š        After 1850 violence became a more widely accepted method for abolitionists in their fight against slaveholders. Non-resistants, those who refused to accept the use of violence in any circumstance, found themselves in a difficult position of havin g to eiWilliam

Lloyd Garrison

and the Problem of Non-Resistance


Elizabeth Forest


In 1838 William Lloyd Garrison and several fellow nonresistants broke with the

American Peace Society over the issue of defensive warfare. The organization

they formed was the New England Non-Resistance Society, and although it faded ou

t as an organization in the early 1840s, the principles that defined the Society

remained with the individuals, shaping their approach to life, their individual

crusades, and, most importantly, their fight against slavery. These

nonresistants, however, w ould find their belief in nonviolence challenged as

tensions increased between the North and South over slavery. As violence became

a more widely accepted method for abolitionists, nonresistants found themselves

in a difficult position of having either t o hold fast to their strict pacifist

principles or to acknowledge the use of other means in speeding the abolition of

slavery. The Compromise of 1850, with its unpopular Fugitive Slave Law, pushed

nonresistants to alter their willingness to accept violen t means in the "war"

against slavery.

Radical abolitionists formulated their initial ideas about the acceptability of

physical force in the 1830s, at the same time that William Lloyd Garrison

promoted the shift from gradualism to immediatism. The Constitution of the Am

erican Anti-Slavery Society, written by Garrison in 1833, included a clause that

rejected any use of violence. "Ours forbids the doing of evil that good may

come, and lead us to reject, and to entreat the oppressed to reject, the use of

carnal weapo ns for deliverance from bondage; relying solely upon those which

are spiritual, and mighty through God to the pulling down of strong bonds." In

November, 1837, Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist and nonresistant in Alton,

Illinois, died while defending his printing press. After several previous

attacks on his press, he chose to use weapons of self-defense. Most

nonresistants deplored the use of violence by either side. Garrison wrote in The

Liberator that "we solemnly protest against any of [Christ’s] professed

followers resorting to carnal weapons under any pretext or in any extremity

whatever." At a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, nonresistant

Samuel May proposed a resolution "declaring Lovejoy’s actions incons istent with

the principles of the society" because it was essential to be "especially

careful in our adherence to our principles." Prior to 1850, the nonresistants

were perfectly willing to protest the use of any sort of violence.

The formation of the New England Non-Resistance Society in 1838 formalized the

ideological split between conservative peace advocates and the radical

nonresistants, led by Garrison. John Demos, in his article "The Antislavery

Movement and the Problem of Violent ‘Means,’" states that the nonresistant

movement "paralleled various contemporary experiments in religious

perfectionism; and its long-range expectations were little short of millennial."

Perfectionism wa s "the notion that individuals could become sanctified while on

earth" and this notion of perfectionism guided nonresistants in following the

example of Jesus Christ. They believed that love, not force, would change

society. In this way, nonre sistants were radical because they wanted a

"regeneration of American society, which would require a profound ideological

reorientation and ultimately abolish the government." Nonresistants would

acknowledge no allegiance to human government, t hey repudiated all war and all

resorts to violence, they refused to come to any compromise over their

principles, and they would rely on moral suasion to convince the unregenerate to

accept nonresistance, always working to perfect themselves in the image of


While nonresistants accepted notions of perfectionism and the coming of the

millennium as integral to their movement, perhaps one of the most important

characteristics of their ideology was the focus placed on private judgment. The

role of individual, private judgment was a significant aspect of most antebellum

reform movements, stemming from the Protestant Reformation’s insistence on the

primacy of the individual’s relationship to God, and heightened by the revivals

of the Second Great Awakening. According to Lewis Perry, private judgment

"suggested a responsibility to live up to individual and personal understandings

of virtue. It was a corollary of moral accountability and the government of

God." The nonresistants a ccepted the right of individuals to be free to make

their own decisions, but those decisions had to be done in light of the

teachings of Jesus Christ.

