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by William H. Benson

January 1, 2004

     On January 1, 1831 William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist, began publishing the Liberator in Boston.  It carried its motto on the first page: “I am in earnest.  I will not equivocate.  I will not excuse.  I will not retreat a singe inch.  I will be heard.”

     Garrison was an extremist on the issue of slavery in that he called for the immediate release of all slaves on moral and religious grounds.  He was opposed to gradual emancipation and colonization in Africa.  He demanded total freedom for the slaves immediately.

      Garrison denounced the Constitution as “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” because it counted each slave as 3/5ths of a person for the purpose of determining how many representatives each state sent to the House, but then it did not permit the slave to vote.  On July 4, 1854 he publicly burned a copy of the Constitution with the words, “So perish all compromises with tyranny.”

     The Southerners responded to Garrison’s extreme view by bringing forward the reasons that slavery was a necessity in the South.  Increasingly fearful and anxious about a slave revolt, they tightened their controls over the slaves.  As the South fought hard to keep slavery, it became a bastion of reaction.

     A century before Garrison, a Quaker and a traveling minister named John Woolman worked his way each year from New England to the Carolinas and to the western frontiers preaching the Quakers’ vision of the Gospel.  Whenever he confronted slave owners in the South, he tried to convince them of the evil of slavery by insisting on paying the slaves who served him.  He worked quietly but persistently to move the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting toward an anti-slavery position.

     Woolman also wrote an essay, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Slaves, in which he persuaded his readers that slavery was an evil, a moral wrong, and a mistake.

     The historian David Brion Davis wrote, “If the western world became more receptive to anti-slavery thought between 1746 and 1772, the self-effacing Quaker was a major instrument of the transformation.”

     Garrison and Woolman represent two different methods when confronting a moral wrong.  One is aggressive and the other passive.  Garrison’s “I will be heard,” stands in stark contrast to Woolman’s “here are Some Considerations to think about.”  One method demands action now.  It is in your face.  It is emotional, and it is relentless.  It seeks to overwhelm the opposition.  The other is quiet, passive, but convincing in the rightness of its position.

     The Western world eventually turned on slavery and eliminated it, but not before the U.S fought a vicious and bloody civil war.  One view is that the war was mainly caused by the extremists in the North, the abolitionists, such as Garrison, and those reactionary Southerners who responded by pushing for secession.

     As is usual, there are moral wrongs and deep injustices in the world today.  Slavery is still an institution in certain pockets of the world.  Women are badly mistreated throughout the Middle East.  The issue of abortion has stubbornly not disappeared.

     And then there is the fight in Palestine over who will own and control the land—the Israelis or the Palestinians.  Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has gone so far to stop terrorism that he is building a four hundred-mile wall to divide the two nations.  And after 9-11 what were we to do?  Send in the troops and root out the al Queda and the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, or turn the other cheek and in a state of paralysis wait for the next attack?  President Bush made his decision, and the French and the Germans did not approve.


     New Year’s Day is the day to formulate resolutions and write down goals for the next twelve months.  As we do so, we can think about our approach.  Shall it be highly charged or low-keyed, emotional or even-tempered, critical or persuasive, loud or quiet?  Each style produces a reaction from others who can undo what we wish to accomplish or can assist us in its achievement.  The wisdom is found in knowing which style is appropriate for a situation—Garrison’s or Woolman’s.