George Russell Commonplace Book
A scrapbook of antislavery poetry collected by George Russell from the Massachusetts Abolitionist during 1839-40. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Between 1839 and 1840, abolitionist George Russell clipped poetry out of the antislavery newspaper the Massachusetts Abolitionist,and pasted the poems he selected into his copy of Moses Stuart’s 1830 volume Course of Hebrew Study. Russell was personally acquainted with the editor of, and several of the authors published in, the Massachusetts Abolitionist, and shared the anti-Garrisonian and pro-antislavery politics message expressed in the newspaper. Some of Russell’s own poetry also appeared in the newspaper.
The Massachusetts Abolitionist (1839-1841) was published by the Massachusetts Abolition Society, an antislavery organization formed in opposition to the non-resistance, anti-political activism stance of Garrisonian abolitionists. The paper’s editor, Elizur Wright, was a key spokesperson for the Liberty Party and a staunch supporter of the party’s candidate in the 1840 presidential election, James Birney. After Birney was defeated in the election, Wright changed the name of the paper to the Free American, in an effort to broaden its audience beyond exclusively abolitionist circles. These efforts to attract more readers were unsuccessful, and the paper ceased to be an independent publication in December 1841, when it merged with the New York Emancipator.
Like the overwhelming majority of antislavery newspapers, the Massachusetts Abolitionist consistently published poetry in its pages. Much of this poetry was reprinted from other abolitionist newspapers, gift books, and poetry collections, and was authored by such noteworthy and popular poets as Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, Eliza Lee Follen, Lydia Sigourney, and John G. Whittier. Some of this poetry was broadly abolitionist in message, focusing on the evils of the slave system, the sufferings of the enslaved, and the need for abolitionists to remain unwaveringly committed to their cause. Other poems had more pointed, partisan messages, calling on white male readers to take political action to bring the peculiar institution to an end. The editors of the Massachusetts Abolitionist clearly hoped that the poetry which it published might convince its readers to acknowledge, not only the horrors of slavery, but also the justness of political abolitionism.