As such, nonresistants wanted a government of God. Slavery, human government,

and violence were all part of the same paradigm; "they were sinful invasions of

God’s prerogatives; all tried to set one man between another man and his

rightful ruler." From this belief stemmed an abhorrence of human government; it

was natural that nonresistants would oppose such government for "nothing must be

permitted to fetter the spirit of the individual." Nonresistants were no t

supposed to vote or hold public office or in any way participate in supporting a

government that was plainly going against the teachings of Christ and the New

Testament. This extreme opposition to government in the nonresistant movement

kept many aboli tionists who believed in nonresistance from joining Garrison and

the New England Non-Resistance Society. For some abolitionists, and many critics

of the new organization, the nonresistants were too closely associated with

anarchism, even if it was " Christian Anarchism."

Significantly, for nonresistants, the refusal to resort to violence did not

imply that they were passive agents. At a meeting of the New England

Non-Resistance Society in 1839, Maria W. Chapman stated:


Passive non-resistance is one thing; active non-resistance another. We mean to

apply our principles. We mean to be bold for God. Action!—Action!—thus shall we

overcome the violent. Not by their own weapons... but it behooves us to preach.

We need no body of men to tell us when, and where, and how we may speak, but

each one is bound to speak as his own reason and conscience dictate.


Nonresistants relied on moral suasion and individual determination in their

attack against violence. Words, spoken or written, were the weapons of choice

and would be used in whatever forum nonresistants could find. For William Lloyd

Garrison, one of the founders of the New England Non-Resistance Society,

nonresistance was passive only in the sense that "it will not return evil for

evil, nor give blow for blow, nor resort to murderous weapons for protection or

defence." In the Society’s Declaration of Sentiments, written by Garrison, it

states that "we propose, in a moral and spiritual sense, to speak and act boldly

in the cause of GOD; to assail iniquity in high places, and in low places; to

apply our principles to al l existing civil, political, legal and ecclesiastical

institutions; and to hasten the time, when the kingdoms of this world will have

become the kingdoms of our LORD and of his CHRIST, and he shall reign forever."

Nonresistants repudiated obedience to a government that had proven itself,

through its support of slavery, its willingness to resort to coercive measures,

and its willingness to resort to war, as going against God.

While Garrison played only a small role in the actual nonresistance movement of

the late 1830s, he did act as its "cynosure." As one of the historians of the

movement notes, his real contribution was "his moral convi ction as well as the

strength of his personality, his gift for leadership, and his ability to inspire

unswerving confidence in his disciples." His role as the founder and editor of

The Liberator, a major abolitionist and reform newspaper of t he era, and the

importance of his position in the nonresistant movement makes Garrison a central

figure to consider. The Liberator was Garrison’s forum. In the first issue he

stated emphatically that "I will not equivocate—I will not excuse— I will not

retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD." Garrison did not believe in holding

his tongue. When accused of damaging the movement with the harshness of his

language, Garrison responded by demanding "new and stronger dialect." In a

letter to Samuel May, dated January 13, 1850, Garrison wrote that "we must use

great plainness of speech; like the reformers of all ages, we must call things

by their right names; like Jesus, we must be willing to make ourselves of no

reputation , as without conflict there can be no victory—without the cross, no

crown." When it came to declaring his tenets, careful language was not a


Garrison certainly possessed a militant stance on speaking out against

oppression. He did not, however, present his convictions at the expense of

others. Indeed, for Garrison, truth was only possible if there was freedom of

discus sion. People could not be persuaded towards the "right" way unless they

were free to consider the alternatives. More importantly, he believed that to

ignore the beliefs of others was a form of coercion for it "forced" one ideology

to take precedence over others. As a correspondent from the Providence Herald

wrote, in a piece reprinted in The Liberator: "We differ with him, perhaps in

our views on slavery; certainly in our choice of a remedy for the evil. But we c

annot wonder that our path seems to him, as his does to us, the highway to

destruction, through turmoil and tribulation." The Liberator, therefore, served

as the voice of many, not just Garrison and his supporters.

