James Greenleaf Whittier and recasting anew the nation: “Ein’ Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott”

The frontispiece to a collection entitled Poems by John Greenleaf Whittier (Boston: Sanborn, Carter & Bazin: 1857)

As we approach April 12, the 150th anniversary of that fateful day when the renegades in South Carolina fired on the federal Fort Sumter on an island in the entrance of the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, we will begin to see the romanticization of the American Civil War play out once more. I say this as someone old enough to have seen the 100th anniversary and one who actually paid some attention to the festivities. There will be many myths spun to show that the men who fought were honorable on both sides. There will be plenty of reactionary sentiment hiding behind the romanticization of the Lost Cause. We’re seeing it already in attempts to have Mississippi issue license plates commemorating Nathan Bedford Forrest. As in all cases by Lost Cause romanticizers, there is indignation that anyone might think they were celebrating the more unseemly of a hero’s career—in this case that he committed what we would call a war crime by massacring black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in Tennessee in 1864 or in becoming a wizard of the KKK after the war. No, that’s not it at all, they say, we only celebrate his military “genius.” Of course, even if he were pure as the driven snow, he was still a traitor who committed a capital crime in taking up arms against the United States.

Confederate romanticizers nicely sidestep the treason issue by characterizing the war as a difference of constitutional opinion. But even if you are willing to swallow this canard, there is the unpleasant fact that the rebelling states chose to test their constitutional theory in order to preserve the vilest system ever permitted in the United States—black chattel slavery. There will be a lot of hemming and hawing on that issue. Mumbled statements about imposing our morality on history; or assertions that the break was over larger issues of economy or political philosophy. It is all bunk. Southern slave owners acted as oligarchs in their own states and muscled their way to more power in the federal government than they deserved, all on the backs of slaves. True it is that slavery caused two differently organized economies in this country, but it was the slave-owning economy that was the distortion, that required expansion, that brutalized the owners and retarded innovation, entrepreneurship and the development of skilled labor. It was a system that had been consigned to the dustbin of history elsewhere in the Western World but tenaciously clung to in the treasonous states. The central importance of slavery to the traitorous conspiracy can be seen in the Confederate Constitution, where it is mentioned numerous times: giving slave-owners rights to travel in other states with full ownership rights in their slaves (Article IV §2(1)), debarring a state from enacting any provision to accord slaves in their jurisdiction relief from terms of servitude granted by another (Article IV §2(3)), requiring that in any new Territory acquired by the Confederacy slaveholding rights be recognized as they then existed in the Confederacy (Article IV §3(3)), and comprehensively: “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” (Article I §9(4)).

And while the North did not respond to the confederate treachery initially to end slavery, the confederates’ fear that it would eventually be snuffed out caused them to continue the warfare long enough that the Union eventually made it a war to end slavery. When the federal government made abolition its object, the South no longer had a chance in the struggle, because there could be no pretence that the struggle was over abstract constitutional issues. And the South lost all prospect of foreign support.

There was no question about what the fight was about to the first and (with the exception of Robert Frost) only popular group of American poets, the so-called Fireside Poets. They were all but one abolitionists, with varying degree of heat—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier; and the one who was not an ardent abolitionist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., at least rejected the idea that the South could secede to protect it. These men wrote when poetry was supposed to be popular, and they were good at that aspect of it. Popularity eschews innovation and relishes the expected. Even so, they were able to produce interesting verse more often than one would have suspected under the circumstances.

Of this group John Greenleaf Whittier was the outlier. The others were by training and taste intellectuals. Whittier came from a poor family and was not well-schooled. He was not an agile thinker, nor was thinking or expressing himself creatively his initial goal for a career. Of course he did not intend on becoming a dirt farmer like his father. He once thought of elective politics as a career. He even purposely set about limiting his expression of opinion until he had fully treated the subject internally. Even then, it was said, he slowly reached anything out of the common. Nevertheless, he lost his first election to the state assembly in 1832, and the defeat sorely depressed him. He was elected in 1835 and even re-elected. But by that time he had acquired his true calling because he had fallen into the orbit of the great Garrison.

