Book: All on Fire

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All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery

Author: Henry Mayer
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

In All on Fire, William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) emerges as an American hero, arguably on par with Abraham Lincoln, who forced the nation to confront the explosive issue of slavery.

Mayer maintains that Garrison, a self-made man of scanty formal education who founded and edited the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, not only served as the catalyst for the abolition of slavery, but inspired two generations of activists in civil rights and the women’s movement.

Through Garrison, tragically torn between pacifism and abolitionist advocacy, we also meet a rich pageant of great 19th-century historical figures, including Frederick Douglass, John Quincy Adams,and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mayer’s consequential biography will be read for generations to come.


Born in poverty, and self-educated while working in a print shop, William Lloyd Garrison was one of the United States’ greatest crusading editors, putting out a weekly anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, for 35 years, beginning in 1831. A product of the rough and tumble political journalism of the day, Garrison wrote with extreme passion and from an uncompromising point of view. Yet the man who emerges from the pages of All on Fire is a deeply thoughtful person who, despite barely escaping lynch mobs himself, had a great sense of humor and a very polite demeanor. Historians have tended to minimize Garrison’s impact on America, and some consider him a fringe character. But Henry Meyer, in this hefty biography, places Garrison at the center of his century, noting that Garrison’s thought and tactics influenced not only the country’s changing view of slavery, but also inspired the incipient feminist movement. The Lincoln administration noted Garrison’s influence by inviting him to help raise the flag over the recaptured Fort Sumter. All on Fire goes into great detail on Garrison’s life and work, providing the close and copious examination this activist’s life fully deserves. —Robert McNamara

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