Garrison’s openness to differing opinions foreshadowed his eventual acceptance

of violence by those who were not nonresistants, provided that the violence was

committed for the greater good. In 1837 Garrison wrote: "If the sla ves of the

South have not an undoubted right to resist their masters in the last resort,

then no man, or body of men, may appeal to the law of violence in

self-defence—for none have suffered, or can suffer, more than they." It is

evident that Garris on believed the slaves had suffered, and suffered greatly,

but it could not justify violence. Evil could not be returned for evil. Later,

however, his position was not so clear cut. In a piece included in his

Selections from the Writings and Speeche s of William Lloyd Garrison, published

in 1852, Garrison stated: "We grant that every successful struggle for freedom

on the part of the oppressed, even with the aid of cannon and bomb-shells, is to

be hailed with rejoicing; but simply in referen ce to its object, and not to the

mode of its accomplishment." He claimed not to support the use of violence, but

his unwillingness to refute its use clearly represented his ambiguous position.

This seemingly vacillating position on the use of physi cal force represented a

problem of consistency in the implementation of the nonresistants’ peace


The events of the 1850s put nonresistants’ principles to a severe test. Henry

Clay, a prominent slaveholding politician from Kentucky, hoped to calm the

increasing antagonism between North and South over the issue of slavery by pro

posing a series of measures. Irritated by the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, the

dispute over the expansion of slavery had reached a peak, with South Carolina

threatening disunion should the Proviso be passed. Clay’s proposals included

several different measur es for resolving sectional disputes. The Compromise

admitted California as a free state, abolished the slave trade in the District

of Columbia, instituted popular sovereignty as the method of determining whether

New Mexico and Utah would be slave or free states, provided a settlement for the

boundary dispute in Texas, and included a more stringent fugitive slave law. The

Compromise was supported, much to the chagrin of abolitionists and

nonresistants, by Daniel Webster, a congressman from Massachusetts . The

Compromise was passed through Congress as separate bills in September of 1850

and was signed into law by President Fillmore.

The Compromise of 1850 was significant to nonresistants because it further

exemplified the coercive nature of the government and the power of the slave

states. As early as February 1850, denunciations of the Compromise had made the

ir way into the pages of The Liberator. The author of an article, reprinted from

The New York Independent, adamantly demanded no compromise; "If compromises of

the Constitution include requisitions which violate humanity, I will not be

bound by them. Not even the Constitution shall make me unjust." Garrison, as

editor of The Liberator, clearly indicated his unwillingness to accept the

Compromise. This stance was hardly surprising given that one of the main aspects

of non resistant ideology was an opposition to compromise with slaveholders:

"For that fellowship requires sanction and cooperation in perpetuating ‘the sum

of all villainies.’" Selections from other newspapers which appeared in The

Liberator, along with letters from readers, indicated the extent to which

support of the Compromise was limited among radical abolitionists. Discussion of

the Compromise constituted a significant portion of the newspaper from the time

the measures were first propos ed until long after the Compromise had been


Criticism of the Compromise came to focus primarily on the new Fugitive Slave

Law, which was much more stringent than the 1793 statute. Among some of its

characteristics, the law appointed Commissioners in each state to oversee ind

ividual cases, denied the fugitive a jury trial, refused the right of the

fugitive to present a defense, paid the Commissioners $10 for each fugitive

returned to slavery and only $5 for those not returned, subjected those who

assisted fugitive slaves to h eavy fines and possible prosecution, and, if a

fugitive was rescued after being turned over to the authorities by the claimant,

the federal treasury would repay the slaveowner the value of the slave. The new

Fugitive Slave Law was justifiably seen as a l aw that imposed "upon every man,

woman, and child in this Union, a participation in slavery."

In September, Garrison vehemently presented his view of the Fugitive Slave Law.

In The Liberator’s section, "Refuge of Oppression," Garrison introduced the new

law with the following statement: "It is a bill to be resisted, disobeyed, and

trampled under foot, at all hazards." While Garrison did not explicitly suggest

the use of violence as one of the "hazards," his language certainly indicated a

vague willingness on his part towards the use of any means necessary to oppose

the statute.