William Lloyd Garrison by unidentified artist. Oil on canvas, ca. 1855 (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution).

William Lloyd Garrison was an elemental force of nature, so necessary to this country that had he not existed God would have had to invent him. Before Garrison there was little thought given to the morality of Southern slavery even in states that had long abolished the practice. After Garrison, the whirlwind. It is very comforting to us to point to past moral beacons to show our propensity for creating them. In fact, we crush almost every one of them in the bud; it is that a few survive that is the wonder. Of course, there were numerous attempts to crush Garrison. He was once imprisoned in Baltimore. A mob attempted to lynch him in Boston. In a display of how threatening that even the idea of abolition was to its social organization, Georgia’s legislature put a price on Garrison’s head—$5,000 no less. (The act showed other things about Georgia’s legislature as well.)

None deterred, Garrison would follow the dictates of the logic of his conviction. In May 1954 Congress passed the infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act. But to New Englanders, even worse, a federal judge in Boston ordered the return of a fugitive slave—an order which required federal troops to enforce. The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society organized a rally for July 4, 1854, in Framingham, where William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and Henry David Thoreau would speak. Summoning full-throated Old Testament prophesy from Isaiah, Garrison said that the compromise with slavery made the U.S. Constitution “a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.” And he set a copy on fire. And a copy of the judge’s order sending the fugitive slave back to slavery. And a copy of the Fugitive Slave Act. “And let all the people say, Amen!” Garrison preached. And over and over came the response. The Amens continued to Harper’s Ferry and beyond.

Garrison didn’t teach Whittier morality. The little education Whittier got from home was firmly rooted in Quaker beliefs. Whittier never lost his sense of Christian duty or his love of man or his belief that all men were children of God. He knew intrinsically that “[i]nasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” It didn’t take his friend Garrison to teach him morality. Garrison showed him, however, that morality can be a calling.

From Souvenir of Whittier (Boston: B.B. Russell: 1892)

Garrison published Whittier’s first poem, sent by his sister when Whittier was still a boy, and gave Whittier an early job in journalism. But Whittier did not become an abolitionist as a result. He was more concerned with establishing a career. Garrison saw Whittier develop as editor and poet and decided to lay siege to him. Not until 1833 did Whittier surrender. That year he went all in with the abolitionists with his self-financed pamphlet “Justice and Expediency; or Slavery Considered with a View to its Rightful and Effectual Remedy, Abolition.” The piece was not a tepid argument on the evils of the system. It was a strongly worded jeremiad indicting Northerners as accomplices:

Members of one confederacy, children of one family, the curse and the shame, the sin against our brother, and the sin against our God, all the iniquity of slavery which is revealed to man, and all which crieth in the ear, or is manifested to the eye of Jehovah, will assuredly be visited upon all our people. Why, then, should we stretch out our hands towards our Southern brethren, and like the Pharisee thank God we are not like them? For so long as we practically recognize the infernal principle that “man can hold property in man,” God will not hold us guiltless. So long as we take counsel of the world’s policy instead of the justice of heaven, so long as we follow a mistaken political expediency in opposition to the express commands of God, so long will the wrongs of the slaves rise like a cloud of witnesses against us at the inevitable bar.

It was not enough to contribute to the colonization society (who were in any event enablers of the system) or to try to boycott products made with slave labor. Immediate abolition was the only act that would provide redemption was immediate abolition.

Frontispiece to Bliss Perry, John Greenleaf Whittier: A Sketch of his Life (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co: c1907): “From a miniature by Porter about 1838”

His own print run produced 500 copies. A New York philanthropist had it reprinted in the Anti-Slavery Reporter in September 1833 at an initial run of 5,000 copies. A wealthy Quaker in Rhode Island had it copied into the Providence Journal. His name became known and equated with the cause.

Abolition would be Whittier’s career for the foreseeable future. His poetry switched from romances and idylls to poetry written for the cause, beginning with “Champion of those who groan beneath / Oppression’s iron hand,” published in the Haverhill Gazette, then “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” then “The Slave Ships.”

