John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) was the poet laureate of reform. He was an ardent abolitionist, a supporter of William Lloyd Garrison, who was the first to publish his poetry. He also edited anti-slavery newspapers, supported John Quincey Adams' campaign against the "Gag Rule," and supported various free soil political parties before becoming a staunch Republican. He was also a strong supporter of Temperance and became an advocate of the Maine Law. Whitter also was an advocate of woman's rights, although a somewhat cautious one in that he hoped that women would gain political rights without weakening traditional family roles. An extremely prolific writer, Whittier also produced poems about nature, Quaker religiosity, folk tales, and innumerable other subjects including the "barefoot boy with cheek of tan." It is his role as an anti-slavery activist and his immense popularity that we focus on here.
Compared to his great contemporaries -- Whitman, Poe, Dickinson -- Whittier comes off as a mediocre poet. Certainly none of his poems have the imaginative reach of Whitman or the haunting music of Poe or the startling precision of Dickinson. What they did possess was the power to appeal to the imaginations of Northerners in the middle of the nineteenth century. There is a message for us in his choice of metaphors, in his strong religiosity, in his moral sensibilities. He appealed to what his audience regarded as their higher natures.
His militant abolitionism worked against his popularity for many years. White Northerners regarded abolitionists as dangerous fanatics. Nonetheless Whittier never wavered in what he regarded as the great moral struggle of his age. We have collected several of his most important abolitionist poems along with his 1874 Memoir of the 1833 Anti-Slavery Convention which gave rise to the organized movement for "immediate emancipation" and an 1882 letter in which he provided a brief autobiographical sketch.
The Christian Slave and The Greek Slave
Marais Des Cynes
Whittier's Report of the 1833 Anti-Slavery Convention (1874)
Autobiographical Sketch (18824)