Garrison’s passionate response to the Fugitive Slave Law did not stand alone.

Angry responses filled the pages of The Liberator. One subscriber wrote, "If we

live not to see it repealed, we will teach our children to o ppose it after we

are dead." Another demanded that if a fugitive is "seized by any one" they

should "make the air resound with the signal-word" so that others might come to

the fugitive’s aid, being "prompt in their hour of peril." A set of resolutions

adopted by the Boston Protective Union resolved that "we recommend the

appointment of a Vigilance Committee of 14 citizens, whose duty it shall be to

see that no person is deprived of liberty without due process of the law." The

Fugitive Slave Law would be vigorously rejected by nonresistants and

abolitionists alike.

Of the nonresistants, Henry C. Wright was one of the most outspoken in his views

on the Fugitive Slave Law. As early as 1842 Wright had "rais[ed] the abstract

issue of slave revolts to fill out his critique of voting and const itutional

government," comparing slave revolts to the struggles of the revolutionary

heroes. Initially, Wright’s nonresistant philosophy had been to encourage slaves

to refuse the acceptance of their bondage. After the Fugitive Slave Law had been

e nacted, however, he no longer took that position, stating instead that slaves

should escape from bondage "by running away, or by such other means as, in their

opinion, are right." In a letter he wrote to Garrison, published in The

Liberator< /I>, Wright demanded: "DEATH TO KIDNAPPERS!" Immediately after this

impassioned declaration, he stated: "I am a non-resistant; I believe it to be

the greatest crime that man can commit, to take, or to assume the right to take,

the life of man; and would far rather die than stain my own hands with a

brother’s blood." Furthermore, he reinforced this belief by negating the

argument used by others that resistance to tyrants is obedience to God. Yet in

the same letter, just after his rep udiation of physical violence, Wright wrote:


If it ever was right for any man to kill those who seek to enslave them or their

wives and children, I believe it is the right and duty of every fugitive slave,

of every human being in the North, to inflict instant death, without judge or

jury, on all who seek, with law or without law, to return the fugitive slave to

his chains.


In the span of one paragraph Wright refuted the use of brute force and justified

it, even suggesting that those who did not follow the tenets of nonresistance

were "bound" to "inflict death, with [their] own hand, on each and every man who

shall attempt to execute the recent law of Congress."

Wright’s reaction was, to be sure, more extreme than other nonresistants.

William Jay, a judge and nonresistant, wrote an opinion on the law compelling

people to avoid the use of forcible resistance. He believed that the resort to

such actions would simply cause greater violence on part of the slaveholders. He

also argued that if acts of violence were left to the slaveholders, Northerners

would respond in outrage when seeing their "streets stained with human blood,

shed by t he slave-catchers." Another correspondent to The Liberator wrote that

an associate had announced boldly that he would open the doors of his home to

those fugitive slaves seeking asylum, for it was as Jesus Christ would have

done. Yet another wondered where the nonresistants had gone, fearing that they

had given up their principles in a time of trial. He wondered that others could

not see as clearly as he that as "the spirit of war subsides, slavery must

correspondingly vanish."

Four distinct acts of opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law revealed the

increasing willingness of abolitionists and nonresistants to adopt violent

measures. These acts consisted of the rescue of escaping slaves who had been

seized by the authorities. The first important fugitive slave case took place in

Boston, in February 1851. A fugitive slave, by the nickname of Shadrach, was

arrested and brought before the Commissioner. Through a writ of habeas corpus, a

stay was granted unt il the case could be heard properly. At the moment the case

was put over, "The door of the court room was pressed open by a crowd of

sympathizing colored persons, who, without any deliberate concert—without any

weapons in their hands—without any wis h or intention to do personal violence to

any one," pulled Shadrach peacefully from the court room. Once free, Shadrach

fled to Canada.

Garrison emphasized the lack of violence in the Shadrach rescue: "Nobody

injured, nobody wronged, but simply chattel transformed into a man, and

conducted to a spot whereon he can glorify God in his body and spirit, which are

h is!" Nonresistants, as noted earlier, did not take a pledge of inaction. Their

focus was simply to avoid using force, violence, or coercion as means of

bringing about their desired result. It is not surprising, therefore, that

Garrison and other n onresistants rejoiced in the actions taken to rescue

Shadrach. The Shadrach rescue, for Garrison and nonresistants, represented the

ideal; it was a peaceful opposition to an unjust law.

Later in the same year, however, a fugitive slave incident concluded with quite

a different result. In September, 1851, a slaveowner, in the company of his son

and several other men, came to Christiana, Pennsylvania looking for a f ugitive

slave. The fugitive, aware that he was being hunted, fortified his home. With

the aid of several black friends, they armed themselves, prepared to defend the

supposed fugitive from the slavehunters. When the blacks were fired upon they

returned the gunfire, killing the slaveowner and mortally wounding the

slaveowner’s son. Despite Garrison’s oft-repeated views on nonviolence, in

response to the episode he wrote: "The blacks are fully justified in what they

did" because the example of the nation was one that declared the legitimacy of

freedom through the use of armed resistance. Garrison continued to avoid stating

explicitly that there was a justification for violence, but he was becoming more

publicly tolerant of it, especially in t he cases of those who did not claim to

be nonresistants; the unregenerate could resort to violence.

In October, to the relief of nonresistants, another successful nonviolent

fugitive slave rescue took place, in Syracuse, New York. The fugitive, "Jerry,"

was in custody and was having his case heard in the courthouse. A large crowd

which had gathered outside broke into the courthouse and removed Jerry. He was

soon recaptured, but a second attempt proved to be successful and Jerry was able

to flee, much like Shadrach, to Canada. The only incidences of violence

consisted of some rocks being thrown at the courthouse windows, although police

did fire into the crowd in an attempt to prevent the rescue and disperse the

gathering. Even though one Southern newspaper went so far as to say that some

officers of the law were &qu ot;subjected to severe bodily injuries," no one was

actually injured.

The Jerry Rescue is particularly interesting because it plainly represented the

ambiguity of the nonresistant position on the use of physical force. The results

of the rescue were nonviolent, but Samuel May, an ardent nonresistant, preached

shortly before the incident that the Fugitive Slave Law ought to be resisted,

even if the result was violent. On the day of the actual rescue, May encouraged

the crowd to remain peaceful. When Garrison commented on the rescue he noted

that May "filled every friend of humanity with joy" when he "called upon the

free men and women of Syracuse to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their

sacred honor, to protect the trembling fugitive in his distress." Garrison was

either not aware that May had advocated violence just before the rescue or he

chose not to mention it when he reiterated that there was much to learn from

this "peaceful, determined opposition to the Slave Power."

In 1852 Garrison continued to advocate peaceful means in the abolition of

slavery. In his introduction to a new year of The Liberator Garrison wrote that

the purpose of the newspaper continued to be the "overthrow of sl avery by moral

and peaceful instrumentalities, for the benefit alike of the oppressor and the

oppressed." In April, however, he added an editorial note to a letter from a

correspondent who wrote questioning the consistency and legitimacy of advocati

ng slave resistance to capture under the Fugitive Slave Law, even if resistance

ended in violence. His correspondent wondered where the violence would end.

Garrison, in a condescending manner, responded by saying that the letter was

"such a jumblin g together of assumed non-resistance, Fugitive Slave and Maine

Liquor Law, pretended leverance for legislative enactments, and false notions of

moral obligations." Garrison’s position remained ambiguous. Despite his

continued support of nonviolent means, his opinions were wavering and he

remained unwilling to come out completely against the use of brute force.

