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, and he helped out by selling lemonade and candy and delivering wood. At 13 he went to work as a compositor for the Newburyport Gazette and was soon 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 was he 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.

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.

The time is so short, that whatever is done, should be done immediately. I am anxious to keep my credit untarnished, and have hitherto been able to do so, to an hour. There is nothing like it in securing confidence.

For the last three days, I have been sorely tormented with a severe attack of my old scrofula swelling and inflammation in the ear, but trust to get over it in a few days.

Fanny, during the same time, has been quite feverish, although she appears to have not positive complaint. Helen, the babe, and all the rest of the children, are well.

I hope dear Sister Sarah is steadily improving in health. She is in my thoughts continually. If the mail were not just closing, I should like to occupy the remainder of this sheet, in regard to her case. Give my warmest sympathies and tenderest love to her, and remember me affectionately to Catharine.

Please let me hear from you as soon as practicable, but do not let me put you to any great trouble.

Yours, faithfully,
Wm. Lloyd Garrison

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



  1. Kimberly Barlow Granholm

    June 26, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    Henry Mayer’s book ‘All On Fire’ is an excellent book about WLG.

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