William Lloyd Garrison Asks His Brother-in-Law for a Loan

The uncompromising abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was long on rhetoric but short of money during most of his life. As a young man, he served seven weeks in a Baltimore prison because he couldn’t pay a fine for libeling a slave trader.

He was born Dec. 12, 1805 in Newburyport, Mass. His father abandoned the family when William was a toddler. He helped the family survive by selling lemonade and candy and delivering wood. At 13 he went to work as a compositor for the Newburyport Gazette and soon started writing articles.

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison

When his apprenticeship ended, he worked for several newspapers. Then moved to Baltimore to co-edit a Quaker newspaper, Genius of Universal Emancipation. He wrote a column called ‘The Black List,’ which exposed ‘the barbarities of slavery—kidnappings, whippings, murders.’ Garrison revealed a man named Francis Todd from Newburyport recently shipped slaves from Baltimore to New Orleans. Todd sued in the pro-slavery court of Maryland, and Garrison was fined $50 and court costs. He couldn’t pay and was sentenced to six months in jail. Only after abolitionist Arthur Tappan paid his fine did he go free.

Garrison returned to New England in 1831 and founded the anti-slavery publication for which he is best known, The Liberator. He also married Helen Eliza Benson in 1834, though he wasn’t really in a financial position to be married. They had five sons and two daughters, though a daughter and a son died in childhood.

William Lloyd Garrison Writes

On June 26, 1847, 41-year-old William Lloyd Garrison wrote from Boston to his friend and brother-in-law George Benson to ask for a loan.

My dear George:

I do not know whether it will be in your power to procure the accommodation for me, that I very much need at the present time; but I do know that your own concerns are sufficiently onerous, without needing any addition to them, and that I am extremely reluctant to make even the suggestion to you.

On the 1st of July, (Thursday next,) my quarterly payments fall due, for groceries, rent, fuel, &c. &c. The past quarter, my expenses have been unusually great, in getting all he children their summer clothing, &c.; so that I shall need at least $100, to pay what I owe, in addition to what will be due me on my salary. –I have been so often befriended by Francis Jackson and Wendell Phillips, that I dislike to ask them again so soon; although I presume they would both assist me cheerfully to this extent. Still, if I can procure this sum elsewhere, I should be very glad. Helen has suggested that she has no doubt our good friend Thomas Davis, at Providence, would readily make the desired loan — (I should want it only for 30 days, till my next monthly payment was due) — but I would prefer that you should correspond with him, on the subject, if you think best, stating to him that I had applied to you for the loan, and you had ventured to ask the accommodation of him — &c. — for thirty days…

Yours, faithfully,
Wm. Lloyd Garrison

With thanks to The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Volume III: No Union with the Slaveholders: 1841-1849.

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