Garrison further confused his position in a proposed amendment at an antislavery

meeting. He suggested that violence may be justifiable after all:


if ‘resistance to tyrants,’ by bloody weapons is ‘obedience to God,’ and if our

revolutionary fathers were justified in wading through blood to freedom and

independence, then every fugitive slave is justified in arming himself for prote

ction and defence... in taking the life of every marshall, commissioner, or

other person who attempts to reduce him to bondage; and the millions who are

clanking their chains on our soil find ample warrant in rising en masse, and

asserting their ri ght to liberty at whatever sacrifice of the life of their



As long as "resistance to tyrants was obedience to God" was the rule followed,

then violence was legitimate. Only for those who advocated nonresistance was

such brutality not acceptable. His resolution did little to clarify his

position. One month later, at the New England Anti-Slavery Society meeting,

Garrison was noted as closing the anniversary discussions "with a most effective

statement of the methods of abolishing the slave system—deprecating for our own

sakes, a nd for the slave’s sake, any nurturing of the spirit of violence and


This gradual accommodation of nonresistants to violence did not go unnoticed.

Micajah Johnson, for example, wrote to Garrison via The Liberator expressing his

distress over Henry Wright’s embrace of "any means as they s ee fit" in

preventing the return to slavery of an escapee. For Johnson, as for the

correspondent criticized by Garrison above, Christian morality made it abhorrent

to "justify war, or the use of carnal weapons in any shape" and that such a

justification "lets down the purity of Jesus to the common level of public

opinion." In the same paper, another correspondent, signing as "A Friend of

Progress," wrote that "to do away with Slavery we must have the spirit of Chr

ist." Not all nonresistants were ready to give up their doctrines, at least not

in theory.

Numerous incidents related to the Fugitive Slave Law followed the October Jerry

Rescue. In November, 1852, a group of slaves being transported through the Port

of New York were encouraged by several abolitionists to go to court to plead

their case. The court that heard the case determined that the slaves were free

because "no one has a right to take slave through a country where slavery does

not exist." Another case involved a charge brought against a free black man, Ri

chard Neal, of "enticing" away slaves from the neighborhood where he used to be

a slave. A writ of habeas corpus was issued, but when the claimant failed to

appear, the charges against Neal were dropped. Yet another incident occurred in

Septem ber, 1853, in Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania. Whites accused William Thomas of

being a fugitive slave and attacked him in the restaurant where he was employed.

Supposedly not knowing why he was attacked, he fought back, fled, and was

eventually aided in flee ing to Canada. The significance of this particular case

actually involved those who had attempted to capture Thomas. The Judge who

presided over their trial released them, claiming that he would not allow those

who were merely doing their job to be &quo t;harassed at every step in their

performance of their duties by every petty magistrate who chooses to harass

them, or by any unprincipled interloper who chooses to make complaints against

them." The decision reinforced the power of the pro-slavery element to

nonresistants and abolitionists alike, and hardened the resolve to oppose the

Fugitive Slave Law.

The culmination of resistance to the law was the case of the fugitive slave

Anthony Burns. In Boston in May, 1854, Burns was being held at the court house

on the charge of being a fugitive slave. A large group of people had gather ed

outside the court house to protest his incarceration, but they remained

peaceful. At a meeting at Faneuil Hall, abolitionists tried to decide upon a

course of action. Those presiding, most notably Wendeall Phillips, called for

nonviolence. At that m oment, however, the crowd learned that a rescue attempt

was in process. A group had rushed the court house in an attempt to get inside

and rescue Burns. During the rescue attempt a scuffle occurred. One of the

slavecatchers was stabbed and several shot s were fired, although no one was

wounded by the shooting. Abolitionists denied any responsibility for the failed

rescue attempt. Garrison stated that it had been the "act of some half dozen

impulsive and unreasoning persons, without plan or system of any kind."

In the hopes of preserving peace, Boston’s Mayor called for more military

personnel, and eventually soldiers surrounded the courthouse. Protests remained

peaceful and a judge decreed that Burns would be sent back to slavery. A mil

itary escort, followed by a large crowd in a silent procession, took Burns to

the transport that would send him south. There were some isolated incidences of

violence, mainly on the part of military personnel, but no one was injured and

no rioting occurr ed.

