The Governing Passion of My Soul

by William Garrison
Speech given in Charleston, South Carolina
April 14, 1865

My friends:

I am so unused to speaking in this place that I rise with feelings natural to a first appearance. You would scarce expect one of my age - and antecedents - to speak in public on this stage, or anywhere else in the city of Charleston, South Carolina. And yet, why should I not speak here? Why should I not speak anywhere in my native land? Why should I not have spoken here twenty years ago, or forty, as freely as any one? What crime had I committed against the laws of my country? I have loved liberty for myself, for all who are dear to me, for all who dwell on American soil, for all mankind. The head and front of my offending hath this extent, no more. Thirty years ago I put this sentiment into rhyme:

"I am an Abolitionist;
I glory in the name;
Though now by Slavery's minions hissed,
And covered o'er with shame.
It is a spell of light and power,
The watchword of the free;
Who spurns it in the trial hour,
A craven soul is he."

I said that in the city of Boston in 1835, and I was drawn through the streets of that city by violent hands, and committed to jail in order to preserve my life. In 1865, I say it, not only with impunity, but with the approbation of all loyal hearts in the city of Charleston. Yes, we are living in altered times. To me it is something like the transition from death to life - from thecerements of the grave to the robes of heaven. In 1829 I first hoisted in the city of Baltimore the flag of immediate, unconditional, uncompensated emancipation; and they threw me into their prison for preaching such gospel truth. My reward is, that in 1865 Maryland has adopted Garrisonian Abolitionism, and accepted a constitution indorsing every principle and idea that I have advocated in behalf of the oppressed slave.

The first time I saw that noble man, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, at Washington, - and of one thing I feel sure, either he has become a Garrisonian Abolitionist, or I a Lincoln Emancipationist, for I know that we blend together, like kindred drops, into one, and his brave heart beats freedom everywhere, - I then said to him: "Mr. President, it is thirty-four years since I visited Baltimore; and when I went their recently to see if I could find the old Prison, and, get into my old cell again, I found that all was gone." The President answered promptly and wittily, as he is wont to make his responses: "Well, Mr. Garrison, the difference between 1830 and 1864 appears to be this, that in 1830 you could not get out, and in 1864 you could not get in." This symbolizes the revolution which has been brought about in Maryland. For if I had spoken till I was as hoarse as I am tonight against slaveholders in Baltimore, there would have been no indictment brought against me, and no prison opened to receive me.

But a broader, sublimer basis than that, the United States has at last rendered its verdict. The people, on the eighth of November last, recorded their purpose that slavery in our country should be forever abolished; and the Congress of the United States at its last session adopted, and nearly the requisite states have already voted in favor of, an amendment to the Constitution of the country, making it forever unlawful for any many to hold property in man. I thank God in view of these great changes. Abolitionism, what is it? Liberty. What is liberty? Abolitionism. What are they both? Politically, one is the Declaration of Independence; religiously, the other is the Golden Rule of our Savior. I am here in Charleston, South Carolina. She is smitten to the dust. She has been brought down from her pride of place. The chalice was put to her lips, and she has drunk it to the dregs. I have never been her enemy, nor the enemy of the South, and in the desire to save her from this great retribution demanded in the name of the living God that every fetter should be broken, and the oppressed set free. I have not come here with reference to any flag but that of freedom. If your Union does not symbolize universal emancipation, it brings no Union for me. If your Constitution does not guarantee freedom for all, it is not a Constitution I can ascribe to. If your flag is stained by the blood of a brother held in bondage, I repudiate it in the name of God. I came here to witness the unfurling of a flag under which every human being is to be recognized as entitled to his freedom. Therefore, with a clear conscience, without any compromise of principles, I accepted the invitation of the Government of the United States to be present and witness the ceremonies that have taken place today.

And now let me give the sentiment which has been, and ever will be, the governing passion of my soul: "Liberty for each, for all, and forever!" |