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“I have a need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice around me to melt.” William Lloyd Garrison on rhetoric and polarization, from Henry Mayer (1998), All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery

William Lloyd Garrison was famous for his uncompromising, strident, and deliberately polarizing moral tone when writing about the sin of slavery and the call for immediate abolition. One of his most famous statements on the matter was a comment to his friend and fellow abolitionist Samuel May — a comment that has been often quoted but also often difficult to track down sources for, because the conversation was not recorded in the pages of Garrison’s paper The Liberator, but only in May’s memoirs. This passage is from Henry Mayer’s 1998 biography of William Lloyd Garrison, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin’s Press) discusses Garrison’s rhetorical choices, and recounts the conversation with May.

Unlike the self-effacing Lundy, Garrison had deliberately chosen to make himself an issue. There shall be no neutrals; men shall either like or dislike me, he announced. The editor–and the newspaper as an extension of himself–would draw energy, like a lightning rod, to galvanize the cause. His statements poured forth with an intensity that seemed more like a spontaneous eruption than a composed literary style, which was precisely the effect Garrison wanted. He could have been as smooth and politic as anyone, the editor once observed, but declared that he much preferred nature to art. It was nonetheless a deliberate decision, not an irresistible impulse, that led him to write as he did. He chose his words, one close friend said, with the care of a pharmacist weighing out a prescription.

Nearly every visitor commented upon the surprising contrast between the private Garrison and the public firebrand. People walked in expecting to find a stout, rugged, dark-visaged desperado, as one guest put it, and found instead a pale, delicate, and apparently over-tasked gentleman scurrying from desk to case to imposing stone, making light of the work with an unending series of hymn tunes and jokes, and stopping occasionally to stroke the pussycat stretched out affectionately on the periphery of the work space. Never too busy to talk, it seemed, Garrison stimulated an unending flow of conversation–copious, strong-minded, and fervent–that often turned the printing office into a seminar or Sunday school. The self-effacing Knapp formeda silent backdrop to conversation, as he struggled with the ledgers, the slips of paper containing fragments of subscription information, and the stack of bills. Knapp worked hard, spoke little, and quietly nursed the petty resentments that would one day rupture the bond with his more exuberant partner.

Each week Garrison took a perverse delight in reprinting the jibes of editors who called him everything from an officious and pestiferous fanatic to a mawkish sentimentalist who wept over imaginary suffering like boarding school misses and antiquated spinsters. The insults, he said, are like oil to the flame of my zeal. When New York’s Mordecai Noah, one of the most caustic editors in the country, dismissed Garrison as a printer by trade and a reformer of empires by profession, he accepted the sneer as a compliment. He had less patience, however, with people who professed sympathy for the cause but insisted that he moderate his conduct before committing themselves. Such demands came, significantly, from well-to-do whites; the editor’s black constituents seldom found his language too harsh or angry. A pinch of practical help–donations, subscribers, a supply of larger paper–would do more for the cause than all the admonitions to reform the reformers, Garrison said. It was not his language that caused offense, for virtually every editor engaged in the freewheeling style that seemed the essenec of a bumptious and aggressive free press, but rather the subject to which Garrison applied his words.

Yet even Samuel May, who understood more than most the dramaturgy of Garrison’s editorship, once entreated him to be more temperate. While out for a walk in early spring, Garrison listened patiently and tenderly, May recalled, as the older man rehearsed the concerns of their more timorous friends. Then, however, Garrison exploded, insisting that he would only soften his language when the poor downtrodden slaves tell me that I am too harsh.

O, my friend, urged May, do try to moderate your indignation, and keep more cool; why, you are all on fire.

Garrison stopped walking and looked straight at his beloved friend. He laid his hand upon May’s shoulder with a kind but emphatic pressure and, speaking slowly, with deep emotion, said:

Brother May, I have a need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice around me to melt.

The two friends stood there in the street, silent for a moment, and May could feel the pressure on his shoulder long after Garrison had withdrawn his hand. From that hour, May wrote forty years later, I have never said a word to Mr. Garrison in complaint of his style.

Henry Mayer (1998), All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 118-120

In the reference notes, on page 645, Mayer notes that the source for the all on fire conversation is Samuel Joseph May, Some Recollections of Our Anti-Slavery Conflict (Boston, 1869), pp. 36-37.

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