the protest, for by that time he had chosen a different course. Enforced idleness in a house with four children under the age of seven (and an infant daughter born to the Garrisons in July 1808), seemed less attractive in reality than it had from distant Guadeloupe, and the fervor of the Farnham prayer meeting did not provide him the satisfaction that it gave his wife. Trouble further mounted when five-year-old Caroline, impelled by hunger as much as curiosity, ate some poisonous spring shrubbery and died in an agony of convulsions.
The succession of events overwhelmed the self-pitying Abijah. He lost his faith, fell away from the temperate path, and spent his days and the few dollars he could scrounge from day work drinking in waterfront saloons. Family legend recounts that Sister Garrison once quite literally broke up her husband's drinking party by smashing the offending bottles, and this is sometimes taken to mean that Abijah Garrison was driven to desert his family by his termagant of a wife. Yet no one knows precisely when Abijah walked out, much less the circumstances. She may have thrown him out; he may have stormed out, or, just as likely, weaseled away with the promise that he would search for work again under the Union Jack at 'Quoddy or St. John and then send for the family. No summons ever came, and although occasionally there was a rumor--he was teaching school in New Brunswick, he was voyaging again in the tropics, he was bigamously married in St. John--the family on School Street never saw him again.
His wife seldom spoke of her absent husband and in subtle ways tried to obliterate his imprint. She dropped the affectionate diminutive Fanny and became known to her pastor and friends as Maria. She also habitually called her second son Lloyd, after her own family name. The children remembered nothing of Abijah, and when William Lloyd Garrison, as an old man, diligently searched through the Newburyport shipping archives he could find not a trace of his father's presence. A distant cousin eventually turned up an hourglass, crudely cut with the initials A. G., that the son gratefully accepted as tangible evidence of his progenitor.
Lloyd did remember his tall, raven-haired mother as a vigilant guardian with a "vigorous, lustrous [mind] sanctified by an ever-glowing piety." Her frontier-bred determination never faltered, he thought, as he watched her march through life with "high views" of its duties and, with the firmness of a Christian soldier, boasting that only a cannonball could lay her low.
Sister Garrison gave her son lessons in relentless but cheerful combat. She taught him to anticipate the day when "the palm shall be put into our hands and we triumphantly shall cry victory," but she admonished, too, that in the struggle against sinfulness, "we have need to be equipped with the whole armour of God." His mother's was an active religion, an endless battle in which combat was conducted in volleys of words as well as deeds. The son remembered that powerful voice in its torrents of pious exhortation, a fervent pastiche of lines from hymns, passages of Scripture, and the promise that in the pietists' continuing drama of sinfulness and salvation "God himself shall wipe all tears from his dear followers' eyes when their warfare is accomplished." With her voice--"one of the best," her son would say--raised in song, his mother enacted the mighty scenes of combat and praise, of struggle and deliverance, that made a lifelong impression upon the child at her knee.
And what mother could resist the little boy who walked around singing, in a sweetly piping voice, "Through all the changing scenes of life, in trouble and joy," the first psalm tune he'd ever learned? Garrison never lost his affection for the favorite hymns of his childhood and the dramatic feelings they stirred in him. He loved the vigorous procession of "Coronation," with its many repeated notes that hailed "the pow'r of Jesus' name!" and led to the marching, full-throated "Bring forth the royal diadem and crown Him Lord of all." He always found new energy and freedom in "Majesty," whose driving, fugal phrases told of how the Lord mastered the tempest and drove the darkness from the sky. To the plaintive shepherd's tune from Handel's Messiah, Garrison sang his favorite hymn, "Awake my soul/Stretch every nerve/and press with vigor on/A heavenly race demands thy zeal/and an immortal crown."
The grand drama of deliverance and the sound of the celestial choir enabled the little family to cope with the harshness of daily life. Abijah Garrison's desertion had left his wife and children nearly destitute. They got along with the help of the Farnhams and others in the Baptist society. Sister Garrison worked intermittently as a "monthly nurse" who tended newborn infants and their mothers in the first four weeks after delivery, but to do so she had to leave her own baby behind to be cared for by Martha. The pint-sized boys, Jemmy and Lloyd, gathered clams on the river flats and sold sticks of homemade molasses candy on the street. Sometimes they fetched leftovers from their mother's charitable employers or collected soup from the mariners' relief kitchen set up in 1809 at town expense, enduring the taunts of street kids as they carried their tin pails home like pig swill.
Sister Garrison seemed indomitable to her son, but her churchfolk knew the heaviness of her heart. Her sorrows and her faith made her eloquent in prayer, and she became a familiar voice in the community. "God's people is a praying people," she believed, and the weekly female prayer meetings ' stood as "the very gate of Heaven to our souls." When she felt cold, she wrote, "the flame of Jehovah's love" warmed her, and when she felt "barren and dead," Jesus revived her in prayer meeting with the feeling that God's grace was as sweet as "the Dews of Heaven."
