The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing
2013, Volume 34
"Will not these days be by thy poets sung": Poems of the Anglo-African and National Anti-Slavery Standard, 1863–1864Edited by Elizabeth Lorang and R. J. Weir
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ON HEARING THE BELLS RING FOR THE CONSTITUTIONAL
AMENDMENT ABOLISHING SLAVERY IN THE UNITED STATES.
It is done! