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Chapter 7: Whittier as a social reformer

It 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: [81]

To Ann E. Wendell.

Lynn, 11th mo., 1840.
I was in Boston this week, and looked in twice upon the queer gathering of heterogeneous spirits at the Chardon Street chapel assembled under a call issued by Maria W. Chapman, Abby Kelley, and others, to discuss the subjects of the Sabbath, ministry, and church organisations, and some twenty other collateral subjects. When I was present the chapel was crowded, a motley-opinioned company, from the Calvinist of the straitest sect to the infidel and scoffer. Half of the forenoon of the first day was spent in debating whether the convention should be organised by the choice of president and secretary, or whether these old-fashioned restraints should be set aside as unworthy of advocates of “the largest liberty,” leaving each member to do and say what seemed right in his own eyes! It was finally decided to have a president. Then came on a discussion about the Sabbath, in which Garrison and two transcendental Unitarians, and a woman by the name of Folsom, argued that every day should be held sacred; that it was not a rest from labour but from sin that was wanted; that keeping First day as holy was not required, etc. On the other hand, Amos A. Phelps, Dr. Osgood, and some others contended for the Calvinistic and generally received views of the subject. Dr. Channing, John Pierpont, and many other distinguished men were present, but took no part in the discussions. No Friends were members of the convention, although there were several lookers-on. Judging from the little I saw and heard, I do not think the world will be much the wiser for the debate. It may have a tendency to unsettle some minds.2

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:-- [82]

I am very well aware that merely personal explanations are not likely to be as interesting to the public as to the parties concerned; but I am induced to notice what is either a misconception on thy part, or as is most probable, a failure on my own to make myself clearly understood. In the review of “ The Tent on the Beach,” in thy paper of last week, I confess I was not a little surprised to find myself represented as regretting my lifelong and active participation in the great conflict which has ended in the emancipation of the slave, and that I had not devoted myself to merely literary pursuits. In the half-playful lines upon which this statement is founded, if I did not feel at liberty to boast of my antislavery labours and magnify my editorial profession, I certainly did not mean to underrate them, or express the shadow of a regret that they had occupied so large a share of my time and thought. The simple fact is, that I cannot be sufficiently thankful to the Divine Providence that so early called my attention to the great interests of humanity, saving me from the poor ambitions and miserable jealousies of a selfish pursuit of literary reputation. Up to a comparatively recent period, my writings have been simply episodical, something apart from the real object and aim of my life; and whatever of favour they have found with the public has come to me as a grateful surprise, rather than as an expected reward. As I have never staked all on the chances of authorship, I have been spared the pain of disappointment and the temptation to envy those, who, as men of letters, deservedly occupy a higher place in the popular estimation than I have ever aspired to.

Truly your friend, John G. Whittier. Amesbury, 9th, 3d mo., 1867.

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 [83] 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 bare
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.

To 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, [84] 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:--

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 [85] 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 [86] instance laid open with a ghastly gash the bosom of a young mother!

Kennedy's Whittier, 275-79.

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 [87] 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:

Amesbury, 13th, 7th mo.
My dear Higginson:
Thy letter was clearly to the purpose and was read at the Levee, and will be published this week in the Villager: -Thou will see by the Villager of last week what we are doing about the Ten Hour Law. That must be a point in our elections this fall — I think we can carry it through the next legislature.

I hope thou will be able to go to the Dist. Convention at Lowell tomorrow. Our del. is instructed to go for thee as one of the delegates to Pittsburg. Don't refuse. We shall be glad to see thee at any time.

Ever thine, J. G. W.

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:--

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 [88] 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.

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:--

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 [89] 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:--

A Marred Memorial.

Mr. George Peabody, the banker, gave money for the erection of the Memorial Church in Georgetown, Mass., the town of his birth. The church was dedicated on the 8th of January, with interesting exercises, one of the striking features of which was the singing of the following hymn, written for the occasion by John G. Whittier. . . . We venture to say that if the poet had known the conditions which the banker saw fit to impose on the Memorial Church, the poem would never have been written, and its author's name would never have been lent to the occasion. A correspondent of the Independent writes: “Mr. Peabody says in his letter that the church shall never be used for any lectures, discussions of political subjects, or other matters inconsistent with the gospel. I do not give his precise words, but this is the substance. The church will be deeded to the society on the express condition that neither Liberty nor Temperance, nor any other subject of Reform, shall ever be introduced into the pulpit.”


