Chapter 7: Whittier as a social reformerIt must be borne in mind, as regards Whittier, that he lived not merely at a time when the direct question of human freedom was uppermost, but in a period when all questions of religious freedom and of social reorganisation were coming to the front in many ways. In some of these directions, real progress came out of such agitations, and at the very least they kept before the public the need of perpetual change and rearrangement of laws and usages, to keep up with the progress of invention and of democratic institutions. It was a time when Emerson wrote of the social structure, “The nobles shall not any longer, as feudal lords, have power of life and death over the churls, but now in another shape, as capitalists, shall in all love and peace eat these up as before.” 1 It was not possible for Whittier, with his temperament and principles, to keep himself aloof from these seething agitations; and he showed both the courage of Quakerism and its guarded moderation in encountering the new problems and their advocates. This is visible, for instance, in such letters as the following: 
It was in connection with “The Tent on the beach” that Whittier printed in the New York Nation what is perhaps the best statement of the comparative position which poetry and practical reform held in his life. It is as follows:-- 
It is known that in the same conscientious spirit he was unwilling to insert in his “Songs of three centuries” Mrs. Howe's Battle hymn of the republic, but as he wrote to his assistant editor, “I got over my Quaker scruples, or rather stifled them, and put in the Battle hymn.” He adds that he cannot do justice  to Campbell's works in this series, “but we can't print his war pieces, and so we will let him slide.” One of his points of prominence was naturally his position as a member of the Society of Friends. On the publication of the extended “Memorial history of Boston,” in four large volumes, in 1880, edited by the unquestioned chief among Massachusetts historians, Justin Winsor, Whittier furnished by request a poem bearing on early local history, “The King's Missive.” The first verse of the poem, now well known, was as follows:--
Under the great hill sloping bareTo this poem a reply was written by the Rev. G. E. Ellis, president of the Massachusetts Historical Society, questioning its statement of facts. This led to some discussion between him and the author, and Whittier wrote in reply the only long prose statement, I believe, which was drawn from him, in a polemic way, after his early antislavery pamphlets. The Massachusetts Historical Society afterward put, in a manner, its seal of acceptance on this, when it chose Whittier as a member; and I think that it was generally admitted among its members that Dr. Ellis went rather too far in his attempt to vindicate the character of the Puritans for justice or moderation. Whittier himself, in reprinting the poem in his collected works,  adds, tranquilly, “The publication of the, ballad led to some discussion as to the historical truthfulness of the picture, but I have seen no reason to rub out any of the figures, or alter the lines and colours.” As this controversy tested Whittier in an important light, I give a specimen passage from his argument; and all the more because he did not include it in his permanent collection of prose works, partly perhaps from its character of personal antagonism, which he so greatly disliked. He says:--
To cove and meadow and Common lot,
In his council chamber and oaken chair,
Sat the worshipful Governor Endicott.
A grave, strong man who knew no peer
In the pilgrim land, where he ruled in fear
Of God, not man, and for good or ill
He held his trust with an iron will.
It has been stated that Mr. Whittier at one time expressed to a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society his intention to prepare a full and exhaustive history of the relation of Puritan and Quaker in the seventeenth century, but there seems no evidence that he followed up this project. There was undoubtedly in Whittier, amid all his quietness of life, that impulsiveness which revealed itself in his brilliant eye and subdued decision of manner. “A good deal has been said,” as Mr. Robert S. Rantoul has admirably pointed out, “about Mr. Whittier's fighting blood; whether it came from Huguenot or Norman veins, or from his Indian-fighting ancestors who deserted the ‘meeting’ trail and camp. He had a good deal of the natural man left under his brown homespun, waistcoat, and straight collar. He had the reticence and presence of an Arab chief, with the eye of an eagle.” Among all Howells's characters in fiction, the one who most caught Whittier's fancy was “that indomitable old German, Linden,” in the “Hazard of New Fortunes,” whom he characterised, in writing to Mrs. Fields, as “that saint of the rather godless sect of dynamiters and atheists — a grand figure.” Besides the general spirit of freedom which Whittier imbibed with his Quaker blood and training, he had also in his blood the instincts of labour, which tended to the elevation of the labouring class. This I know well, for I lent a hand, when living in the next town, to an agitation for the Ten Hour Bill at Amesbury, and there are various  references to it in his brief letters to me. A natural politician of the higher sort, he rejoiced in an effort to bring such a bill Vefore the state legislature, where it finally triumphed. Thus I find a letter, probably written in 1848, but imperfectly dated, as his letters often were:
Nor can it be said that the persecution grew out of the ‘intrusion,’ ‘indecency,’ and ‘effrontery’ of the persecuted.It owed its origin to the settled purpose of the ministers and leading men of the colony to permit no difference of opinion on religious matters. They had banished the Baptists, and whipped at least one of them. They had hunted down Gorton and his adherents; they had imprisoned Dr. Child, an Episcopalian, for petitioning the General Court for toleration. They had driven some of their best citizens out of their jurisdiction, with Anne Hutchinson, and the gifted minister, Wheelwright. Any dissent on the part of their own fellow-citizens was punished as severely as the heresy of strangers. The charge of ‘indecency’ comes with ill grace from the authorities of the Massachusetts Colony. The first Quakers who arrived in Boston, Ann Austin and Mary Fisher, were arrested on board the ship before landing, their books taken from them and burned by the constable, and they themselves brought before Deputy Governor Bellingham, in the absence of Endicott. This astute magistrate ordered them to be stripped naked and their bodies to be carefully examined, to see if there was not the Devil's mark on them as witches. They were then sent to jail, their cell window was boarded up, and they were left without food or light, until the master  of the vessel that brought them was ordered to take them to Barbadoes. When Endicott returned he thought they had been treated too leniently, and declared that he would have had them whipped. After this, almost every town in the province was favoured with the spectacle of aged and young women stripped to the middle, tied to a cart-tail, and dragged through the streets and scourged without mercy by the constable's whip. It is not strange that these atrocious proceedings, in two or three instances, unsettled the minds of the victims. Lydia Wardwell of Hampton, who, with her husband, had been reduced to almost total destitution by persecution, was summoned by the church of which she had been a member to appear before it to answer to the charge of non-attendance. She obeyed the call by appearing in the unclothed condition of the sufferers whom she had seen under the constable's whip. For this she was taken to Ipswich and stripped to the waist, tied to a rough post, which tore her bosom as she writhed under the lash, and severely scourged to the satisfaction of a crowd of lookers — on at the tavern. One, and only one, other instance is adduced in the person of Deborah Wilson of Salem. She had seen her friends and neighbours scourged naked through the street, among them her brother, who was banished on pain of death. She, like all Puritans, had been educated in the belief of the plenary inspiration of Scripture, and had brooded over the strange ‘signs’ and testimonies of the Hebrew prophets. It seemed to her that the time had arrived for some similar demonstration, and that it was her duty to walk abroad in the disrobed condition to which her friends had been subjected, as a sign and warning to the persecutors. Whatever of ‘indecency’ there was in these cases was directly chargeable upon the atrocious persecution. At the door of the magistrates and ministers of Massachusetts must be laid the insanity of the conduct of these unfortunate women. But Boston, at least, had no voluntary Godivas. The only disrobed women in its streets were made so by Puritan sheriffs and constables, who dragged them amidst jeering crowds at the cart-tail, stripped for the lash, which in one  instance laid open with a ghastly gash the bosom of a young mother!
On application to the Hon. George W. Cate, he has refreshed my memory in regard to the details of the strike which led to this ten-hour agitation, and they are as follows:--
So in regard to spiritual liberty Whittier addressed a poem in indignation to Pius IX. after his acceptance of the French aid against his own people, but he added in a note:--
Your memory of Mr. Whittier's position in regard to strikes is correct. At the time of the Derby ‘turnout, or strike,’ at Amesbary, which was many years ago, in 1852 I think, Mr. Whittier was in full sympathy with the strikers. I think the particulars of the turnout were given quite fully by C. D. Wright. At that time, all the people who were employed in the mills were a very intelligent class of operatives, and natives. All took a deep interest in their work. It had for many years been their custom to go into the mill early and to come out for a few minutes at about ten o'clock A. M., and order their dinner and get a luncheon. The habit  had been in existence for years, and had become an unwritten law with the operatives. Agent Derby denied them these privileges, and they refused to return to work. The result of this disagreement terminated in the old operatives leaving, and in the employment of a large number of foreigners, which entirely changed the character of the operatives in Amesbury.Ms. Letter, Aug. 26, 1902.
