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Poet John Greenleaf Whittier praised
NH for its abolitionist stand in 1846.
John Greenleaf Whittier But did we deserve it?

For commentary on Whittier
and Hale click here

Abolitionists in NH
John Greenleaf Whittier wrote his short poem "New Hampshire" to honor the Granite State's bold unique stand against slavery in 1846, decades before the Emancipation Proclamation. The final couplet, often quoted, is a stirring call to arms against human bondage with New Hampshire leading the battle:

  Courage, then, Northern hearts! Be firm, be true;
  What one brave State hath done, can ye not also do?

The reality is less glorious. In fact, New Hampshire's early track record in opposing discrimination, like most of the industrialized Yankee North would win no gold metals.

Like its southern cousins, NH started out as a slave state. Some of its stately seaport homes were built from slave trade profits. By the Revolution, African-American slaves served white Seacoast owners in most prestigious families -- the Cutts, the Whipples, the Ladds, the Lears, the Langdons, the Wentworths. Slave owning, North and South, was a sign of affluence and power. Although the "business" of slavery was outlawed in NH soon after the Revolution, no formal emancipation was ever issued.

Throughout most of the 1800s, NH's anti-slavery efforts were tepid. Many early abolitionists were clergymen opposed to the immorality of bondage, rather than the inequality of races. The state had its own abolitionist newspaper, two of them in fact, but the issue was mired in politics and infighting. Whigs, Federalists, anti-Federalists, Independents, Democrats, Democratic Independents and Democratic Republicans tossed the abolition issue around like a hot potato, defining and redefining themselves around this key issue.

Meanwhile abolitionists argued over just what they wanted to abolish. Slavery was sometimes clustered with issues of temperance, women's suffrage, state's rights, even the abolition of all government. When a New England abolitionist group allowed women to cast votes, the NH Abolition Society simply formed a separate group without women members. Although the state counted 2,000 abolitionist voters, only 126 NH men voted for their own Liberty Party candidate for President in 1840. NH was the only eastern state that did not send candidates to a Buffalo abolitionist convention in 1843.

Economics and deep-rooted discrimination all too often reigned. As the Industrial Era evolved, politicians did not want to offend Seacoast merchants who did a lively shipping trade with the South. New expanding textile factories in NH needed cheap slave-picked cotton. Despite the simplistic modern image of open-minded Northerners, whites and "coloreds" were unofficially segregated at restaurants and hotels in New Hampshire, in some cases, well into the middle of the 20th century.

So what made Whittier, a staunch white abolitionist, praise NH so highly in his poem? The answer -- Senator John P. Hale of Dover. Hale is remembered today as the first US Senator with an openly anti-slavery platform. Hale eventually even ran for President as the candidate for the Free Soil Party which advocated the creation of no more slave states.

Already 20 years into his own personal battle against the "peculiar institution," John Greenleaf Whittier saw Hale's arrival in the Senate as a resounding victory for the anti-slavery movement which was finally gaining popular support among whites after only 200 years of black bondage. Hale's arrival also widened the rift between North and South that would lead the country into its horrific Civil War. But in 1846, there was still hope that the problem would be solved without bloodshed.

Hearing of Hale's election, Whittier wrote to a friend:

"He [Hale] has succeeded, and his success has broken the spell which has hitherto held Democracy in the embrace of slavery."

If only Whittier had been right. African-Americans would wait another two decades for a legislated end to slavery. In fact, Hale's abolitionist-like position, brave and bold as it was. shows how hopelessly confounded Americans were over the issue of slavery toward the middle of the 19th century. Hale and his "Hale men" really started out opposing, not slavery, but the spread of slavery due to the annexation of Texas. They could not reconcile the American takeover of what was then a foreign land for the avowed purpose of creating another slave state.

Hale first made headlines as a NH legislator when he had the courage to defy the infamous "Gag Rule" (created, ironically, by a New Hampshire legislator) and discuss the topic of slavery openly. In a political campaign that foreshadowed the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, Hale took on soon-to-be-President Franklin Pierce, another New Hampshire man. By even talking about slavery, Hale became a magnet for praise and a target for hatred. Later, one of his southern colleagues even issued Hale a death threat while on the floor of the US Senate.

As our expanding nation moved westward, east coast politicians struggled to define the country -- its political parties and its freedoms. Thanks to Whittier and Hale, for a moment in history, all eyes were on New Hampshire. Still for blacks, all the poems, politics and promises added up to a lot of talk and very little action.

By J. Dennis Robinson
© 1998 SeacoastNH.com

Sources:

  • Historical New Hampshire, John Meyer, "The Beginning of Antislavery Agencies in NH, 1832-1835, Fall, 1970
  • Historical New Hampshire, Irving Bell, "One Hundred Years Ago in NH," Sept. 1946.
  • Historical New Hampshire, "The Liberty Party in the Granite State 1840-1848

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    Whittier in NH
    Undeniably a Massachusetts poet, threads of John Greenleaf Whittier's life are still very visible in the fabric of New Hampshire politics and literature. The Whittier family farm, built in Haverhill in 1688, is just over the Merrimack River that divided the two colonies by royal British decree. Before he was born there in 1807, his father John, Whittier, a Quaker farmer and trader, had walked to the hills of New Hampshire and beyond. Greenleaf's father warned his talented son that poetry would not earn him bread, and for the most part, his father was right. Though he published his first poem in the local paper as a teenager, Whittier's national recognition and success didn't hit until he was in his 60s, when the rise of the Civil War brought his anti-slavery stance into the spotlight.

    For much of the interim, Whittier was an editor, working for nearby North Shore papers in Haverhill, Newburyport and Essex where he also published his poetry. AT age 27 he made a giant unpopular leap into the abolitionist cause by self-publishing a 23 page pamphlet calling for emancipation of black slaves on moral grounds. Soon, after an anti-slavery lecture in Plymouth, NH, he and English abolitionist George Thompson, were attacked by a mob in Concord, pelted with rotten and eggs and Whittier was wounded in the leg by a flying stone.

    Often in ill health, Whittier tried to run the family farm after his father's death. When his brother moved to Dover, NH, Whittier sold the farm, moved his mother to Amesbury, MA and struck out for Pennsylvania, founded by Quakers and a center for abolitionist activity. He was on the scene when the newly dedicated Pennsylvania Hall was trashed and burned by mobs, angry that anti-slavery meetings there had included blacks. Dressed in a borrowed wig and white coat to disguise himself, Whittier dashed into the burning building to save his poems and the abolitionist newspaper he was editing.

    Unlike many whites who favored abolition from a safe distance, Whittier criss-crossed the eastern states inspecting slave holding pens, housing, auction sites. He talked to southerners, wrote with journalistic accuracy and poetic passion, argued with Quaker Friends and anyone who would listen. He met with government leaders including the aged John Quincy Adams, current President Tyler, with opponent Henry Clay, with legislators, social groups, with blacks and whites. He advocated, not just emancipation, but schooling, job assistance, equality, brotherhood and respect for African Americans. Frequently sickly while traveling, he wrote continuously, but his literary work earned him little and his finances were usually precarious.

    To earn an income Whittier found himself back on the Merrimack as editor of a Lowell, MA newspaper at the rise of the giant mill culture. He watched the young women arriving in droves, free of the farm, but tied to long hours at hard labor. He documented the story from both sides, saw the birth of the suffrage movement, the rise of the manufacturing economy, and the early demise of traditional American family life.

    As the slavery issue began to split the country, Whittier turned his literary rage and praise on two New Hampshire men. He lauded Dover's John P. Hale, the country's first anti-slavery Senator who fought the Annexation of Texas and the slavery "Gag Rule." He savaged Senator Daniel Webster in a poem titled "Ichabod" when the beloved orator came our in favor of the Missouri Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Act.

    The creation of Harper's Weekly in the 1850s gave Whittier a voice and an income as the Civil War loomed His Granite State poem "The Great Stone Face" had already appeared. Among his new material was a poem set just over the New Hampshire border in Maine. :Maude Muller's Spring" is still popular today.

