William Lloyd Garrison Centennial Letter, Boston 1876

In this letter, Garrison criticizes the celebratory tenor of the centennial and its praise of the founding fathers. Garrison contends that the fathers should not be lauded because they were “too cowardly” to truly create a bastion of liberty in the United States. Specifically, Garrison enumerates the reasons why the Old South Church should not be targeted for preservation. Among his reasons is that the church maintained a pro-slavery stance during the abolitionist movement. 

In Garrison’s dismissal of sentiment for the revolutionary period, he mentions his lack of interest in George Whitefield’s remains in Newburyport in a list of local “relics” which he doubts “minister…to patriotism or piety”. While traveling through town, Whitefield had died in the parsonage of First Presbyterian “Old South” Church in Newburyport in 1770. Although originally from England, Whitefield preached around the colonies during the First Great Awakening.

Click here for a PDF of the transcription:

Roxbury, July 21, 1876.

My dear Wendell:

I was none the less gratified to receive your last letter because of its criticisms upon my article in the Independent, and particularly upon my views respecting the preservation of the Old South Church in Boston.  You know that I have always enjoined upon my children to do their own thinking, and never to hesitate in the fullest expressions of dissent from me whenever they should deem me to be in error; and therefore do I commend you in this matter.

Nevertheless, as to my “Centennial Reflections,” as this nation has been the guiltiest of all the nations of the earth since its independence of Great Britain, and as there is no end to the “gush” and “glorification” about its centennial career – the Disposition to hide or overlook its criminality being well-night universal – I think they were specifically called for, so as to rebuke all such blatant folly, and to induce sober reflection.  Too long have “our Revolutionary Fathers” been held up as the noblest of patriots and the truest friends of liberty.  They were too cowardly and too selfish to adhere to the principles they laid down, and, as time-servers and compromisers, they entailed upon their posterity as great a curse as could be inflicted upon any people; and I trust no child of mine will ever fail to recognize their exceeding blame-worthiness, or consider a reference to it ill-timed when they are presented for the admiration of the world.

As for the preservation of the Old South Church, I certainly take no special interest in it – (1), because it was erected simply and exclusively as a place of worship (in which kind of worship I do not believe), and for the promulgation of sectarian views and theological dogmas which I feel bound to reject as derogatory to Divine benevolence and justice – (2), because two or three incidental gatherings within its walls, during the Revolutionary times, do not and cannot divest it of its sectarian origin, purpose and history, and do not and cannot make of it a temple of liberty, erected for the people’s safety and welfare – (3), because during the whole Anti-Slavery struggle its attitude was conspicuously pro-slavery under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Blagden, who advocated negro slavery as warranted by the Scriptures – (4), because it is parish property, and not a building owned by the city of Boston for its historical reputation and rises like the Old State House or Faneuil Hall, and I am not in favor of having any portion of my taxes go to the purchase of any church or synagogue, in order that its form may be presented, though no longer to be used for worship – (5), because I am not sufficiently “sentimental” to take a lively interest in relics of “the Cross,” or of Bunkers Hill, or of the corporeal body of George Whitefield at Newburyport, and I have yet to be convinced that they minister aught to piety or patriotism – (6), because when the removal or demolition of an old building is denounced as something sacrilegious, the time has come to topple it down, leaving not one stone upon another.  You see, therefore, where I stand in this matter.

Last Friday I went with William to Osterville, and remained there till Monday afternoon, greatly enjoying the trip, saving the heat of the weather.  It would be a nice quiet place for Dear Lucy for a short time, and Ellie and William hope she will come with the children.  

Your loving Father

We, as a family, are quite well. I gain a little upon my rheumatism.


William Lloyd Garrison, “William Lloyd Garrison to Wendell Garrison” (July 21, 1876). Letter. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.