The slave will be free. Democracy in America will yet be a glorious reality; and when the top-stone of that temple of freedom which our fathers left unfinished shall be brought forth with shoutings and cries of grace unto it, when our now drooping Liberty lifts up her head and prospers, happy will he be who can say, with John Milton, “Among those who have something more than wished her welfare, I, too, have my charter and freehold of rejoicing to me and my heirs.”
John Greenleaf Whittier
By John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)
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?
The 1860 U. S. Census reported there were 31,183,582 people in the United States, of which 3,950,528 were slaves. The total number of slave owners prior to the start of the Civil War was 393,975, a little over 14% of the free population at the time. Is there any meaning hiding in those statistics? If there is one, it might be that we should not be cautious as a society today for our past shows a violent revolution can be started by a relatively small minority of individuals in our democracy who defy the rule of law, deny their fellow citizens humanity and ignore commonly shared norms of morality under a banner of racist white supremacy.
Whittier wrote and published extensively on anti-slavery themes going back to the early 1840’s. Rhode Island claims to be the first state to ban slavery, but the states law makers certainly took their time in making the concept a reality. In 1784 Rhode Island declared that children born to slaves after March 1, 1784 were “free,” but would first have to serve their mother’s master until they reached majority age. An amendment to the law in 1785 declared that majority age to be 21 years of service for both male and female children. However, it wasn’t until 58 years later in 1842 that Rhode Island abolished slavery entirely. Whittier commemorated the event with the poem above.
In 1860 there were 36 states. The census that year listed 15 of those states as having slaves; Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Slaves represented more than 40% of the total population in six of those states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, and in two of those states slaves represented more than 50% of the population, Mississippi at 55% and South Carolina at 57%. Given those numbers, its not surprising the Confederacy was initially formed by the only seven states that still permitted slave ownership by 1861; South Carolina, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida. Four other states would soon join the Confederacy: Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
Over the next month I am not going to share poetry written by Confederate soldiers or poets who were Confederate sympathizers. I will share some poetry written by slaves living in Confederate states during this period. George Moses Horton was born into slavery on a North Carolina tobacco plantation in 1798. He spent his childhood as a slave on a farm in Chatham County, where he taught himself to read and began composing poetry.
In 1815 Horton was transferred to a new master, who sent him on frequent trips to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There, Horton met students from the University of North Carolina; who encouraged his poetry. He began composing poems in his head and reciting them aloud on these visits. His performances at the weekly Chapel Hill farmers market began attracting crowds of interested students, who rewarded him with small tips for his love poems. Horton’s performances gained the attention and support of a novelist and professor’s wife, Caroline Hentz. With her assistance, Horton published his first collection of poetry, The Hope of Liberty (1829), becoming the first African American man to publish a book in the South.
Horton did not learn to write until 1832. By this time he was selling his poetry regularly and had established a weekly income of three dollars. Using these funds, Horton purchased his time from his slave master. Despite wide spread public support for his freedom, including from the Governor, Horton was forced to continue to purchase his time from his master for the next 30 years. Horton’s poem below was published in 1865, towards the end of the Civil War when Horton was finally a free man.
George Moses Horton, Myself
by George Moses Horton (1798–1883)
I feel myself in need
Of the inspiring strains of ancient lore,
My heart to lift, my empty mind to feed,
And all the world explore.
I know that I am old
And never can recover what is past,
But for the future may some light unfold
And soar from ages blast.
I feel resolved to try,
My wish to prove, my calling to pursue,
Or mount up from the earth into the sky,
To show what Heaven can do.
My genius from a boy,
Has fluttered like a bird within my heart;
But could not thus confined her powers employ,
Impatient to depart.
She like a restless bird,
Would spread her wings, her power to be unfurl’d,
And let her songs be loudly heard,
And dart from world to world.