    A lifelong pacifist, Whittier supported Lincoln's war, but with deep sadness. He worried that, while the South was united in favor of slavery, the North was not of one mind. Most northerners, he said, were still not passionate on the slavery issue, and favored a united country over an emancipated one. It was at the height of the war in 1862 that Whittier, through his sister Elizabeth and his niece LIzzie, discovered the Isles of Shoals. Like Hawthorne, Emerson and others, Whittier would return again and again for the solace of the rocky islands and the artistic camaraderie of Celia Thaxter's salon. Ill, elderly, never married, now famous and very much alone, Whittier would sit for hours watching Celia painting her teacups or walking through her garden on Appledore Island. With his sister and mother now dead, Whittier wrote to Celia, to Harriet Beecher Stowe, to Emily Dickinson and other literary women.

    Whittier was so shocked by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that he could not write a word on the subject. But out of the misery blossomed "Snow-Bound," nearly 800 lines in which he finally told the story of his youth and his family. It was an instant bestseller and a financial success.

    But John Greenleaf Whittier wasn't finished with New Hampshire. He wrote of a shipwreck and a witch from Hampton in the poem "Wreck of Rivermouth." Then he bundled years of visits to the mountains there, the area his father had known before him, and produced a volume called "Among the Hills and Other Stories." The collected poems paint scenes in Ossipee, Holderness, Center Sandwich, Center Harbor and Intervale. Mt. Whittier in the Sandwich Mountains bears his name today.

    At 70 John Greenleaf Whittier was a national hero with the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at birthday party. A new writer with only two names, Mark Twain, was also in attendance. Whittier kept up his voluminous correspondence and added a new favorite, Sarah Orne Jewett of South Berwick, Maine to his growing fan club. She was just into her 40s at the time and had yet to publish her astonishing prose and poetry.

    Until his death at age 84, Whittier traveled from the Amesbury house to his 600 acre Newburyport homestead at Oak Knoll, back to the hills of New Hampshire. After his brother and Longfellow died, he told his Portsmouth friend and Atlantic Monthly editor Thomas Bailey Aldrich that he could not write again. But he did write again, right until the last.

    Six hundred well-wishers attended his 84th birthday party. Whittier didn't visit his New Hampshire hills that summer, but early that fall he stopped by to see a relative and friends in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire. He died at their home overlooking the Hampton marsh on September 7, 1892.

    By J. Dennis Robinson
    © 1998 SeacoastNH.com

    Primary source:
    Mr. Whittier, A Biography by Elizabeth Gray Vining, Viking 1974

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    NEW HAMPSHIRE
    By John Greenleaf Whittier
    (1807-1892)
    Published 1846

    God bless New Hampshire! for her granite peaks
    Once more the voice of Stark and Langdon speaks.
    The long-bound vassal of the exulting South
      For very shame her self-forged chain has broken;
    Torn the black seal of slavery from her mouth
      And in the clear tones of her old time spoken!
    Oh, all undreamed of, all unhoped for changes!
      The tyrant's ally proves his sternest foe;
    To all his biddings, from her mountain ranges,
      New Hampshire thunders an indignant No!
    Who is it now despairs? Oh, faint of heart,
      Look upward to those Northern mountains cold,
      Flouted by freedom's victor-flag unrolled,
    And gather strength to bear a manlier part!
    All is not lost. The angel of God's blessing
      Encamps with Freedom on the field of fight;
    Still to her banner, day by day, are pressing
      Unlooked for allies, striking for the right!
    Courage, then, Northern hearts! Be firm, be true;
    What one brave State hath done, can ye not also do?

    For related articles:

  • Seacoast NH Poems, Ballads & Songs
  • Seacoast NH Black History
  • Celia Thaxter & Friends theme site
  • As I Please -- Hail Hale
  • Longfellow's "Lady Wentworth"

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    © 1998 SeacoastNH.com
    Please attribute all use.

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