"Because the VICTIMS ARE BLACK": William Lloyd Garrison on Racism, Double Standards and Harriet Beecher Stowe

"The Liberator", William Lloyd Garrison's journal, established 1831

"The Liberator", William Lloyd Garrison's journal, established 1831

"...We are curious to know whether Mrs. Stowe is a believer in the duty of non-resistance for the white man, under all possible outrage and peril, as well as for the black man; whether she is for self-defense on her own part, or that of her husband or friends or country, in case of malignant assault, or whether she impartially disarms all mankind in the name of Christ, be the danger or suffering what it may...That all the slaves at the South ought, "if smitten on the one cheek, to turn the other also"—to repudiate all carnal weapons, shed no blood, "be obedient to their masters," wait for a peaceful deliverance, and abstain for all insurrectionary movements—is every where taken for granted, because the VICTIMS ARE BLACK."-William Lloyd Garrison reviewing Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in The Liberator, March, 1852.

William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist's abolitionist, was fierce and fiery in his rhetoric, absolute in his stance against slavery, and he was, as all good critics are, first and foremost a self-critic, calling out his own decision to support colonization and gradual emancipation in the first issue of The Liberator, pledging that in the cause of emancipation, "I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice." Garrison had endorsed colonization while a member of Lyman Beecher's church in Boston and, human beings being what we are, human, I think some of this must have been on his mind when reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin", Reverend Beecher's daughter's book. His review of Stowe's best selling novel in The Liberator is not personal, nor does Garrison attack her as a "sentimentalist" or question whether it is appropriate for a woman to write on controversial subjects like slavery (criticisms based in a nineteenth century sexism that followed Stowe for the rest of her career). Rather, what Garrison is asking Stowe to do is to defend her novel, to defend her character Tom as the embodiment of nonviolence, to defend her implicit endorsement of colonization by ending her novel with her characters leaving for Africa via Canada.   

And, he is calling her out on a double standard, really, one of the well known family traits of the Beechers to pull back from endorsing anything as "radical" as immediate and full emancipation for enslaved Africans or full integration with free blacks (as Joan Hedrick references in her Pulitzer Prize winning book, "Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life", Lyman Beecher, while President of Lane Seminary, told his students that, "If you want to teach colored schools I can fill your pockets with money; but if you will visit in colored families, and walk with them in the streets, you will be overwhelmed"). At the same time he is also addressing well-known white fears of a massive slave revolt in the South, one which lingered behind the visceral brutality of the slave system, and not just in the South but also in places like New York City which had seen - and brutally punished - several slave revolts during the time slavery was legal in the North. 

All of this history was well known to Garrison's audience, and it was equally well known to Stowe, herself, who declined to publicly debate the matter with him.

 

Henry Ward Beecher, New York Public Library Archives

Henry Ward Beecher, New York Public Library Archives

Garrison's question to Stowe in this 1852 review is ironically prescient: "When it is the whites who are trodden in the dust, does Christ justify them in taking up arms to vindicate their rights?" In 1856, months before John Brown and his sons murdered pro-slavery settlers in Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, Stowe's brother, the famous Henry Ward Beecher, is quoted in the New York Tribune endorsing the use of guns by individual, anti-slavery settlers: 

 "...He (Henry W. Beecher) believed that the Sharps Rifle was a truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles. You might just as well. . . read the Bible to Buffaloes as to those fellows who follow Atchison and Stringfellow; but they have a supreme respect for the logic that is embodied in Sharp's rifle. "

This endorsement led to the Sharps Rifle being nicknamed "Beecher's Bible", and it gave a moral argument to men like John Brown who believed in arming the growing conflict over slavery on a grassroots level.

One of the tragedies of history is that Harriet Beecher Stowe, herself, for whatever reason, never had this public debate with Garrison over violent and nonviolent resistance to slavery. Stowe became an overnight celebrity after the publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"  and, although she used that celebrity wisely in many ways to further the cause of anti-slavery, she declined to set the tone at this critical moment as far as the question of nonviolence was concerned, she declined to clarify whether nonviolence was to be equally embraced by both whites and blacks, by both free and enslaved people, she declined, right then, to publicly reply to an insightful, critical review of her work, and one cannot help but wonder what she would have said if she did. It remains a large, missed opportunity in the life of a remarkable, important woman writer.