William Lloyd Garrison Did Not Like the U.S. Constitution

I am in the midst of writing a chapter on God and the United States Constitution. As part of my research I am reading a lot of primary material from Christians who did not like this venerable document.

The title of my post is actually an under-statement.

For William Lloyd Garrison, the early nineteenth-century’s leading spokesperson for immediate emancipation of the slaves, the Constitution was a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” Why such harsh words? I’ll let Garrison explain from the pages of the December 29, 1832 edition of his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator:

There is much declamation about the sacredness of the compact which was formed between the free and slave states, on the adoption of the Constitution. A sacred compact, forsooth! We pronounce it the most bloody and heaven—daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villany ever exhibited on earth. Yet—we recognize the compact, but with feelings of shame and indignation, and it will be held in everlasting infamy by the friends of justice and humanity throughout the world. It was a compact formed at the sacrifice of the bodies and souls of millions of our race, for the sake of achieving a political object—an unblushing and monstrous coalition to do evil that good might come. Such a compact was, in the nature of things and according to the law of God, null and void from the beginning. No body of men ever had the right to guarantee the holding of human beings in bondage. Who or what were the framers of government, that they should dare confirm and authorize such high-handed villany—such flagrant robbery of the unalienable rights of man—such a glaring violation of all the precepts and injunctions of the gospel—such a savage war upon the sixth part of our whole population? They were men, like ourselves—as fallible, as sinful, as weak, as ourselves. By the infamous bargain which they made between themselves, they virtually dethroned the Most High God, and trampled beneath their feet their own solemn and heaven-attested Declaration, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights—among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They had no lawful power to bind themselves, or their posterity, for one hour—for one moment—by such an unholy alliance. It was not valid then—it is not valid now. Still they persisted in maintaining it…A sacred compact! A sacred compact! What, then, is wicked and ignominious.

William, why don’t you tell us you really think?

Perhaps this explains why Garrison burned a copy of the Constitution in 1854, an act that has inspired future flag burners and all sorts of other protest groups.

Several things strike me about this passage. First, Garrison mocks the idea that the Constitution is somehow a “sacred” document. America was no Christian nation as long as the Constitution allowed slavery to exist. This is an interesting observation from a devout evangelical Christian such as Garrison. Second, he argues that the Constitution rejects the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, which declared that all human beings have unalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Later Garrison would lead a movement for a “peaceful dissolution of the Union.”

More to come on this topic.

6 thoughts on “William Lloyd Garrison Did Not Like the U.S. Constitution

  1. Paul:

    Good thoughts.

    My apologies for taking this out of the realm of historical and into the realm of morals. I did not mean to put you on the spot here.

    Your post made me wonder. Can we find a theological conservative from the antebellum North making an argument AGAINST slavery based on a high view (“inerrancy” is probably anachronistic here) of the inspiration of the Bible.

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  2. John: My goal was not to discuss the morality of slavery.

    I'm not well read in Garrison, but from what I gathered from Noll, Garrison perceived (whether rightly or wrongly) that a literalistic reading of Scripture best supported a pro-slavery position. Thus Garrison adopted a less literal reading of Scripture in order to make room for his anti-slavery convictions.

    Of course today, conservative evangelicals (whom I would define as those who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture in contrast with the evangelical left which tends to be less likely to stress the inerrancy of Scripture) have no problem constructing Scriptural justifications for their opposition to slavery.

    But it seems that things were different in the antebellum period. Theologically conservative evangelicals were more likely to support slavery (or at least not be as vehemenently opposed) than their more theologically liberal cousins (Garrison).

    Dew's specific argument seems to fit into the “anti-man stealers” camp who would cite passages like Deuteronomy 24:7 to argue that actually enslaving people was wrong, but possessing already enslaved people was not. (Hopefully Dew was a better preacher than an economist! Supply and demand, supply and demand…)

    But I doubt that Garrison would have found much comfort in Dew's “moderate” position.

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  3. Paul: Thanks for the post. Here is my question for you: Could Garrison have made a legitimate argument, based upon a reading of the New Testament, that slavery was a sin?

    Even some supporters of southern slavery had to admit that the institution violated the “spirit of Christianity.” Consider these remarks by William and Mary professor Charles Dew in his 1852 defense of slavery:

    “With regard to the assertion that slavery is against the spirit of Christianity, we are ready to admit the general assertion, but deny most positively that there is anything in the Old or New Testament which would go to show that slavery, when once introduced, ought at all events to be abrogated, or that the master commits any offense in holding slaves.”

    Source: http://www.wwnorton.com/college/history/archive/resources/documents/ch15_03.htm

    It seems here that Dew is suggesting that slavery is wrong, but once it is introduced there is nothing in the Bible that condemns it.

    On inerrancy: Perhaps Garrison did have to abandon a literalistic interpretation of the Bible, or what you describe as “inerrancy,” to make his case against slavery. (I am not sure how you are defining “inerrancy” in your comment). But I wonder what is more important–clinging to the “inerrancy” of the Bible as defined in terms of its literal interpretation, or the abolition of slaves from of a labor system that has no regard for human dignity. Human dignity is a concept that also seems to have some strong Biblical support (Gen. 1: 27-28 for starters).

    This, of course, is more of a moral question that a historical one.

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  4. I'm not completely surprised by Garrison's rejection of Constitution. When push came to shove, he also rejected Scriptural inerrancy because slavery proponents used a literal reading of the Bible to justify the institution of slavery.

    Mark Noll briefly described this tension in “One Nation Under God: Christian Faith and Political Action in America.” Garrison was absolutely convinced that slavery was an abomination. So when push came to shove, when Scripture seemed to support slavery, then Scripture gave way to what Garrison knew must be true.

    Interestingly, a similar theme runs through the stories of many former evangelicals, a topic well-treated by David Hempton in “Evangelical Disenchantment.”

    So if a person is willing to alter their view of Scripture to make allowance for their cultural assumptions, how much more so with a document like the Constitution?

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  5. Caleb: Thanks for catching this. I will make the change.

    And the JQA “menstrous rag”line is very interesting. Thanks for calling it to my attention.

    Good luck with the manuscript. I was just thinking today how we need to know more about this incident.

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  6. A minor point (yet important in my book manuscript, which will deal at length with this episode), but Garrison burned the Constitution in 1854, not 1844.

    I was also going to comment that my famous Constitution take-down by Garrison was when he called it a “menstruous rag.” But when trying to track this down I discovered it was John Quincy Adams, not Garrison, who used that phrase, which is actually really interesting …

    Caleb McDaniel

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