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:--

To Lydia Maria Child.

Thy confession as respects thy services in the cause of freedom and emancipation does not shock me at all. The emancipation that came by military necessity and enforced by bayonets was not the emancipation for which we worked and prayed. But, like the Apostle, I am glad the gospel of Freedom was preached, even if by strife and emulation. It cannot be said that we did it; we, indeed, had no triumph. But the work itself was a success. It made us stronger and better men and women. Some had little to sacrifice, but I always felt, my dear friend, that thee had made the costliest offering to the cause. For thee alone, of all of us, had won a literary reputation which any one might have [91] been proud of. I read all thy early work with enthusiastic interest, as I have all the later. Some time ago I searched Boston and New York for thy “Hobomok,” and succeeded in finding a defaced copy. How few American books can compare with thy “Philothea” ! Why, my friend, thy reputation, in spite of the antislavery surrender of it for so many years, is still a living and beautiful reality. And after all, good as thy books are, we know thee to be better than any book. I wish thee could know how proudly and tenderly thee is loved and honoured by the best and wisest of the land. Pickard's Whittier, II. 603-04.

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:--

Amesbury, Mass., 12th, 8th Month, 1869.
I have received thy letter inviting me to attend the Convention in behalf of Woman's Suffrage, at Newport, R. I., on the 25th inst. I do not see how it is possible for me to accept the invitation; and, were I to do so, the state of my health would prevent me from taking such a part in the meeting as would relieve me from the responsibility of seeming to sanction anything in its action which might conflict with my own views of duty or policy. Yet I should do myself great injustice if I did not embrace this occasion to express my general sympathy with the movement. I have seen no good reason why mothers, wives, and daughters should not have the same right of person, property, and citizenship which fathers, husbands, and brothers have.

The sacred memory of mother and sister; the wisdom and dignity of women of my own religious communion who have been accustomed to something like equality in rights as well as duties; my experience as a co-worker with noble and self-sacrificing women, as graceful and helpful in their household duties as firm and courageous in their public advocacy of unpopular truth; the steady friendships which have inspired and strengthened me, and the reverence and respect which I feel for human nature, irrespective of sex,compel me to look with something more than acquiescence on the efforts you are making. I frankly confess that I am not able to foresee all the consequences of the great social and political change proposed, but of this I am, at least, sure, it is always safe to do right, and the truest expediency is simple justice. I can understand, without sharing, the misgivings of those who fear that, when the vote drops from woman's hand into the ballot-box, the beauty and sentiment, the bloom and sweetness, of womankind will go [93] with it. But in this matter it seems to me that we can trust Nature. Stronger than statutes or conventions, she will. be conservative of all that the true man loves and honours in woman. Here and there may be found an equivocal, unsexed Chevalier d'eon, but the eternal order and fitness of things will remain. I have no fear that man will be less manly or woman less womanly when they meet on terms of equality before the law.

On the other hand, I do not see that the exercise of the ballot by woman will prove a remedy for all the evils of which she justly complains. It is her right as truly as mine, and when she asks for it, it is something less than manhood to withhold it. But, unsupported by a more practical education, higher aims, and a deeper sense of the responsibilities of life and duty, it is not likely to prove a blessing in her hands any more than in man's.

With great respect and hearty sympathy, I am very truly thy friend.

Again he wrote, of a speech by that eminently clearheaded and able woman, Miss Alice Freeman, now Mrs. G. H. Palmer:--

Amesbury, 7th mo., 1881.
Miss Freeman's speech was eloquent and wise — the best thing in the Institute. Perhaps even Francis Parkman might think she could be safely trusted to vote.

These opinions, it will be seen, cover an interval of nearly half a century.

1 Emerson, “Life and letters in New England.”

2 Pickard, I. 266-67.

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