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Chapter 6: a division in the ranks

Times of peace, it is said, have few historians, but times of war have still fewer, because the hotter the fight the harder it is to stop and describe it. It will be useless to attempt any full explanation, for the readers of to-day, of the great division which embittered the lives of so many among the early abolitionists, as years passed on. The strength of character which makes a leader of reform is not easily combined with the sweet attributes of the peacemaker; and after the right to agitate a great principle is fought for and won, there is apt to be a good deal of further pugilism needed in determining just how it shall be agitated. The leader of the antislavery movement was of course Garrison, and he had been Whittier's especial guide and source of influence in his personal career; so that their mutual relation became in time a difficult question. After the Liberator had been mobbed into fame, it turned out to be in the hands of a man who had, not one moral aim alone in view, but many; who had a whole quiver full of arrows to discharge at a dozen public evils, and would by no means be limited by any one else in the right of selection. This was all very proper if Garrison's newspaper belonged to him in fee simple; but what became of it [67] as an organ of the whole antislavery body, of which Whittier happened to be one?

There was the Bible question, the Sunday question, the labour question; all these were to be handled by a man who had in him far more of fighting capacity, of logical brain, than could be limited to one cause alone. On most of these points Whittier was as radical as Garrison, but he was by temperament more strictly executive, and wished to lay out the work systematically and fight each battle by itself. Then came the great question of voting or non-voting, and here Garrison's disunion attitude, in itself logical enough, went against Whittier's whole temperament; and it ended in their being, for a time at least, leaders and combatants in two separate armies. This involved some differences of attitude on very pressing questions; and the transfer of the other antislavery newspaper, the Emancipator, to the possession of those who could not wholly support Garrison, was an act which divided families and left seeds of bitterness of which the “Life of Garrison” by his sons gives a thorough and laborious record. It would now lead into a labyrinth were I to follow it up; it is enough to say that Mrs. Chapman's view as to Whittier-so the latter himself told me at one time — was this, “As to that, the only question is, whether Whittier is more knave or fool.” Now Mrs. Chapman was, as I have already said, as distinctly the leader among the antislavery women as was Garrison among the men.

In short, the question of union or disunion drew a sharp line of cleavage among those already enlisted, and it was impossible, I suppose, for the originators of the whole movement to do otherwise than they did [68] -this outcome involving, it must be owned, much bitter quarrelling. But I am glad to testify, for the credit of all concerned, that upon the younger men who came on the stage after the lines were first drawn, there was imposed no necessity of taking sides; and I never, for one, found any difficulty in working with both bodies of men and women — the Garrisonians or Disunionists and the voting abolitionists or Liberty Party men. The latter, it must be remembered, was the organisation which became the “Free Soil” party, then the “Republican” party, and in that form finally controlled the nation. It must be owned, however, in viewing the attitude of these two dividing factions, that the Disunionists were in general the more interesting class personally and more eloquent in speech than their voting brethren, precisely because they could speak without the slightest reference to policy or organisation; that the very leaders of the latter, such as Whittier and Samuel E. Sewall, happened to have no gift of platform eloquence, though much faculty of organising and conciliating; that the very fact of the entanglement of voting abolitionists with party leaders who never thoroughly belonged with them, such as Clay and Van Buren, was an embarrassment and a hindrance; and finally, that the immense and unflinching weight of the women, as non-voters, was thrown on the side of Garrison and his party, whereas the voting abolitionists were often tempted to keep rather shy of a non-voting sex. All this I say, although observation has taught me that all these differences of policy, which seemed such a life-and-death matter at the time, are now as uninteresting to the younger generation as is antimasonry or any other cause which [69] once shook the nation. It is, moreover, the actual fact that though the leaders such as Garrison and Whittier opposed and distrusted each other for a time, they ended after many years in renewed friendship: just as Adams and Jefferson, after years of far bitterer contest, could spend their old age in the friendliest correspondence, and even death found them in such a hand-and-hand relation that it took them both on the same day, and that day the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

In the meanwhile, each of the abolitionist leaders followed the path that belonged to his temperament. Garrison had no gift for personal organisation, in the politician's sense; but no man ever excelled him in the strength and fearlessness of his individual statements, The clear maxims of his early platform, “I will not equivocate, I will not apologise, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard,” simply marked him as one of the most absolutely straightforward hitters who ever encountered a great wrong. Hence came his power; while Whittier, equally sincere, proved to have, unlike Garrison, an unexpected tact and skill of management; he could deal with professional politicians like Clay and Cushing; he could adapt himself to their limitations, and show cause why they should be on his side. Even after he knew them to be worthless for freedom, but had need of them, he would keep them in his power to the last. One secret of this was his absolute unselfishness; a thing in which he surpassed even Garrison, who possessed the love of power, after all, though in its most high-minded form, and was never quite at ease in a secondary position; whereas such an attitude never troubled Whittier at [70] all. This is clearly set forth in a letter to the latter's friend, Elizabeth Neall. The letter shows also that his sympathies as a consistent member of the Society of Friends went forth to the women speakers, whom he was criticised as not fully sustaining. After all, it is always a thing which depends on the individual temperament of reformers, how far they are to make use of a multiplex lens, and how far to concentrate all observation on a single point.

To Elizabeth Neal.

For myself, abolition has been to me its own “exceeding great reward.” It has repaid every sacrifice of time, of money, of reputation, of health, of ease, with the answer of a good conscience, and the happiness which grows out of benevolent exertions for the welfare of others. It has led me to examine myself. It has given me the acquaintance of some of the noblest and best of men and women. It owes me nothing. So, then, two of the youngest members of the Women's Society are to hold forth. . . . Shade of the Apostle Paul! What is this world coming to? Never mind, “I like it hugely,” as Tristram Shandy said of Yorick's sermon, and would like it better to see them wield in their delicate fingers the thunderbolts of abolition oratory. As the author of “ John Gilpin ” said of the hero and his horse :--

And when he next doth ride abroad,
May I be there to see!

Seriously, I see no good reason why they should not speak as well as their elders. “Let the daughters prophesy,” agreeably to the promise of the prophet Joel, and let the doors be thrown open to all without distinction of sex, and then another part of the promise will be verified, “the young men shall see visions!” I go the whole length as regards the rights of women, however, although I sometimes joke a little about it. I am afraid it is a besetting sin of [71] mine to do so in reference to many things in which I feel a sober and real interest. I have repented of it a thousand times, especially as it gave those who were not intimately acquainted with me a false idea of my character. . . .1

The only record in the “Life of Garrison” by his sons — perhaps the most thoroughly executed biography ever written in America, though it could hardly be expected to be the most absolutely impartial — of any final interview showing the cleavage between him and Whittier is in a letter from Lucretia Mott, written on Feb. 25, 1852. She says:

Maria W. Chapman wrote me that he [Whittier] was in the [antislavery] office a few months since, bemoaning to Garrison that there should have been any divisions. ‘Why could we not all go on together?’ ‘ Why not, indeed? ’ said Garrison; ‘we stand just where we did. I see no reason why you cannot cooperate with the American Society.’ ‘Oh,’ replied Whittier, ‘but the American Society is not what it once was. It has the coat, the hat, and the waistcoat of the old society, but the life has passed out of it.’ ‘Are you not ashamed,’ said Garrison, ‘to come here wondering why we cannot go on together? No wonder you can't cooperate with a suit of old clothes.’

Garrison's life, III. 35.

How far Garrison did justice to the real strength of Whittier's nature will perhaps always remain somewhat doubtful, in view of the fact that eight years before this, in 1834, he had briefly characterised him as “highly poetical, exuberant, and beautiful.” 2 It is possible he may have been rather surprised, in later years, to find his young proselyte developing a will of [72] his own. There was certainly a phase of detached relations, when Whittier freely endorsed the prevalent criticism of Garrison as dictatorial; and when Garrison's foremost counsellor among antislavery women Mrs. Chapman, used the phrases she employed about Whittier. But it is needless to explore these little divergences of the saints, and it is certain that Garrison, at the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the American Antislavery Society, spoke of Whittier as “known and honoured throughout the civilised world.” He added: “I have no words to express my sense of the value of his services. There are few living who have done so much to operate upon the public mind and conscience and heart of our country for the abolition of slavery as John Greenleaf Whittier.”

Whittier, in his letter, made this companion tribute to Garrison:--

I must not close this letter without confessing that I cannot be sufficiently thankful to the Divine Providence which, in a great measure through thy instrumentality, turned me so early away from what Roger Williams calls “ the world's great trinity, pleasure, profit, and honour,” to take side with the poor and oppressed. I am not insensible to literary reputation; 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.

The lesson thus conveyed is so fine that I linger further upon it, to give some extracts from Whittier's own review of the matter in his introduction to Oliver Johnson's “William Lloyd Garrison and his Times.” [73]

I do not know that any word of mine can give additional interest to this memorial of William Lloyd Garrison from the pen of one of his earliest and most devoted friends, whose privilege it has been to share his confidence and his labours for nearly half a century: but I cannot well forego the opportunity afforded me to add briefly my testimony to the tribute to the memory of the great Reformer, whose friendship I have shared, and with whom I have been associated in a common cause from youth to age.

