Monday, September 12, 2011

Garrison's 'Declaration of Sentiments'

This is a really powerful piece of writing, which I analysed for university. It has really challenged me, and I encourage you to read it also. It is short, readable, and interesting. This guy inspired William Wilberforce, Leo Tolstoy, and others. Check it out here:

The message that Garrison sent to the Boston Peace Convention in 1838 was clear: ‘we cannot acknowledge allegiance to any human government, neither can we oppose any such government by resort to physical force’. [1] Purporting a strong pacifistic claim, Garrison’s view is that force may never be used, whether for good or for evil, by the oppressed or the oppressor. He believes this because of his conviction: that man can only serve one master, God, and therefore cannot serve any human government. Passion is embodied in his prose, having written the entirety of the ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ in a single afternoon.[2] According to Garrison, ‘nothing is plainer’ than the view that the use of physical force to punish an evil-doer is forbidden by the teachings of Christianity.[3]

Living within the moral law is crucial for Garrison, as it was in Kant’s moral philosophy. Garrison’s views are reflective of a strand of deontology which suggests that one should do what is right, come what may. However, Garrison also supports a peculiar appeal to consequentialism suggesting that the only way to triumph over evil is through doing good. Essentially he is suggesting that the results would be worse if one were to break the (moral) law to achieve what one thinks may lead to better consequences. This is not, however, strictly an appeal to the afterlife. Garrison’s view is that violence is intrinsically bad and therefore can never be a tool to bring about better consequences.

Garrison applies a consistency test to his ideas, suggesting that if we allow ourselves to use force in order to secure a good of some kind, we must also grant the same license to other individuals, states, and governments.  However idealistic, this test carries moral and intuitive weight because if we, as well as our enemies, were to apply the same principles, everyone would be better off.

In addition to putting forward arguments supporting pacifism, Garrison also is in favour of anarchism. He writes against all forms of human government claiming that ‘laws are enforced virtually at the point of the bayonet’.[4] Garrison argues that forcing men to do what it right ‘on pain of imprisonment or death’ is in conflict with his highly held ideals of forgiveness and love for ones enemy. Therefore, his philosophy (and religion, he argues) compels him to rebuke human governments so long as they require force to continue to exist.

The author’s opinions are based on a belief which does not have ‘universal’ support in any sense, but one which has had great influence in his country. Regardless of whether or not you choose to accept the Christian bible as truth, it is important to note that the leaders of America in the 19th century mainly associated with the Christian Protestant tradition. It seems conceivable that Garrison is simply asking what Martin Luther King Junior was to ask of America a century later: ‘be true to what you said on paper’.[5] Garrison reveals a deep passion for his ideals of non-violence and righteousness in the ‘Declaration of Sentiments’.

[1] Silverman, American radical thought : the libertarian tradition, Lexington, Mass, 1970, p. 144.
[2] Villard, Garrison and Tolstoy, William Lloyd Garrison on non-resistance; together with a personal sketch, New York, 1972, p. 23.
[3] Ibid., p. 22.
[4] Silverman, American radical thought : the libertarian tradition, 1970, p. 145.
[5] Martin Luther King, I've Been to the Mountaintop, Memphis, 1968.