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Chapter 4: Enlistment for life

By an interesting coincidence the first man who had encouraged Whittier in literature became his leader in reforms. William Lloyd Garrison, who had sought him at the plough as a boy, sought him a little later for a more important aim, when he encouraged him to leave all and become an ally of the antislavery movement. Whittier had already published more than a hundred poems with fair success; he had made friends in politics and was regarded as a young man of promise in that direction. But he published in the Haverhill Gazette in November, 1831, a poem, “To William Lloyd Garrison,” and from that time forward his career was determined.

In 1830, about the time when Whittier took the editorship of the New England Review, Garrison had been imprisoned in Baltimore as an abolitionist; in January, 1831, the Liberator--had been established; in 1833 Whittier had printed an anti-slavery pamphlet. In doing this he had bid farewell to success in politics and had cast in his lot, not merely with slaves, but with those who were their defenders even to death. Of these none came nearer to him, or brought home to him, at the very beginning, the possible outcome of his own career, than Dr. Reuben Crandall of Washington, who was arrested [49] for the crime of merely lending Whittier's pamphlet to a brother physician, for which offence he was arrested in 1834, and was “confined in the old city prison until his health was destroyed, and he was liberated only to die.” The fact is mentioned in “Astraea at the Capital,” where Whittier says:--

Beside me gloomed the prison cell
Where wasted one in slow decline,
For uttering simple words of mine,
And loving freedom all too well.

Whittier had been at first friendly, like Garrison, to the Colonisation Society, and had believed heartily in the future services to freedom of the then popular and always attractive statesman, Henry Clay. In June, 1834, however, he had become convinced that both Clay and the colonisation movement were in the wrong, although up to 1837, it seems, he wrote a private letter to Clay, urging him to come out against that whole enterprise.

He received from Garrison, in 1833, an invitation to attend as a delegate the National Anti-slavery Convention, to be held in Philadelphia in December. In answer to this call, he wrote to Garrison from Haverhill, Nov. 11, 1831:--

Thy letter of the 5th has been received. I long to go to Philadelphia, to urge upon the members of my Religious Society the duty of putting their shoulders to the workto make their solemn testimony against slavery visible over the whole land — to urge them by the holy memories of Woolman, and Benezet, and Tyson, to come up as of old to the standard of Divine Truth, though even the fires of another persecution should blaze around them. But the expenses of the journey will, I fear, be too much for me: as thee know, our farming business does not put much cash in our pockets. [50] I am, however, greatly obliged to the Boston Y[oung] M[en's] Association for selecting me as one of their delegates. I do not know how it may be,--but whether I go or not, my best wishes and my warmest sympathies are with the friends of Emancipation. Some of my political friends are opposed to my antislavery sentiments, and perhaps it was in some degree owing to this that, at the late Convention for the nomination of Senators for Essex, my nomination was lost by one vote. I should have rejoiced to have had an opportunity to cooperate personally with the abolitionists of Boston. . . . Can thee not find time for a visit to Haverhill before thee go on to Philadelphia? I wish I was certain of going with thee. At all events, do write immediately on receiving this, and tell me when thee shall start for the Quaker City.

Garrison's life, I. 393-94.

The obstacle being removed by the generosity of Samuel E. Sewall, afterward a lifelong colaborer with Whittier in the antislavery movement, the latter went to the convention, to which he was the youngest delegate. The party travelled in stage-coaches, and Whittier doubtless felt, as did the young Keats on his first visit to the North of England, as if he were going to a tournament. Of the sixty members in the convention, twelve were from Massachusetts, and twenty-one were members of the Society of Friends. Whittier was one of the secretaries and also one of the sub-committee of three which passed their Declaration of Independence. All this shows clearly the prestige which the young man had already attained, although this again was due largely to the leader of the convention, Garrison. In a paper published in the Atlantic Monthly, forty years later (February, 1874), Whittier gave his own reminiscence of this important experience, and from this I make a few extracts, recalling vividly the event:-- [51]

In the gray twilight of a chill day of late November, forty years ago, a dear friend of mine residing in Boston made his appearance at the old farmhouse in East Haverhill. He had been deputed by the abolitionists of the city, William L. Garrison, Samuel E. Sewall, and others, to inform me of my appointment as a delegate to the Convention to be held in Philadelphia for the formation of an American Antislavery Society, and to urge upon me the necessity of my attendance.

