Back to top

Longfellow and Whittier on Slavery


An undated 1840s British tract featuring antislavery poetry by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.


This undated tract of American antislavery poetry appeared in Scotland sometime after 1843, printed in Paisley at the house of J. and R. Parlane. The publishers remain unknown; however, the tract probably was printed for sale at abolitionist meetings in Great Britain. A note that this was the “Seventh Thousand” printing evidences the tract’s popularity. 
The three poems two by Longfellow, one by Whittier — appearing in this tract are representative of their antislavery expression and had heavy re-printing. Longfellow wrote his brief 31-page Poems on Slavery in 1842 (Cambridge, MA: J. Owen) and the New England Anti-Slavery Tract Association quickly reprinted an abbreviated 8-page version that included both these poems. 
Longfellow wrote his antislavery poems aboard ship returning to the United States, having been strongly influenced by the European romantic movement during his long sojourn. The influence was so profound that he borrowed elements of “The Witnesses” and “The Quadroon Girl” from the poetry of his close friend, the German poet Ferdinand Freiligrath. A.H. Appelman, “Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery in Their Relation to Freiligrath,” Modern Language Notes 30 (April 1915) 4:101-102. 
Longfellow’s antislavery poetry was an immediate public success, although it was a theme to which he rarely returned after this set of poems. Antislavery and peace activist Elihu Burritt, displaying a faith in the political power of poetry, proposed to print choices from Longfellow’s antislavery poems and distribute them in tracts in hundreds of thousands of copies. He wrote “When the millions of our American bondsmen are brought out of their Egyptian prison-house by a mighty hand & outstretched Arm, they shall sing your ‘Slaves Dream’ ‘The Witnesses’ & ‘Quadroon Girl’ by the other shore of their Red Sea of captivity.” (November 6, 1843; cited in Merle E. Curti, “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Elihu Burritt,” American Literature 7 (November 1935) 315-328, at 318-319).
“The Witnesses” is a vision of what lies buried under the ocean as a result of the slave trade. Longfellow argues that the history of slavery cannot be hidden, that in sunken ships “the bones of Slaves; / They gleam from the abyss” (lines 13-14) These are angry witnesses watching the world above; they are not reconciled to their deaths. Longfellow, who was at sea when he wrote this poem, imagined the sea-floor as peopled by witnesses and victims of the slave-trade. The poem remains influential. African American poet Lorenzo Thomas published a bi-lingual 1996 edition entitled Es Gibt Zeugen [There Are Witnesses] (Eggingen, Germany: Editions Klaus Isele) that takes its inspiration from “The Witnesses.”
“The Quadroon Girl” relates the sale by a planter of a mixed-blood daughter into concubinage, taking up common themes of sexual abuse and the misused slave children of slave-owning classes. The sale of a child here constitutes the height of parental betrayal, a moment in which the moral corruption of slavery is laid bare. 
Whittier’s poem, “The Christian Slave,” first appeared in 1843. Eleanor M. Tilton, “Making Whittier Definitive,” The New England Quarterly 12 (June 1939) 2:281-314, 301. It seeks to capture sympathetic identification with co-religionists suffering under slavery and condemns the use of Christian piety to produce compliant slaves. At several points the poem pours special scorn on ministers who endorse and defend the institution of slavery; these ministers were a repeated target of Whittier’s verse attacks.  
- Joe Lockard