The tender care she received from Martha Farnham and their pastor, Eider John Peak, demonstrated the mercy of "an invisible power" that held the promise of eventual peace in Christ. An itinerant preacher in the Alline tradition who had first received the call in a New Hampshire field in 1785, Peak had also known sorrow. Rheumatic fever had crippled him as a young man, one daughter had died of a fever on the journey to accept Newburyport's call in 1805, and another languished a winter before recovering her health. Though lame and halt in body, with sad, dark eyes and a mournful face, Peak proved an inspiring, affectionate "brother in adversity," and Sister Garrison said that she would always remember the way he calmed her afflicted mind with "the consoling and heart cheering promises of the Gospel."
John Peak preached in all neighborhoods, but, insisting upon a central location for the church, he persuaded the faithful to march from the outlying river chapel into the town proper, where they gathered in the loft of a vacant town building whose boarded-up windows made it an odd place, Newburyporters said, in which to find new light. To embody their unity he led the processions himself. Glowing with piety, walking on streets Whitefield had trod, and singing the hymns Alline had sung, these evangelicals felt themselves "wrapped up in God... ravished with a divine ecstasy beyond any doubts or fears." In her church Sister Garrison found "rapture, extacy, and joy;" and amid sisters and brothers "dear to me in Bonds of Spiritual Union," she made a home for her children.
"The good work progressed," Elder Peak wrote, as more inquiring meetings and prayer sessions took place in houses like Sister Farnham's and Sister Garrison's. The Baptist society prospered "in a great rain of righteousness" that increased the church to about eighty members by 1809 and permitted the construction of a trim brick meetinghouse on a corner of Liberty Street behind an important block of stores. Then, on the night of May 31, 1811, earthly vanities went up in smoke. A large column of fire burst through the roof of a stable down on Merchants' Row and, fed by a dry wind, rapidly spread toward the market house and the ferry wharf. Although the volunteer companies quickly reached the scene and long lines of townspeople formed to pass buckets of water to the firefighters, the conflagration soon engulfed the "most ancient, wealthy, and commercial" part of town. Families in the path of danger threw their belongings into wagons and, clutching their bedclothes about their shoulders, tried to get their children and goods to places of safety, including the sturdy Baptist church, which appeared to be well beyond the limits of the blaze. An abrupt change in the wind, however, pushed the fire across State Street, where it began to devour the large brick buildings that everyone had counted on to protect the lower end of town.
Elder Peak saw the fire entering his street and ran home, where he found his daughter Ploomy packing crockery and bedding. He took down his clock and had a few minutes to throw volumes from his library into a wheelbarrow before the fire bit into his roof. Somehow they made their way to the Farnham house, where Ploomy fell sobbing uncontrollably upon the piles of goods. From the roof the minister could see the vast column of cinders and flames and watched, with sinking heart, as the roof of their new church collapsed and sank into ashes. "We should suspect some danger nigh, where we possess delight," he reminded himself.
At Farnham's, where many refugees gathered, the spectacle could be observed in all its terror. The five-year-old William Lloyd Garrison would never forget being held aloft to watch the leaping flames that seared the sky. The glare of light was intense, yet smoky clouds obliterated the moon and the night air became as sultry as a summer's noon. Firemen's trumpets rang out over the crash of chimneys and the cries of distress, while explosions of stored powder and spirits from the wharfside distilleries gave off thunderous sounds of war.
Shortly after dawn, when a cooling fog helped quench the blaze, the fire at last came under control, and Newburyport stared devastation in its grimy, acrid face. Two hundred and forty buildings destroyed, thirteen wharves consumed, ninety families homeless, every dry goods store a wreck, the town library a ruin, and the Baptist meetinghouse in shambles. A visitation without parallel, the fire burned the heart out of the town and broke up forever the possibility of family life for Sister Garrison and her children.
|Bk. 1||Awake My Soul 1805-1830|
|Ch. 1||A Praying People||3|
|Ch. 2||The Art and Mystery of Printing||17|
|Ch. 3||A New Race of Editors||33|
|Ch. 4||My Soul Was on Fire Then||44|
|Ch. 5||In Baltimore Jail||71|
|Bk. 2||Stretch Every Nerve 1831-1835|
|Ch. 6||A New England Mechanic||97|
|Ch. 7||Scatter Tracts like Raindrops||127|
|Ch. 8||Ambassador of Abolition||151|
|Ch. 9||The Most Eventful Year in My History||166|
|Ch. 10||Brickbats in the Cause of God||188|
|Bk. 3||And Press With Vigor On 1836-1844|
|Ch. 11||A Universal Emancipation from Sin||213|
|Ch. 12||The Editor as Ishmaelite||240|
|Ch. 14||Garrisonized to the Backbone||285|
|Ch. 15||No Union with Slaveholders||300|
|Bk. 4||A Heavenly Race Demands Thy Zeal 1844-1858|
|Ch. 16||Revolutions Never Go Backward||333|
|Ch. 17||Snap the Cords of Party||364|
|Ch. 18||The Mathematics of Justice||388|
|Ch. 19||Fugitive Slave Law: Denounced, Resisted, Disobeyed||406|
|Ch. 20||If Kansas Is Free Soil, Then Why Not Carolina?||443|
|Bk. 5||And an Immortal Crown 1859-1879|
|Ch. 21||John Brown Has Told Us the Time||485|
|Ch. 22||The Covenant Annulled||518|
|Ch. 23||Everything Gravitates Toward Freedom||548|
|Ch. 24||My Vocation Has Ended||586|
|Ch. 25||I Miss Mr. Garrison||615|