Few words of persuasion, however, were needed. I was unused to travelling; my life had been spent on a secluded farm, and the journey, mostly by stage-coach, was really a formidable one. Moreover, the few abolitionists were everywhere spoken against, their persons threatened, and in some instances a price set upon their heads by Southern legislatures. Pennsylvania was on the borders of slavery, and it needed small effort of imagination to picture to oneself the breaking up of the convention and maltreatment of its members. This latter consideration I do not think weighed much with me, although I was better prepared for serious danger than for anything like personal indignity. I had read Governor Trumbull's description of the tarring and feathering of his hero, MacFingal, when, after the application of the melted tar, the feather-bed was ripped open and shaken over him, until

Not Maia's son with wings for ears
Such plumes about his visage wears,
Nor Milton's six-wing'd angel gathers
Such superfluity of feathers,

and I confess I was quite unwilling to undergo a martyrdom which my best friends could scarcely refrain from laughing at. But a summons like that of Garrison's bugle-blast could scarcely be unheeded by me who from birth and education held fast the traditions of that earlier abolitionism which, under the lead of Benezet and Woolman, had effaced from the Society of Friends every vestige of slaveholding. I had thrown myself, with a young man's fervid enthusiasm, into a movement which commended itself to my reason and conscience, [52] to my love of country and my sense of duty to God and my fellow-men. . . . I could not hesitate, but prepared at once for the journey. It was necessary that I should start on the morrow, and the intervening time, with a small allowance for sleep, was spent in providing for the care of the farm and homestead during my absence.

He wrote further of those composing the convention--

Looking over the assembly, I noticed that it was mainly composed of comparatively young men; some in middle age, and a few beyond that period. They were nearly all plainly dressed, with a view to comfort rather than elegance. Many of the faces turned toward me wore a look of expectancy and suppressed enthusiasm; all had the earnestness which might be expected of men engaged in an enterprise beset with difficulty, and perhaps peril. The fine intellectual head of Garrison, prematurely bald, was conspicuous; the sunny-faced young man at his side, in whom all the beatitudes seemed to find expression, was Samuel J. May, mingling in his veins the best blood of the Sewalls and Quincys; a man so exceptionally pure and large-hearted, so genial, tender, and loving, that he could be faithful to truth and duty without making an enemy.

The deil wad look into his face
And swear he could na wrang him.

That tall, gaunt, swarthy man, erect, eagle-faced, upon whose somewhat martial figure the Quaker coat seemed a little out of place, was Lindley Coates, known in all eastern Pennsylvania as a stern enemy of slavery; that slight, eager man, intensely alive in every feature and gesture, was Thomas Shipley, who for thirty years had been the protector of the free coloured people of Philadelphia, and whose name was whispered reverently in the slave-cabins of Maryland as the friend of the black man--one of a class peculiar to old Quakerism, who, in doing what they felt to be a duty and walking as the Light within guided them, knew no fear, and [53] shrank from no sacrifice. Braver man the world has not known. Beside him, differing in creed, but united with him in works of love and charity, sat Thomas Whitson, of the Hicksite school of Friends, fresh from his farm in Lancaster County, dressed in plainest homespun, his tall form surmounted by a shock of unkempt hair, the odd obliquity of his vision contrasting strongly with the clearness and directness of his spiritual insight. Elizur Wright, the young professor of a Western college, who had lost his place by his bold advocacy of freedom, with a look of sharp concentration, in keeping with an intellect keen as a Damascus blade, closely watched the proceedings through his spectacles, opening his mouth only to speak directly to the purpose. ... In front of me, awakening pleasant associations of the old homestead in the Merrimac Valley, sat my first school-teacher, Joshua Coffin, the learned and worthy antiquarian and historian of Newbury. A few spectators, mostly of the Hicksite division of Friends, were present in broadbrims and plain bonnets.

Works, VII. 176-78.

He thus describes the closing words of this historic convention, at which the whole organized antislavery movement came into being:--

On the morning of the last day of our session, the Declaration, with its few verbal amendments, carefully engrossed on parchment, was brought before the convention. Samuel J. May rose to read it for the last time. His sweet, persuasive voice faltered with the intensity of his emotions as he repeated the solemn pledges of the concluding paragraphs. After a season of silence, David Thurston, of Maine, rose as his name was called by one of the secretaries, and affixed his name to the document. One after another passed up to the platform, signed, and retired in silence. All felt the deep responsibility of the occasion; the shadow and forecast of a lifelong struggle rested upon every countenance.

Works, VII. 184-85.


As Whittier has himself portrayed some of the leaders in this memorable historic gathering, there should be added this delineation of his own appearance and bearing, from the graphic pen of Lowell's friend, J. Miller McKim, to whom the younger poet inscribed his own vivid picture of the later antislavery reformers :--

He wore a dark frock coat, with standing collar, which, with his thin hair, dark and sometimes flashing eyes, and black whiskers, not large, but noticeable in those unhirsute days, gave him, to my then unpractised eye, quite as much of a military as a Quaker aspect. His broad, square forehead and well-cut features, aided by his incipient reputation as a poet, made him quite a noticeable feature of the convention.

Whittier was now enlisted for life in the antislavery body, and his feeling for Garrison reached its high-water mark at this convention; and is recorded in verses of which these are a part:--

To W. L. G.

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, [55] 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!1

This was his first feeling toward his early friend and his last; but there were to follow long years when the internal contests of the antislavery body were scarcely less vehement and far more personally bitter than those waged with the supporters of slavery; and these cannot be passed by unnoticed. In the meantime, Whittier was enlisted for the war.

1 Works, III. 9.

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