William Lloyd Garrison.

Selections from the writings and speeches of William Lloyd Garrison. With an appendix .. online

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O'er the far islands of the Eastern sea.
The faithful lover of his race rejoices —

The champion girds his gleaming armor on —
The seer saith, « God speaks in those earnest voices ;

Earth's fearful battle-field shall yet be won ! '
O'er every radiant island of creation

The music of that swelling peal is borne ;
Land bears to land, and nation shouts to nation,

The war-cry of the age — Reform ! Reform ! '


All things are interrogated as to their origin, intent, ten-
dency, and lawfulness, without much regard to their anti-
quity, or the authority with which they are clothed. The
cry is everywhere heard for free speech and free inquiry,
that Right may prevail, and Imposture be put to flight. It
is beginning to be seen, that not only are these the best
weapons, but that no others may be innocently used against
Wrong. Revolutions are to be wrought out by reason, not
by brute force.

It was a bold act when the divine right of kings to rule
over the people was questioned and denied ; it was a bolder
act when it was declared, (as it was by our revolutionary
fathers,) that even the toleration of a king was not compati-
ble with the liberty of the people. But other voices are
heard, not only protesting against monarchical governments,
but demanding that even republican governments, as now
constituted, be dispensed with, for something more just, pro-
tective, and beneficent. The political views of 1776 have
been greatly transcended ; and the doctrine, that might is
right, when the majority obtain the reins of power, is seen
by many to be as essentially despotic in principle, as that of
the divine right of kings. Religiously, there are tlwse who
go much further than did Luther, when he attacked the
Romish Church as inherently corrupt and anti-christian ; for
they maintain that the Protestant Church rests on no better
foundation than the Romish, and is as false in its claims.
All the winds of controversy are freshly blowing, and well
may they tremble, whose houses are built upon the sand ;
but those whose cause is just, who are earnest seekers after
truth, who arc in the right, may join in the song of the royal
singer of Israel — ' God is our refuge and strength, a very
present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though
the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried
into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof roar


and be troubled, tbough the mountains shake with the swell-
ing thereof — 'They that trust in the Lord shall be as
Mount Zion, that cannot be moved.'

If we had not innumerable facts to prove the general
corruption of the times, the prevalent fear of free speech
and free inquiry would prove it ; for where the mind and
tongue are fettered, either by imperial edicts, by ecclesiasti-
cal bulls, by statutory enactments, by the terrors of summary
punishment, by popular sentiment, by the fear of suffering,
or by the prospect of beggary, it indicates an evil state of
society, and the supremacy of a false and sanguinary reli-
gion. It is under such circumstances that hypocrisy and
superstition flourish like briars and thorns on an uncultivated

Talk not of this or that subject being too sacred for inves-
tigation ! Is it too much to assert, that there is but one
object beneath the skies that is sacred — and that is, man ?
Surely, there is no government, no institution, no order, no
rite, no day, no place, no building, no creed, no book, so
sacred as he who was before every government, institution,
order, rite, day, place, building, creed, and book, and by
whom all these things are to be regarded as nothing higher
or better than means to an end, and that end his own ele-
vation and happiness ; and he is to discard each and all of
them, when they fail to do him service, or minister unto
his necessities. They are not of heaven, but of men, and
may not, therefore, receive the homage of any human being.
Be assured, that whatever cannot bear the test of the closest
scrutiny, has no claim to human respect or confidence, even
though it assume to be sacred in its orgin, or given by
inspiration of God, but must be treated as spurious, profane,

Let, then, the mind, and tongue, and press, be free. Let
free discussion not only be tolerated, but encouraged and


