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William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass on Abolition, 1845–1852

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing

  • Use this Primary Source to connect back to ideas about slavery and the founding in the Webster-Hayne Debates, 1830 Primary Source from Chapter 6.


As the United States expanded in the nineteenth century and the “peculiar institution” spread to more territory with the Louisiana Purchase and Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, calls for abolition grew louder. William Lloyd Garrison argued for an immediate end to slavery, maintaining that the Constitution was an inherently flawed document—a “covenant with death”—because it permitted slavery and corrupted the Founding. Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, was first published in 1831. Garrison’s passionate writing style demanded his readers’ attention and helped to push the issue of slavery into the spotlight. An excerpt from The Liberator is provided in Source A.

In Source B, Frederick Douglass speaks to a gathering of abolitionists in upstate New York. Born enslaved on a Maryland plantation, Douglass experienced the evils of slavery firsthand. He secretly taught himself to read and later escaped to New York. Douglass’s prominence grew thanks to his eloquence as a writer and speaker. In this speech, made on July 5, 1852, Douglass points out that promises of liberty and equality in the Declaration of Independence are incomplete so long as the institution of slavery exists.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who wrote these documents?
  2. Who was the intended audience for each document?
  3. What did the two speakers have in common?

Source A: William Lloyd Garrison, “The American Union.” The Liberator, January 10, 1845

Vocabulary Text
contemner (n): someone who commits something contemptable Tyrants of the old world! contemners of the rights of man! disbelievers in human freedom and equality! enemies of mankind! console not yourselves with the delusion, that Republicanism and the American Union are synonymous terms—or that the downfall of the latter will be the extinction of the former, and, consequently, a proof of the incapacity of the people for self-government, and a confirmation of your own despotic claims! . . .
Tyrants! know that the rights of man are inherent and unalienable, and therefore, not to be forfeited by the failure of any form of government, however democratic. Let the American Union perish; let these allied States be torn with faction, or drenched in blood; . . .
immolation (n): sacrifice If nations perish, it is not because of their devotion to liberty, but for their disregard of its requirements. Man is superior to all political compacts, all governmental arrangements, all religious institutions. As means to an end, these may sometimes be useful, though never indispensable; but that end must always be the freedom and happiness of man, individual man. It can never be true that the public good requires the violent sacrifice of any, even the humblest citizen; for it is absolutely dependent on his preservation, not destruction. To do evil that good may come, is equally absurd and criminal. The time for the overthrow of any government, the abandonment of any alliance, the subversion of any institution is, whenever it justifies the immolation of the individual to secure the general welfare; for the welfare of the many cannot be hostile to the safety of the few. In all agreements, in all measures, in all political or religious enterprises, in all attempts to redeem the human race, man, as an individual, is to be held paramount . . .
omniscience (n): the state of knowing everything

omnipotence (n):having unlimited power

oligarchy (n): a small group of people having control of a country
Tyrants! confident of its overthrow, proclaim not to your vassals that the American Union is an experiment of Freedom, which, if it fail, will forever demonstrate the necessity of whips for the backs, and chains for the libs of the people. Know that its subversion is essential in the triumph of justice, the deliverance of the oppressed, the vindication of the brotherhood of the race. It was conceived in sin, and brought forth in iniquity; and its career has been marked by unparalleled hypocrisy, by high-handed tyranny, by a bold defiance of the omniscience and omnipotence of God. Freedom indignantly disowns it, and calls for its extinction; for within its borders are three millions of Slaves, whose blood constitutes its cement, whose flesh forms a large and flourishing branch of its commerce, and who are ranked with four-footed beasts and creeping things. To secure the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, it was agreed, first, that the African slave trade—till that time, a feeble, isolated colonial traffic—should for at least twenty years be prosecuted as a national interest under the American flag, and protected by the national arm; secondly, that a slaveholding oligarchy, created by allowing three-fifths of the slave population to be represented by their taskmasters, should be allowed a permanent seat in Congress; thirdly, that the slave system should be secured against internal revolt and external invasion, by the united physical force of the country; fourthly, that not a foot of national territory should be granted, on which the panting fugitive from Slavery might stand, and be safe from his pursuers—thus making every citizen a slave-hunter and a slave-catcher. To say that this “covenant with death” shall not be annulled, that this “agreement with hell” shall continue to stand, that this “refuge of lies” shall not be swept away, is to hurl defiance at the eternal throne, and to give the lie to Him who sits thereon. It is an attempt, alike monstrous and impracticable, to blend the light of heaven with the darkness of the bottomless pit, to unite the living with the dead, to associate the Son of God with the prince of evil.
Accursed be the American Union, as a stupendous republican imposture! . . .
Henceforth, the watchword of every uncompromising abolitionist, of every friend of God and liberty, must be, both in a religious and political sense—“No union with slaveholders!”


Source B: Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Speech to Rochester, New York Ladies Anti-Slavery Society, July 5, 1852

Vocabulary Text
This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the Fourth of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. . . . This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. . . .
Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment [British policy]/[lack of representation]. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression. . . .
Citizens, your fathers made good that resolution. They succeeded; and to-day you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history—the very ringbolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.
Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ringbolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost. . . .
forbearance (n): self-control, patience

degenerate (adj): immoral
They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final”; not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times. . . .
Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defense. Mark them!
Fully appreciating the hardship to be encountered . . . reverently appealing to heaven to attest their sincerity, soundly comprehending the solemn responsibility they were about to assume, wisely measuring the terrible odds against them, your fathers, the fathers of this republic, did . . . with a sublime faith in the great principles of justice and freedom, lay deep the corner-stone of the national super-structure, which has risen and still rises in grandeur around you. . . .
I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.. . .
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.. . .
Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gate way or is it in the temple? It is neither. While I do not intend to argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask, if it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slaveholding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it.. . .
Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery. . . .
Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.
“The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.

Comprehension Questions

  1. According to Garrison, which is more important: individual rights or the American Union?
  2. Garrison, a pacifist, calls for the nonviolent overthrow of government. According to Garrison, when should a government be overthrown?
  3. What is Garrison referring to with the following phrases: “covenant with death,” “agreement with hell,” and “refuge of lies”?
  4. Why did Douglass refer to the Fourth of July as the birthday of “your National Independence,” the founding fathers as “your” fathers,” “your nation,” and so forth?
  5. Why did Douglass mourn on the Fourth of July?
  6. How are Independence Day festivities a mockery to the American slave?
  7. Did Douglass believe the Constitution is a proslavery document? Explain your answer.
  8. Was Douglass optimistic or pessimistic about the future of slavery?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Summarize each author’s point of view in one sentence, using your own words.
  2. Compare the two authors’ arguments. To what extent do these points of view support or oppose each other?
  3. Which argument do you find more convincing? Explain.

Source A:

Source B:

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