Controversy is not conducive to popularity, and so Whittier had to give up his burgeoning occupation as a money-making poet and popular writer. “For twenty years I was shut out from the favor of booksellers and magazine editors, but I was enabled by rigid economy to live in spite of them — and to see the end of the infernal institution which proscribed me. Thank God for it.” (To Margaret Burleigh, 14th 7th mo. [July 14], 1866 in Samuel T. Pickard, Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co: 1895), vol 2, p 505. [“Pickard”])  His efforts during the period were almost exclusively devoted toward writing for and editing abolitionist publications and organizing abolitionist activities. In 1833 he was a delegate to the first National Anti-Slavery Convention in Philadelphia, became one of the Secretaries of the Convention and assisted in drafting the declaration of sentiments. He said that he was prouder of his work here than of anything else he ever wrote. Lewis Leary, John Greenleaf Whittier (NY: Twayne Publishers, Inc: c1961), p 42.

There was never much subtlety in Whittier’s views. He judged men and ideas on their fidelity to his view of religion. By his lights, Thomas Paine was a “fearful warning” to anyone on the “threshold of skepticism.” (Essex Gazette, January 2, 1830.) Shelley was engaged in “dissipation” when he stole away “the pure affections of an innocent school girl” in order to render “her a suitable companion for the accursed of Heaven”. His wife was a daughter of “the licentious, the profligate and shameless Mary Woolstoncraft!” (Id. February 27, 1830.) The “illustrious” Jefferson, by definition, could not have been an infidel given how Whittier otherwise regarded him. Therefore, in light of his actual writings, Whittier says “whatever may have been his speculative belief, Thomas Jefferson was not a practical Infidel” and gives his letter to Quaker Canby as a testament. (Id. April 17, 1830.) Lord Byron, of course was an infidel, and therefore “the prodigal gift of Heaven, became in his possession a burthen and a curse. He was wretched in his gloomy unbelief; and he strove, with that selfish purpose, which the miserable and unprincipled feel, to drag his fellow beings from their only abiding hope …” (These and others of his critical writings as an editor are collected in Edwin Harrison Cady & Harry Hayden Clark, eds., Whittier on Writers and Writing (Syracuse University Press: c1950).)

But it was that kind of simple, black-and-white view of morality and divine law that allowed Whittier to tenaciously attack slavery despite the physical risk that increased over time. He saw Garrison attacked and dragged through the streets as though he were about to be lynched. He himself was attacked with stones at a speech. An English activist he sponsored was tracked by a mob and had to be hid at his farm in Haverhill. The building in Philadelphia in which he conducted an abolitionist press (the Pennsylvania Freeman) was burned down. Through it all he only became more convinced at the righteousness of the cause. But it bowed him down. He had always been sickly and prone to migraines, and this greatly aggravated it all. Plus the movement was having a crisis over tactics. Whittier sided with political activism and non-violence; Garrison believed in moral suasion and retaliation (Satan’s business against Satan’s business, Whittier called it).

Whittier home in Amesbury from W. Sloan Kennedy, Life of John Greenleaf Whittier (rev. ed.) (Chicago: Werner Co: c1895)

By 1840 he moved his mother and sister (for whom he took responsibility despite his straightened finances) from their homestead in Haverhill to Amesbury, Massachusetts. He  became something of a backroom political activist. He was among the founders of the Liberty Party, which became the Free Soil Party, which in turn became part of the winning Lincoln coalition. He was a corresponding editor of abolition journals. He remained a devoted Quaker—his Amesbury home was much closer to the meetinghouse than his boyhood home—even though the Quakers as a group had rejected abolitionism preferring to not meddle in the matter with others now that they had concluded that slavery was an un-Christian practice among themselves. But he devoted time now to the simple, lyrical poetry that would support his family and achieve him fame. He continued to write abolitionist verse. In 1837 his first volume came out, but evidently without close supervision by him: Poems Written during the Progress of the Abolition Question in the United States, between the Years 1830 and 1838 (Boston: Isaac Knapp: 1837). Though Whittier later belittled the edition for its poor editing, it received high praise at the time of its publication from the Boston Quarterly Review:

“Mr. Whittier is a poet; and what we love him for is, that he is an American poet. We mean not merely that he was born and lives in the United States. The word American means more than this to us; and our countryman is far other than he who may chance to have been born on the same soil with ourselves. Where freedom is, there is America; where the freeman is, there is our countryman. We call Mr. Whittier an American poet, because his soul is filled and enlarged with the American Idea; the Idea which God has appointed the American people to bring out and embody; the Idea of universal freedom to universal man; the great doctrine that man equals man the world over, and that he who wrongs a man wrongs his equal, his brother, himself, a child of God. This is the American Idea. The mission of the American people is to realize this Idea, and to realize it for the world. He who is not inspired by this Idea, and who embodies it not in his song, is no American poet. . . .

The American poet is not only the poet of Liberty, but of Liberty in a new and enlarged sense, in a sense the world has never yet comprehended it, and in which it never has, and out of this country never could have had a poet. Liberty, in the American sense of the word, is not national independence, is not the power to choose our own form of government, to elect our own rulers, . . . ; but the realization of justice and love in the case of each individual member of the human race. It is the liberty which surrounds even the minutest right of the obscurest and most insignificant man, with the bulwarks of sanctity, and secures to every man, whether white, red, or black, high or low, rich or poor, great or small, the free exercise of all the rights and faculties, which God has given, and in the precise order in which the Creator designed them to be exercised. It is the ‘perfect law of liberty,’ developed and universally applied and obeyed. It is liberty in this sense he must sing, who would be an American poet.

In this sense, Mr. Whittier is an American poet. It is in this sense, that he understands the word liberty.” (Review, 1 Boston Quarterly Review 21 at 23-25 [Orestes Augustus Brownson, editor]).

In 1846 Voices of Freedom (Philadelphia: Thomas S. Cavender: 1846) was published. Four years later he published Songs of Labor and Reform (Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields: 1850). But he also began writing pieces designed to charm and amuse including prose collections of fables of New England, romances and poetic idylls. His seclusion so put him in touch with popular taste that in 1849 a complete collected edition of his poetry was issued by B.B. Mussey & Co. of Boston. For the first time he was paid an advance ($500) and given royalties. He then began producing popularly well received volumes of verse on a regular basis.

Whittier ca. 1840-60. Ambrotype from Boston Public Library.

This did not end his political involvement, however. In 1850, he helped engineer one of the more significant coalitions in Massachusetts politics—he helped join the Free Soil Party with the Democratic Party under the agreement that the Free Soilers would support George S. Boutwell for governor and the Democratic legislators would vote for the Free Soilers’ candidate for U.S. Senate. After Boutwell won, Whittier was instrumental in persuading his friend, Charles Sumner to accept the selection. But the Democrats balked. Whittier was both humiliated and infuriated and even suggested Sumner withdraw. In the end, however, public pressure, elevated by warm opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law, forced the legislature’s hand and Sumner was elected on the 26th ballot by a one-vote majority. Sumner would remain steadfast against slavery until it was eventually defeated. He remained a U.S. Senator until his death nearly 23 years later. (Pickard, vol 1, pp -351-54.) Whittier would also continue writing for an abolitionist journal, this time, The National Era, a periodical with vast influence in the North. By 1860 Whittier was selected an Elector for Massachusetts and delivered his vote for Abraham Lincoln.

When South Carolina and the other Deep South states seceded, Whittier wrote a poem that surprised some: “A Word for the Hour,” which essentially said: Let them go. Others like Greeley, publicly and others, including Salmon Chase, privately, were thinking the same thing: it’s not worth a war to keep them, and they can’t survive on their own anyway.

Then came the firing on Fort Sumner, and there was no longer a question to be resolved. Even a Quaker like Whittier was now a Christian Soldier. By the summer he had written an abolitionist lyric to Martin Luther’s great Reformation battle hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” At least one Friend had become a Fighting Quaker, like during the English Civil War. Not all violence arose from the lust of men.