asserted, as indispensable to the freedom and welfare of
mankind. A forcible suppression of error is no aid to the
cause of truth ; and to allow only just such views and senti-
ments to be spoken and circulated as we think are correct,
is to combine bigotry and cowardice in equal proportion.
If I give my children no other precept — if I leave them no
other example — it shall be, a fearless, impartial, thorough
investigation of every subject to which their attention may
be called, and a hearty adoption of the principles which to-
them may seem true, whether those principles agree or
conflict with my own, or with those of any other person.
The best protection which I can give them is to secure the
unrestricted exercise of their reason, and to inspire them
with true self-reliance. I will not arbitrarily determine for
them what are orthodox or what heretical sentiments, on'
any subject. I have no wish, no authority, no right to do-
so. I desire them to see, hear, and weigh, both sides of
every question. For example: — I wish them to examine
whatever may be advanced in opposition to the doctrine of'
the divine inspiration of the Bible, as freely as they do
whatever they find in support of it ; to hear what may be
urged against the doctrines, precepts, miracles, or life ofi
Jesus, as readily as they do any thing in their defence ; to
see what arguments are adduced for a belief in the non-ex-
istence of God, as unreservedly as they do the evidence in
favor of his existence. I shall teach them to regard no sub-
ject as too holy for examination ; to make their own con-
victions paramount to all human authority ; to reject what-
ever conflicts with their reason, no matter by whomsoever
enforced ; and to prefer that which is clearly demonstrative
to mere theory. And why do I intend to pursue such a
course ? Because I am not infallible, and therefore dare
not put on the robes of infallibility. Because I think free
inquiry is essential to the life of truth among mankind.


Because I believe that right will prevail over wrong, and all
the sooner in a fair conflict. Because,

♦Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again ;

Th' eternal years of God are hers ;
But Error, wounded, writhes in pain,

And dies among her worshippers ! '

'It is a pleasure to stand upon the shore,' says Lord
Bacon, ' and to watch the ships tossed upon the sea ; but no
pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage
ground of truth — a hill not to be commanded, and where
the air is always clear and serene — and to see the errors,
and wanderings, and mists, and tempests, in the vale below :
so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with pride.
Certainly, it is heaven upon earth to have a man's mind
move in Charity, rest in Providence, and turn upon the
poles of Truth.'

' Whoever is afraid,' says Bishop Watson, ' of submitting
any question, civil or religious, to the test of free discussion,
seems to me to be more in love with his own opinion than
with the truth.' A noble sentiment for a man, — much
more for a prelate !

No sentiment has been more greatly admired, or more
frequently quoted, since it was uttered, than that of Jeffer-
son — 'Error of opinion may be safely tolerated, where
Reason is left free to combat it.'

'Philosophy, wisdom, and liberty,' says Sir W. Drum-
mond, ' support each other. He who will not reason is a
bigot ; he who cannot is a fool ; and he who dares not is a

' The imputation of novelty,' says John Locke, ' is a ter-
rible charge amongst those who judge of men's heads as
they do of their perukes, by the fashion — and can allow
none to be right but received doctrines.'


Coleridge tersely says — * He who begins with loving
Christianity better than Truth, will end by loving himself
better than either.'

' There is nothing more unreasonable,' says Lord Mans-
field, ' more inconsistent with the rights of human nature,
more contrary to the spirit and precepts of the Christian reli-
gion, than persecution for opinion.'

It was the complaint of Cicero — ' Most men — alas! I
know not why — prefer to rest in error, and defend with
pertinacity their cherished dogmas, than to examine without
bigotry, and seek out what is rational and most consistent.'

' A theological system,' says Dr. Jortin, ' is too often a
temple consecrated to implicit failh ; and he who enters in
there to worship, instead of leaving his shoes, after the
Eastern fashion, must leave his understanding at the door ;
and it will be well if he find it when he comes out again.'

What can be more brave than the words, what more sub-
lime than the front of M. Antoninus, when he exclaimed —
' I seek after Truth, by which no man ever yet was injured ! '

' 1 am in the place,' said the intrepid John Knox, on one
occasion, ' where I am demanded of conscience to speak the
truth, and therefore the truth I speak, impugn it whoso list.'

It is ' Truth that results from discussion and from contro-
versy,' says Paley — not confusion and error.

Among all the noble sayings that fell from the lips of
that great champion of English freedom, John Milton, none
deserves to be eternized more than this : — ' Let Truth and
Falsehood grapple : who ever knew Truth put to the worse
in a free and open encounter ? '

' The spirit of Jesus,' says the amiable and courageous
Abbe dc la Mcnnais, ' is a spirit of peace, of compassion,
and of love. They who persecute in his name, and who
search men's consciences with the sword ; who torture the
body to convert the soul ; who cause tears to flow, instead


of drying them up ; — these men have not the spirit of
Christ, and are none of His.'

