John Greanleaf Whittier

John Greanleaf Whittier

John Greanleaf Whittier, the son of a Quaker farmer, was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on 17th December, 1807. Although he received only a limited formal education, he developed a strong interest in literature.

When Whittier was only 19 he had a poem, The Exile's Departure, accepted by William Lloyd Garrison, in the Newburyport Free Press. The two men became close friends and they worked together in the campaign against slavery. His pamphlet, Justice and Expediency, made him a prominent figure in the Anti-Slavery Society.

Whittier's first book to be published was, Legends of New England in Prose and Verse (1831). This was followed by two long poems, Moll Pitcher (1832) and Mogg Megone (1836). Poems Written During the Progress of the Abolition Question appeared in 1838.

Whittier edited the Pennsylvania Freeman (1838-40) and wrote several anti-slavery poems included The Yankee Girl, The Slavery-Ships, The Hunters of Men, Massachusetts to Virginia and Ichabod. His poems on slavery were collected as Voices of Freedom (1846). Whittier's concern for the suffering of others was well illustrated in his book, Songs of Labour (1850).

Whittier was a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly. Other volumes of verse include the Chapel of the Hermits (1853), Panorama (1860), In War Time (1864), Snow-Bound (1866), Tent on the Beach (1867), Among the Hills (1869), Miriam and Other Poems (1871), Hazel-Blossoms (1875), The Vision of Echard (1878), Saint Gregory's Guest (1886) and At Sundown (1890).

John Greenleaf Whittier died on 7th September, 1892.

Primary Sources

(1) John Greenleaf Whittier described the first Anti Slavery Convention held in 1833 (c. 1840)

Committees were chosen to draft a constitution for a national Anti-Slavery Society, nominate a list of officers, and prepare a declaration of principles to be signed by the members. Dr. A. L. Cox of New York, while these committees were absent, read something from my pen eulogistic of William Lloyd Garrison; and Lewis Tappan and Amos A. Phelps, a Congregational clergyman of Boston, afterwards one of the most devoted laborers in the cause, followed in generous commendation of the zeal, courage, and devotion of the young pioneer. The president, after calling James McCrummell, one of the two or three colored members of the convention, to the chair, made some eloquent remarks upon those editors who had ventured to advocate emancipation. At the close of his speech a young man rose to speak, whose appearance at once arrested my attention.

I think I have never seen a finer face and figure; and his manner, words, and bearing were in keeping. "Who is he?" I asked of one of the Pennsylvania delegates. "Robert Purvis, of this city, a colored man," was the answer. He began by uttering his heart-felt thanks to the delegates who had convened for the deliverance of his people.

He spoke of Garrison in terms of warmest eulogy, as one who had stirred the heart of the nation, broken the tomb-like slumber of the Church, and compelled it to listen to the story of the slave's wrongs. He closed by declaring that the friends of colored Americans would not be forgotten. "Their memories," he said, "will be cherished when pyramids and monuments shall have crumbled in dust. The flood of time, which is sweeping away the refuge of lies, is bearing on the advocates of our cause to a glorious immortality."

A list of officers of the new society was then chosen: Arthur Tappan, of New York, president, and Elizur Wright, Jr., William Lloyd Garrison, and A. L. Cox, secretaries.

A beautiful and graceful woman, in the prime of life, with a face beneath her plain cap as finely intellectual as that of Madame Roland, offered some wise and valuable suggestions, in a clear, sweet voice, the charm of which I have never forgotten. It was Lucretia Mott, of Philadelphia. The president courteously thanked her, and encouraged her to take a part in the discussion.

(2) John Greenleaf Whittier, letter to William Lloyd Garrison (24th November, 1863)

For, while we may well thank God and congratulate one another on the prospect of the speedy emancipation of the slaves of the United States, we must not for a moment forget that from this hour new and mighty responsibilities devolve upon us to aid, direct, and educate these millions left free, indeed, but bewildered, ignorant, naked, and foodless in the wild chaos of civil war.

We have to undo the accumulated wrongs of two centuries, to remake the manhood which slavery has well-nigh unmade, to see to it that the long-oppressed colored man has a fair field for development and improvement, and to tread under our feet the last vestige of that hateful prejudice which has been the strongest external support of Southern slavery. We must lift ourselves at once to the true Christian attitude where all distinctions of black and white are overlooked in the heartfelt recognition of the brotherhood of man.

I love, perhaps too well, the praise and good-will of my fellow-men; but I set a higher value on my name as appended to the Antislavery Declaration of 1833 than on the title-page of any book. Looking over a life marked by many errors and shortcomings, I rejoice that I have been able to maintain the pledge of that signature, and that, in the long intervening years, "My voice, though not the loudest has been heard. Wherever Freedom raised her cry of pain."