This particular incident was especially irritating to nonresistants because of

the massive use of troops to enforce what was seen as a bad and unjust law.

Coercion and the threat of violence on the part of the troops to "maint ain

peace at all costs," was offensive. There was a huge outpouring in The Liberator

responding to the outrage. Perhaps one of the best examples of how deeply this

fugitive slave incident affected people was in nonresistant Angelina Grimke’s

letter, cited by Garrison in The Liberator, in which she repudiated the peace

principle, stating her "hope that the arrest of every fugitive slave may be

contested even unto blood." Slowly but surely nonresistants were coming to the

con clusion that violence, with or without them, may be the only way to end


Garrison, however, continued to remain ambiguous and contradictory. In the May

26 issue of The Liberator, printed on the very day of the attempted rescue,

Garrison reiterated his nonviolent views. In a statement given to th e American

Anti-Slavery Society, he wrote that he did not "believe in killing any man for

any purpose." Yet just one month later, in the June 23 issue, Garrison responded

to criticisms made by the newspaper, The Courier, stating that the "‘murderous

blow struck by ruffians,’ was good in its quality, and as lofty in its purpose,

as any blow struck during our revolutionary struggle." He argued further that

since it was accepted by most of the American people that individuals cou ld

defend their liberty, a fugitive too could then act in self-defense should

someone try to take his liberty from him, even if his response meant the use of

violence. Ironically, in the same essay Garrison continued to claim that "we

have not couns eled violence or retaliation in any case, but only patience and

forbearance." It was a curious dichotomy of views. The climax of Garrison’s

outrage over the Burns incident came on July 4, 1854, when he burned a copy of

the Fugitive Slave Law, a cop y of the court’s decision on the Burns case, and a

copy of the Constitution. Although Garrison would claim to remain a nonresistant

up until the Civil War, he had clearly come to the decision that he could

support the resort to force, provided that it wa s done by those who considered

it an appropriate measure.

The nonresistant accommodation to violence was gradual, taking shape especially

in response to the provocation of the 1850s. Valarie Ziegler states that "by and

large the nonresistants stuck to their principles" although "some of the

faithful did slip, and certainly everyone considered doing so." During the

second half of the 1850s, as violence increased substantially and tensions

between the North and South escalated, nonresistants were led to repudiate their

position. "Bleeding Kansas," the beating of Charles Sumner, a senator from

Massachusetts, on the floor of the Senate, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s

Ferry in 1859 all lead inevitably to a repudiation of the principles of

nonviolence. The Ci vil War, which was the penultimate act of violence, was

ultimately accepted by most nonresistants, including Garrison. One of the few

nonresistants who remained faithful to his principles and who refused to accept

the Civil War was Adin Ballou. In the s ame issue that noted Angelina Grimke’s

departure from nonresistance, Ballou stated, "Few (how few!) remain faithful.

The rest have re-embraced the War Principle, or have become dumb on the subject,

or while professing to be Non-Resistants themselves , spend their main strength

in exhorting fighting people to be sure and fight on the right side." On June

23, 1854 Garrison wrote:


Though a non-resistant myself, I am not willing to see contumely heaped upon the

heads of those who abhor slavery, because they have forcibly interposed, even to

the shedding of blood, to save a fellow-man from becoming a victim to its

power—heaped by those who, in their own case, maintain that ‘resistance to

tyrants,’ to any extent, ‘is obedience to God.’ Surely, if there be any one who

is worthy of death, it is, first of all, the slave-hunter; and, next to him, the

wretch who is will ing to act as his accomplice, whether officially or



Although Garrison continued to profess allegiance to the principles of

nonresistance, by the mid-1850s his views were contradictory enough to indicate

a clear acceptance of the use of violence in fighting against slavery. This

gradual accommodation would ultimately allow him to exclaim, "‘Thank God’ for

the war."