The craven, unintelligent, superstitious state of the times
led Byron to write —

♦ What from this barren being do we reap ?
Our senses narrow, and our reason frail,
Life short, and Truth a gem that loves the deep,

And all things weighed in Custom's falsest scale ;
Opinion an omnipotence, whose veil

Mantles the earth with darkness, until right
And wrong are accidents ; and men grow pale.

Lest their own judgments should become too bright,
And their free thoughts be crimes, and earth have too much light I '

It is never for the people to be afraid of light, or willing
to be tongue-tied. They cannot think too much, or talk too
freely. They never lead, but have always been led — why
should they not move forward independently ? They have
for long ages been burdened and oppressed — what have
they to lose by the growth of freedom ? They have been
kept in the darkness of ignorance — what have they to fear
from the prevalence of knowledge ? Let tyrants cry, ' Put
out the light ! ' Good reason have they to do so !

* Tyrants are but the spawn of Ignorance,
Begotten by the slaves they trample on,
Who, could they win a glimmer of the light,
And see that Tyranny is always weakness,
Or Fear with its own bosom ill at ease,
Would laugh aM-ay in scorn the sand-wove chain,
Which their own blindness feigned for adamant.
Wrong ever builds on quicksands, but the Right
To the firm centre lays its moveless base.
The tyrant trembles, if the air but stirs
The innocent ringlets of a child's free hair.
And crouches when the thought of some great spirit,
With world-wide murmur, like a rising gale,


Over men's hearts, as over standing corn,
Rushes, and bends them to its own strong will.'

So testifies one of the youngest, yet ripening to be the
greatest of all our American poets, (J. K. Lowell,) and
even now unsurpassed in the freedom of his muse, and the
moral grandeur of his genius. Hear him again, in a
strain of which Milton himself would have been proud : —

* My soul is not a palace of the past,

Where outworn creeds, like Rome's grey senate, quake.

Hearing afar tlio Vandal's trumpet hoarse,

That shakes old systems with a thunder-fit.

The time is ripe, and rotten-ripe, for change :

Then let it come ! I have no dread of what

Is called for by the instinct of mankind ;

Nor think I that God's world will fall apart,

Because we tear a parchment more or less.

Truth is eternal, but her effluence.

With endless change, is fitted to the hour ;

Her mirror is turned forward, to reflect

The promise of the future, not the past.'

Again :

• Get but the Truth once uttered, and 'tis like
A star new-born, that drops into its place,
And which, once circling in its placid round.
Not all the tumult of the earth can shake.'

What serenity of mind, what deliverance from the
power of tradition, wliat depth of moral philosophy, what
faith in man, what trust in God, have we here compressed
into a few lines !

My conviction of the weakness and mutability of error is
such, that the free utterance of any opinions, however con-
trary to my own, has long since ceased to give mo any
uneasiness as to the final triumph of Right. My confidence


in the unconquerable energy of Truth is absolute ; and there-
fore I ask for it, what only it requires, ' a fair field and no
quarters.' It never shuns the light, but always rejoices in it.
It never forbids, but ever encourages freedom of thought,
speech and inquiry. It is never afraid to be examined, but
challenges the severest scrutiny. It commends itself to the
human understanding by its own inherent excellence, and
discards all factitious props. It is not a miracle, but a fact.
It belongs to the human race, not to a sect or party. It may
he called an exact science, by the application of which, all
falsehood and imposture shall finally be detected, and exiled
from the earth.

But what is Truth, and how shall it be discovered ?

As to what it is, let this answer suffice — it is not error;
and error is that which is not true. The ignorance of men
concerning Truth does not touch its reality, nor invalidate its
authenticity ; neither do their conflicting speculations in rela-
tion to it render it equivocal or uncertain. It was the same
in the days of Adam, of Noah, of Abraham, of Moses, of
Jesus, however dimly revealed or imperfectly understood in
the procession of ages. It is as old as the sun, moon, and
stars — yea, ' from everlasting to everlasting.'