The Hutchinson Family Singers, 1845. Daguerreotype by unknown photographer. Gilman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Hutchinson Family Singers from New Hampshire, the first “left leaning” folk singers in the United States, had begun singing four-part a capella tunes in 1840 (after a European group dazzled American audiences). Originally singing European songs (and originally a quartet), the Hutchinson Family Singers gradually developed a repertoire of songs supporting progressive causes, such as temperance, women’s rights, workers’ rights, and above all, the abolition of slavery. Like so many others their activism was first fired by Garrison. They toured the North extensively. Teaming up with Frederick Douglass they even visited England in 1845.

By Lincoln’s Inauguration, they were at the height of their renown. After the disaster at Bull Run, they obtained permission to entertain and inspire the Union soldiers stationed in Virginia. They took up Whittier’s words to Luther’s hymn at a performance at a church in Fairfax, Virginia. A fight supposedly nearly broke out. In any event, General McClellan (who had very limited views of the nature of the federal response to the rebellion) revoked their permit claiming their propaganda, which advocated the end of slavery and suggested the South’s motive was solely to preserve the institution, went beyond the objectives then prevailing.

On returning to Washington they described their treatment to Salmon Chase who read the poem at a cabinet meeting. Lincoln approved and said that it was exactly what he wanted the troops to hear. The Hutchinson Family Singers were again given permission to entertain the troops. W. Sloan Kennedy, Life of John Greenleaf Whittier (rev. ed.) (Chicago: Werner Co: c1895), pp 129-30. Lincoln told a reporter later that he recalled the poem when he was drafting the Emancipation Proclamation.

Whittier would collect this poem in his volume In War Time and Other Poems (Boston: Ticknor & Fields: 1864).

Ein’ Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott
Luther’s Hymn

from the New-York Independent (July 1861)

by John Greenleaf Whittier

WE wait beneath the furnace-blast
The pangs of transformation;
Not painlessly doth God recast
And mould anew the nation.
Hot burns the fire
Where wrongs expire;
Nor spares the hand
That from the land
Uproots the ancient evil.

The hand-breadth cloud the sages feared
Its bloody rain is dropping;
The poison plant the fathers spared
All else is overtopping.
East, West, South, North,
It curses the earth;
All justice dies,
And fraud and lies
Live only in its shadow.

What gives the wheat-field blades of steel?
What points the rebel cannon?
What sets the roaring rabble’s heel
On the old star-spangled pennon?
What breaks the oath
Of the men o’ the South?
What whets the knife
For the Union’s life?—
Hark to the answer: Slavery!

Then waste no blows on lesser foes
In strife unworthy freemen.
God lifts to-day the veil, and shows
The features of the demon
O North and South,
Its victims both,
Can ye not cry,
“Let slavery die!”
And union find in freedom?

What though the cast-out spirit tear
The nation in his going?
We who have shared the guilt must share
The pang of his o’erthrowing!
Whate’er the loss,
Whate’er the cross,
Shall they complain
Of present pain
Who trust in God’s hereafter?

For who that leans on His right arm
Was ever yet forsaken?
What righteous cause can suffer harm
If He its part has taken?
Though wild and loud,
And dark the cloud,
Behind its folds
His hand upholds
The calm sky of to-morrow!

Above the maddening cry for blood,
Above the wild war-drumming,
Let Freedom’s voice be heard, with good
The evil overcoming.
Give prayer and purse
To stay the Curse
Whose wrong we share,
Whose shame we bear,
Whose end shall gladden Heaven!

In vain the bells of war shall ring
Of triumphs and revenges,
While still is spared the evil thing
That severs and estranges.
But blest the ear
That yet shall hear
The jubilant bell
That rings the knell
Of Slavery forever!

Then let the selfish lip be dumb,
And hushed the breath of sighing;
Before the joy of peace must come
The pains of purifying.
God give us grace
Each in his place
To bear his lot,
And, murmuring not,
Endure and wait and labor!

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