My acquaintance with him commenced in boyhood. My father was a subscriber to his first paper, the Free Press, and the humanitarian tone of his editorials awakened a deep interest in our little household, which was increased by a visit which he made us. When he afterwards edited the Journal of the Times, at Bennington, Vt., I ventured to write him a letter of encouragement and sympathy, urging him to continue his labours against slavery, and assuring him that he could ‘do great things,’ an unconscious prophecy which has been fulfilled beyond the dream of my boyish enthusiasm. The friendship thus commenced has remained unbroken through half a century, confirming my early confidence in his zeal and devotion, and in the great intellectual and moral strength which he brought to the cause with which his name is identified.

During the long and hard struggle in which the abolitionists were engaged, and amidst the new and difficult questions and side issues which presented themselves, it could scarcely be otherwise than that differences of opinion and action should arise among them. The leader and his disciples could not always see alike. My friend, the author of this book, I think, generally found himself in full accord with him, while I often decidedly dissented. I felt it my duty to use my right of citizenship at the ballot-box in the cause of liberty, while Garrison, with equal sincerity, judged and counselled otherwise. Each acted under a sense of individual duty and responsibility, and our personal relations were undisturbed. If, at times, the great antislavery leader failed to do justice to the motives of those who, while in hearty sympathy with his hatred of slavery, did not agree [74] with some of his opinions and methods, it was but the pardonable and not unnatural result of his intensity of purpose and his self-identification with the cause he advocated; and, while compelled to dissent, in some particulars, from his judgment of men and measures, the great mass of the antislavery people recognised his moral leadership. The controversies of old and new organisation, non-resistance and political action, may now be looked upon by the parties to them who still survive, with the philosophic calmness which follows the subsidence of prejudice and passion. We were but fallible men, and doubtless often erred in feeling, speech, and action. Ours was but the common experience of reformers in all ages.

Never in Custom's oiled grooves
The world to a higher level moves,
But grates and grinds with friction hard
On granite boulder and flinty shard.
Ever the Virtues blush to find
The Vices wearing their badge behind,
And Graces and Charities feel the fire
Wherein the sins of the age expire.

It is too late now to dwell on these differences. I choose rather, with a feeling of gratitude to God, to recall the great happiness of labouring with the noble company of whom Garrison was the central figure. I love to think of him as he seemed to me, when in the fresh dawn of manhood he sat with me in the old Haverhill farmhouse, revolving even then schemes of benevolence; or, with cheery smile, welcoming me to his frugal meal of bread and milk in the dingy Boston printing-room; or, as I found him in the gray December morning in the small attic of a coloured man, in Philadelphia, finishing his night-long task of drafting his immortal Declaration of Sentiments of the American Antislavery Society; or, as I saw him in the jail of Leverett Street, after his almost miraculous escape from the mob, playfully inviting me to share the safe lodgings which the state had provided for him: and in all the varied scenes and situations where we [75] acted together our parts in the great endeavour and success of Freedom.

The verdict of posterity in his case may be safely anticipated. With the true reformers and benefactors of his race he occupies a place inferior to none other. The private lives of many who fought well the battles of humanity have not been without spot or blemish. But his private character, like his public, knew no dishonour. No shadow of suspicion rests upon the white statue of a life, the fitting garland of which should be the Alpine flower that symbolises noble purity.

Works, pp. 189-92.

It is nevertheless to be observed that it became necessary for Whittier, more than once, in the antislavery movement, to dissent widely from Garrison and his more immediate circle in regard to those reformers who worked on a somewhat different plane. It is a fact worth noticing, for instance, because very characteristic, that Whittier, like that very able woman, Mrs. Lydia Maria Child, always differed from Garrison and his more intimate followers in the view they took of the Rev. Dr. William Ellery Channing, to whom Whittier had written, of his own impulse, in early youth, a serious appeal urging him to enter strenuously upon the antislavery agitation. Whittier was, it must be remembered, addressing one incomparably his superior at that time, in prominence and influence, as in years. It was a bold letter to be written by a shy Quaker youth of twenty-six to a man more than twice his years, for Channing was then almost fifty-four. A yet unknown man, Whittier was offering counsel to the most popular clergyman in Boston. Written in 1834, the letter long preceded Channing's Faneuil Hall speech of 1837, which first clearly committed him to [76] the antislavery movement; and it still farther preceded his work on slavery in 1841, which identified him with the enterprise and made him, in the minds of the more moderate, its recognised leader. The fact is the more interesting, inasmuch as Channing himself, in spite of his vast influence with a class whom Garrison had as yet scarcely touched, was always regarded with distrust, almost with hostility, by the abolitionists proper, and was denounced by Mrs. Maria Weston Chapman, as one who “had neither insight, courage, nor firmness.” Whittier, on the other hand, always maintained, that after Mrs. Child, Dr. Channing had made greater sacrifices for the antislavery cause than any one, in view of the height and breadth of his previous influence and popularity.3