As to the discovery of it, I know of no safer, higher, or
better way, than to leave the human mind perfectly untram-
melled, to contend for unlimited investigation, to vindicate
ithe supremacy of reason, to plead for unfettered speech, to
argue from analogy, to decide upon evidence, to be gov-
erned by facts, to disclaim infallibility, to believe in eternal
growth and progress, to repudiate all arbitrary authority, to
make no man or body of men oracular, to learn from the
teachings of history, to see with our own eyes and hear with
our own ears — in one sentence, to ' prove all things, and
hold fast that which is good.' The fact, that men are more
or less ignorant — that they misapprehend the truth, and


conflict in their views of it — demonstrates the absolute need
of freedom of conscience and speech on the part of every
individual, as also the absurdity and cruelty of putting
reason under the ban, or of affixing pains and penalties to
heretical opinions ; for who shall dogmatically assume to
decide what is heresy, or inflict vengeance upon the heretic ?

' Free inquiry ' is an expression which has become a ter-
ror to multitudes, who claim to have God, Christ, and his
gospel, reason and common sense, on their side ! It has
become odious by being the watchword of a, certain class,
popularly styled ' infidels.' Now this I am free to declare,
that I am against that religion which discountenances free
inquiry, and in favor of that infidelity which is for it. This
was the infidelity of Paul. He was a ' free inquirer,' and
among his injunctions was this — 'Prove all things,' — in
other words, take nothing for granted ; whatever is true will
bear handling ; whatever you find to be good, that receive
and cherish for its own sake, though, for so doing, you be
denounced as a pestilent and seditious fellow, and ranked
among the ofl?scouring of all things.

Is it worthy of us, as rational beings, to be stultified by
ghostly authority, or intimidated from hearing, searching,
trying all things, in consequence of the outcries of a bigoted
intolerance ? Is it impossible for us to be mistaken ? Plave
we never detected ourselves in error, or changed in opinion ?
Can we grow no more } Who that is in the right, or that
honestly believes that he has truth on his side, is afraid ?

True, it does not follow that a man is in the right, because
he is ready to engage in controversy ; for he may be devoid
of sense, or disgustingly presumptuous, or extremely vain,
or annoyingly combative, or incurably perverse. But this
is certain : — he who is for forcibly stopping the mouth of
his opponent, or for burning any man at the stake, or thrust-
ing him into prison, or exacting a pecuniary fine from him.



or impairing his means of procuring an honest livelihood, or
treating him scornfully, on account of his peculiar views on
any subject, whether relating to God or man, to time or
eternity, is either under the dominion of a spirit of ruffian-
ism or cowardice, or animated by that fierce intolerance
which characterized Saul of Tarsus, in his zeal to extermi-
nate the heresy of Christianity. On the other hand, he who
forms his opinions from the dictates of enlightened reason,
and sincerely desires to be led into all truth, dreads nothing
so much as the suppression of free inquiry — is at all times
ready to give a reason for the hope that is in him — calmly
listens to the objections of others — and feels nothing of
anger or alarm, lest his foundation shall be swept away by
the waves of opposition. It is impossible, therefore, for him
to be a persecutor, or to call upon the strong arm of vio-
lence to put a gag into the mouth of any one, however heret-
ical in his sentiments. In proportion as we perceive and
embrace the truth, do we become meek, heroic, magnani-
mous, divine. They may not talk of faith in God, or of
standing on the eternal rock, who turn pale with fear or are
flushed with anger when their cherished convictions are call-
ed in question, or who cry out, ' If we let this man alone,
the people will believe on him, and the Romans will come,
and take away our place and nation.' They know not what
spirit they are of; the light that is in them is darkness, and
' how great is that darkness ' ! It was not Jesus who was
filled with consternation, but his enemies, on account of the
heresy of untrammelled thought and free utterance: —
* Then the high priest rent his clothes, saying. He hath
spoken blasphemy : what further need have we of wit-
nesses ? Behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy. What
think ye .? They answered and said, He is guilty of death.
Then did they spit in his face, and buffet him ; and others
smote him with the palms of their hands.' So have ever


behaved the ' pious ' advocates of Error ; such has ever been
the treatment of the ' blasphemous ' defender of Truth.