The writer of these lines is no enemy of Catholics. He has, on more than one occasion, exposed himself to the censures of his Protestant brethren, by his strenuous endeavours to procure indemnification for the owners of the convent destroyed near Boston. He defended the cause of the Irish patriots long before it had become popular in this country; and he was one of the first to urge the most liberal aid to the suffering and starving population of the Catholic island. The severity of his language finds its ample apology in the reluctant confession of one of the most eminent Romish priests, the eloquent and devoted Father Ventura.And he added a similar reproach in “The Prisoners at Naples,” and in “The peace of Europe, 1852.” As to the temperance movement, it seems a little amusing to find Whittier taking for the theme of his first prose newspaper article, “Robert Burns,” and for his second subject, on the following week, “Temperance.” These appeared in the Haverhill Gazette, the editor of which, Mr. Thayer, father of the late Professor James B. Thayer, of the Harvard Law School, was one of the earliest American editors to take up this theme. A  year later Whittier writes from Amesbury, whither he had removed: “I have one item of good news from Haverhill. The old distillery has had its fires quenched at last. C. has sold out, and the building is to be converted into stores.” Whittier himself, as I remember well, at Atlantic Club dinners, was one of the few who took no wine among that group of authors. The attitude of Whittier toward reform agitations in general was never better shown than in his prompt response to the announcement of certain limitations placed by George Peabody on the church built largely by his money in Georgetown, Mass. The facts were first brought to light by the New York Independent on Jan. 16, 1868, by the following statement:--
 Mr. Whittier published a card in the Boston Transcript of Jan. 30, as follows:--
In writing the “Hymn for the Memorial Church at Georgetown,” the author, as his verses indicate, has sole reference to the tribute of a brother and sister to the memory of a departed mother,--a tribute which seemed and still seems to him, in itself considered, very beautiful and appropriate; but he has since seen, with surprise and sorrow, a letter read at the dedication, imposing certain extraordinary restrictions upon the society which is to occupy the house. It is due to himself, as a simple act of justice, to say that had he known of the existence of that letter previously, the hymn would never have been written, nor his name in any way connected with the proceedings.To Whittier, as to many, including all advocates of universal peace, the results of the Civil War brought some misgivings, through the means by which they were attained. He wrote thus to the woman who had first brought the antislavery movement into American literature:--
Whittier was the only one of his immediate literary circle, except Fields the publisher, who unequivocally supported woman suffrage from the beginning of the agitation. It was of course easier for members of the Society of Friends to do this than for others, yet many Friends opposed it, even vehemently. He wrote as early as 1839, “I go the whole length as regards the rights of women” ; and he wrote again to the Woman's Suffrage Convention at Worcester, in 1850:--
Come what may, Nature is inexorable; she will reverse none of her laws at the bidding of male or female conventions; and men and women, with or without the right of suffrage, will continue to be men and women still. In the event of the repeal of certain ungenerous, not to say unmanly, enactments, limiting and abridging the rights and privileges of women, we may safely confide in the adaptive powers of Nature. She will take care of the new fact in her own way, and reconcile it to the old, through the operation of her attractive or repellent forces. Let us, then, not be afraid to listen to the claims and demands of those who, in some sort at least, represent the feelings and interests of those nearest and dearest to us. Let Oliver ask for more. It is scarcely consistent with our assumed superiority to imitate the horror and wide-orbed consternation of Mr. Bumble and his parochial associates, on a similar occasion. Later, when the movement had got farther on, and he was invited to a convention on the subject, held at Newport, R. I., on Aug. 25, 1869, he replied thus explicitly and also wisely:--
Again he wrote, of a speech by that eminently clearheaded and able woman, Miss Alice Freeman, now Mrs. G. H. Palmer:--
These opinions, it will be seen, cover an interval of nearly half a century.