Let me, through thee, extend a warm greeting to the friends, whether of our own or the new generation, who may assemble on the occasion of commemoration. There is work yet to be done which will task the best efforts of us all. For thyself, I need not say that the love and esteem of early boyhood have lost nothing by the test of time.

(3) John Greenleaf Whittier, Slave Ship (1834)

"ALL ready?" cried the captain;

"Ay, ay!" the seamen said;

"Heave up the worthless lubbers, -

The dying and the dead."

Up from the slave-ship's prison

Fierce, bearded heads were thrust

"Now let the sharks look to it, -

Toss up the dead ones first!"

Corpse after corpse came up, -

Death had been busy there;

Where every blow is mercy,

Why should the spoiler spare?

Corpse after corpse they cast

Sullenly from the ship,

Yet bloody with the traces

Of fetter-link and whip.

Gloomily stood the captain,

With his arms upon his breast,

With his cold brow sternly knotted,

And his iron lip compressed.

"Are all the dead dogs over?"

Growled through that matted lip;

"The blind ones are no better,

Let's lighten the good ship."

Hark! from the ship's dark bosom,

The very sounds of hell!

The ringing clank of iron,

The maniac's short, sharp yell!

The hoarse, low curse, throat-stified;

The starving infant's moan,

The horror of a breaking heart

Poured through a mother's groan.

Up from that loathsome prison

The stricken blind ones came:

Below, had all been darkness,

Above, was still the same.

Yet the holy breath of heaven

Was sweetly breathing there,

And the heated brow of fever

Cooled in the soft sea air.

"Overboard with them, shipmates!"

Cutlass and dirk were plied;

Fettered and blind, one after one,

Plunged down the vessel's side.

The sabre smote above,.

Beneath, the lean shark lay,

Waiting with wide and bloody jaw

His quick and human prey.

God of the earth! what cries

Rang upward unto thee?

Voices of agony and blood,

From ship-deck and from sea.

The last dull plunge was heard,

The last wave caught its stain,

And the unsated shark looked up

For human hearts in vain.

(4) John Greenleaf Whittier, William Lloyd Garrison (1832)

Champion of those who groan beneath

Oppression's iron hand:

In view of penury, hate, and death,

I see thee fearless stand.

Still bearing up thy lofty brow,

In the steadfast strength of truth,

In manhood sealing well the vow

And promise of thy youth.

Go on, for thou hast chosen well;

On in the strength of God!

Long as one human heart shall swell

Beneath the tyrant's rod.

Speak in a slumbering nation's ear,

As thou hast ever spoken,

Until the dead in sin shall hear,

The fetter's link be broken!

I love thee with a brother's love,

I feel my pulses thrill,

To mark thy Spirit soar above

The cloud of human ill.

My heart hath leaped to answer thine,

And echo back thy words,

As leaps the warrior's at the shine

And flash of kindred swords!

They tell me thou art rash and vain,

A searcher after fame;

That thou art striving but to gain

A long-enduring name;

That thou hast nerved the Afric's hand

And steeled the Afric's heart,

To shake aloft his vengeful brand,

And rend his chain apart.

Have I not known thee well, and read

Thy mighty purpose long?

And watched the trials which have made

Thy human spirit strong?

And shall the slanderer's demon breath

Avail with one like me,

To dim the sunshine of my faith

And earnest trust in thee?

Go on, the dagger's point may glare

Amid thy pathway's gloom;

The fate which sternly threatens there

Is glorious martyrdom!

Then onward with a martyr's zeal;

And wait thy sure reward

When man to man no more shall kneel,

And God alone be Lord.

(5) John Greenleaf Whittier, The Sentence of John Brown (1844)

Ho! thou who seekest late and long

A License from the Holy Book

For brutal lust and fiendish wrong,

Man of the Pulpit, look!

Lift up those cold and atheist eyes,

This ripe fruit of thy teaching see;

And tell us how to heaven will rise

The incense of this sacrifice --

This blossom of the gallows tree!

Search out for slavery's hour of need

Some fitting text of sacred writ;

Give heaven the credit of deed

Which shames the nether pit.

Kneel, smooth blasphemer, unto Him

Whose truth is on thy lips a lie;

Ask that His bright winged cherubim

May bend around that scaffold grim

To guard and bless and sanctify.

O champion of the people's cause!

Suspend thy loud and vain rebuke

Of foreign wrong and Old World's laws,

Man of the Senate, look!

Was this the promise of the free,

The great hope of our early time,

That slavery's poison vine should be

Upborne by Freedom's prayer-nursed tree

O'erclustered with such fruits of crime?

Send out the summons East and West,

And South and North, let all be there

Where he who pitied the oppressed

Swings out in sun and air.

Let not a Democratic hand

The grisly hangman's task refuse;

There let each loyal patriot stand,

Awaiting slavery's command,

To twist the rope and draw the noose!