* Let us speak plain : there is more force in names
Than most men dream of; and a lie may keep
Its throne a whole age longer, if it skulk
Behind the shield of some fair-seeming name.
Let us call tyrants, tyrants, and maintain
That only freedom comes by grace of God,
And all that comes not by his grace must fall ;
For men in earnest have no time to waste
In patching fig-leaves for the naked truth.'

' Let us call tyrants, tyrants.' Not to do so is to misuse
language, to deal treacherously with freedom, to consent to
the enslavement of mankind. It is neither an amiable nor
a virtuous, but a foolish and pernicious thing, not to call
things by their right names. John Knox, when he was rep-
rimanded for his severity of speech, with much significance
and great good sense declared that he would call a fig a fig,
and a spade a spade. ' Wo unto them,' says one of the
world's great prophets, ' that call evil good, and good evil ;
that put darkness for light, and light for darkness ; that put
bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.'

Popular sins are never regarded by the people as sins ;
they are never called sins. Terms are invented to describe
them, which fall upon the ear without harshness, and which,
whenever uttered, give no alarm to the moral sense. This
is what is called in Scripture, the transformation of Satan
into an angel of light. Thus, they who are engaged in
upbuilding the horrid slave system in this country — a sys-
tem which presents no single feature of decency or utility,
and which John Wesley comprehensively and justly called
'the sum of all villanies ' — the Southern slaveholders and
their abettors, designate it as ' the peculiar institution,' as
' the corner-stone of our republican edifice.' This descrip-


tion of it conveys no idea to the mind that is revolting or
disagreeable, but quite the contrary — and yet it means
theft and robbery ; it means assault and battery ; it means
nakedness and penury ; it means yokes, fetters, branding-
irons, drivers and bloodhounds ; it means cruelty and murder,
concubinage and adultery ; it means the denial of all chances
of intellectual and moral culture, gross mental darkness, and
utter moral depravation ; it means the transformation of
those, who, in the scale of creation, are but a little lower
than the angels, to the condition of brutes and the fate of
perishable property ; in one sentence, it means the denial of
God as the common Father of us all, and of Christ as our
common Savior and Redeemer. Still, we wrap it up in the
fine linen of a deceitful phraseology — we call it ' the pecu-
liar institution' — outwardly, we garnish this sepulchre, and
make it pleasant to the eye, but carefully hide the bones,
the uncleanness, and the pollution, which are festering
beneath. The terrible exclamation which Milton puts into
the mouth of Satan seems to be our great national motto —
' Evil, be thou my good ! '

Thus, in the formation of our national Constitution, we
carefully eschewed every word that might shock the ear of
the most fastidious lover of liberty ; and yet, by words,
phrases and clauses therein inserted, we intentionally and
deliberately became partners in the capital crime of slave-
holding ; we agreed to prosecute the African slave trade, with
national energy and enterprise, for at least twenty years ;
we admitted a slaveholding oligarchy (incomparably more
oppressive and dangerous than an hereditary nobility) into
Congress ; we made it lawful to hunt and recapture fugitive
slaves in every part of our national domains ; we pledged our
entire naval and military force to keep the slave population
/ securely in their chains. And having thus involved our-
selves in blood-guiltiness, we fall down and worship the


instnimcnt that we have made, with the same infatuation as
that which characterizes the worshippers of Juggernaut. And
we say, as did the murderous and oppressive Jews of old,
who broke in pieces the people of God, and afflicted his
heritage, — who slew the widow, the stranger, and the father-
less — ' The Lord shall not see, neither shall the God of
Jacob regard it.' But the admonition that was given to
them may be addressed to us, with even greater force and
solemnity — ' Understand, ye brutish among the people ; and
ye fools, when will ye be wise ? Fie that planted the ear,
shall he not hear ? he that formed the eye, shall he not see ?
he that chastiseth the heathen, shall not he correct ? he that
teacheth man knowledge, shall not he know ? '

• Once to every man and nation conies the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah, offering each the bloom or

Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right;
And the choice goes by for ever 'tvvixt that darkness and that light.

Online LibraryWilliam Lloyd GarrisonSelections from the writings and speeches of William Lloyd Garrison. With an appendix .. → online text (page 19 of 33)