Proto-Blogger: William Lloyd Garrison

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William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist, chose weekly journalism as an instrument to change American history. Author and publisher of The Liberator over 1800 consecutive weeks from 1829 until the end of the Civil War, he fits the frame of the proto-blogger, a man who put his voice on the line with thundering effect.

“I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice,” he wrote, words that are almost unimaginable in American “media” of the 21st century. About slavery: “On this subject, I do not wish to speak or write with moderation. I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard.”

Garrison was hung in effigy in the South and very nearly lynched in Boston, which is to say that unlike the gentleman abolitionists Emerson or even Thoreau, he put his life on the line. Born in Newburyport, Mass., 200 years ago this month, he’s not such an unfamiliar figure today, when bloggers hold similar aspirations.

We’re thinking of putting something together on I.F. Stone as well. Any other proto-bloggers?

Lois Brown

Professor of English, Mount Holyoke College

Chris Daly

Professor of Journalism, Boston University

Currently writing a history of American journalism

From Brendan’s pre-interview notes

There is a tradition that goes far back in journalism history, predates the model of the mainstream media. Two dimensions: one, advocacy, the other is kind of what you might call self-reliance. Garrison ran his operation on a shoestring, it was enough to put bread on the table and allow him to raise a family but no more.

Garrison said himself in a letter, after hearing an anti-slavery talk in Boston, his soul was all on fire, became an instant and life-long convert to the cause, to him nothing else mattered. Part of his accomplishment, part of his greatness. He was a moral actor at the same time that he was all of these other things.

In 1831, he was looked at as crazy. Had three ideas that he never deviated from: Immediate emancipation for all slaves on American soil, followed by full civil rights, no exporting, disagreed with the colonization societies that created Liberia as a place to go. Nonviolence and nonpolitical means only.

In 1831, Garrison had been not only a minority figure, but despised even in his own town, was very nearly lynched in Boston, only survived the night by getting himself arrested, an example of how out of the mainstream he was.

By 1865, his view is predominant. His influence: It’s vague and hard to measure, but there are lots of things you can point to. Part of the confirmation would come from Abraham lincoln, gave credit to Garrison for in part causing the war. Gave Garrison a front-row seat when Fort Sumter was retaken.

His newspaper read never by a large number of people, but by opinion makers, editors, office-holders. He was a movement editor. He launched the New England Anti-Slavery Society, gave birth to the American Anti-slavery society, agitated, pamphleted, amplified those views. Also encouraged the young frederick Douglass into the movement and into the profession.

Frank Garrison

Carpenter, Gloucester

Direct descendant of William Lloyd Garrison


Wikipedia, William Lloyd Garrison

Wikipedia, The Liberator

Wikipedia, I.F. Stone

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  • Aha, this has been spunoff from the previous thread about Walt Whitman, where I had relayed my brief essay suggesting the great bard to be a primogenitor of blogging.

    Ok, let equivocate now. I had identified Whitman with what I describe as the singer impulse of blogging (see my Blogger Archetypes, a hypothesis which I have pressed some of our friends in the research community to help investigate). Whitman was not pushing an issue, was not putting his life on the line, was merely celebrating himself. And I also took some time to illustrate how Whitman did things we don’t really associate with blogging at all (he constantly re-edited poems in Leaves of Grass; bloggers tend to post and not look back).

    I had identifed other archetypes of blogging, closer to journalism– stringers who collect facts and act like reports; wingers who don’t. So I think in picking Garrison and Stone, it’s the conception of the blogger as the noble fact-gatherer and soothsayer, but that’s not the regular perception. And I’ve even talked with people who are using online media for “journalactivism” but they don’t want to be associated with the term bloggers. I don’t even call myself a blogger… but trying to envision them through Whitman I was finally able to appreciate the folk art of it all.

  • Tonight’s show was highly informative spoiled at the end by caller had the gumption to compare Paul Krugman, the little liar, with WL Garrison. What are some callers smoking? How we have defined our standards of greatness downward. Paul Krugman is a running joke.

  • Chris Daly– sorry I just caught the last ten minutes of the show live– I will listen to the ‘cast.

    I’d also nominate Krugman as a contemporary– even if you dislike him, as fconte does, he is passionate and focussed on his issues. But maybe self-publisher Joshua Micah Marshall better fits the model.

  • Look I’ll accept I.F. Stone as one who follows in the footsteps of WLG long before Krugman. I think Jon and the caller are trying to make tenuous analogies. What does it cost Krugman compared to what it cost Garrison and I.F. Stone? Is this the best the left can come up with? Krugman? Please!

  • Ok, I’m not going to touch your labelling Krugman as “the little liar” and “a running joke.” But listening to the show now, I can see there’s really no comparison to Krugman, or anybody today. Who is putting themselves on the line like this– burning the Constitution, suggesting secession, going to jail?

    “Maybe only Moses…” as John Jay Smith said, and Chris Lydon repeated.

    Then again, there are certainly self-publishers today whom we may think of his deluded, but there is no cause anywhere near as great today. Maybe Ralph Nader in his heyday, more an organizer than a writer…

  • jc

    Nader, as tired as he must be by now, is still in his heyday. It is this society that has let its heyday (and Nader) slip away.

  • Jon

    Nader is a good example. He’s toiled the fields for sure.

  • Debbie R.

    Paul Farmer, of Partners in Health, who is the subject of the book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracey Kidder, seems to me to be a spiritual heir to WL Garrison. Paul Farmer has made it his mission to provide high level health care to the destitute. And that means not just treating symptoms, but treating the conditions which cause poor health.

    He is like him in his resoluteness and absolute commitment in both words and deeds to his beliefs. Like WLG, he has been struck by the fundamental unfairness of a world which has benefited some at the expense of others. Like WLG, he is not content with half measures.

    I think their causes are similar in that both have embraced issues which may have been looked at with a measure of complacency or resignation or indifference, and both embrace solutions which seem to be radical even to those who recognized the injustice.

  • Glad we came to agreement on Nader. Paul Farmer is another good nomination. I wonder why these folks aren’t associated with a passioned publication as WLG was? Question for another time.