In November, 1837, a small volume of Whittier's poems was issued in Boston by the publisher of the Liberator, Isaac Knapp. It was first printed without consulting the poet himself, and was entitled, “Poems written during the Progress of the Abolition Question in the United States, between the years 1830 and 1838, by John G. Whittier.” This was the first edition of his works; but the first authorised edition did not appear until a year later, in November, when a small volume, entitled simply “Poems,” was issued by Joseph Healy, financial agent of the Philadelphia Society. This consisted of one hundred and eighty pages, and was not limited to his antislavery verse; including fifty poems in all, only eleven of which are retained in the permanent edition of his works. The little book is ennobled by one of Coleridge's finest passages, used as a motto, as follows:-- [77]

“ ‘ There is a time to keep silence,’ saith Solomon. But when I proceeded to the first verse of the fourth chapter of the Ecclesiastes, ‘and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun, and beheld the tears of such as are oppressed, and they have had no comforter; and on the side of the oppressors there was power,’ I concluded this was not the time to keep silence; for Truth should be spoken at all times, but more especially at those times when to speak Truth is dangerous.”

In 1840 Whittier's health had become impaired anew; his father had died, and his mother, sister, and aunt had removed their residence to Amesbury — partly for the sake of nearness to their meeting-house; and he joined them there and made the house his legal domicile, as it is now his memorial home.

His service to freedom, after ill health had driven him from Philadelphia, was irregular in place and form, but constant. He passed from Amesbury to Boston and thence to New York, to Saratoga, to Albany, and to western Pennsylvania, and wherever there was to be an antislavery convention; which meant, in his case, a convention based upon the ballot, aiming at political action, and still holding to the faint hope that Henry Clay might yet become its leader, and that Caleb Cushing might espouse its cause. At one time Whittier and Henry B. Stanton were deputed by the American Antislavery Society to go through Pennsylvania and find, if they could, seventy public speakers who would take part in the war against slavery.4 He had at one time planned, when he felt himself more in command of his bodily forces, to attend the World's Antislavery Convention at London (June, 1840), but being cautioned by the well-known [78] physician, Dr. Henry I. Bowditch, he forebore to take the risk, his heart being at that period the point of danger.

Of the later tests which came to abolitionists and sometimes separated them into opposing ranks, little need be said, for Whittier was never personally combative, and though he was severely tested as to his peace principles, yet the Quaker principle carried him safely through. When I was in Kansas in 1856, in the times of trouble, I could hear of but one of the theoretical non-resistants who had gone thither and who had adhered faithfully to his principles. I did not agree with these views, but went out of my way to call upon him and express my respect, a feeling I could not quite entertain for those who had backslidden, and could then give as an excuse that they “never imagined there could be such people in the world as the Border Ruffians.” With all Whittier's Arab look and his admiration of General Gordon, I think he would have found himself exposed to being lynched and yet have been a Quaker still; just as his old friend Garrison, through all the fugitive slave cases in Boston, kept steadfastly at his desk, regarding these as mere incidents, and the punctuality of the next issue of the Liberator as the important thing. When it came to the still more difficult test of John Brown, this letter to Mrs. Child showed Whittier to be the non-resistant still:--

October 21st, [1859].
My dear friend,--I was glad to get a line from thee, and glad of the opportunity it affords me and my sister to express our admiration of thy generous sympathy with the brave but, methinks, sadly misguided Captain Brown. We feel deeply (who does not?) for the noble-hearted, selfficing [79] old man. But as friends of peace, as well as believers in the Sermon on the Mount, we dare not lend any countenance to such attempts as that at Harper's Ferry.

I hope, in our admiration of the noble traits of John Brown's character, we shall be careful how we encourage a repetition of his rash and ill-judged movement. Thou and I believe in “a more excellent way.” I have just been looking at one of the pikes sent here by a friend in Baltimore. It is not a Christian weapon; it looks too much like murder.

God is now putting our non-resistance principles to a severe test. I hope we shall not give the lie to our lifelong professions. I quite agree with thee that we must judge of Brown by his standards; but at the same time we must be true to our settled convictions, and to the duty we owe to humanity.

Thou wilt see how difficult it is for me to write as thou request. My heart is too heavy and sorrowful. I cannot write now, and can only wait, with fervent prayer that the cause we love may receive no detriment.

1 Pickard, I. 218-19.

2Garrison's Life,” I. 461.

3 The letter addressed to him may be found in Pickard's “Whittier,” I. 137.

4 Pickard's “Whittier,” I. 250.

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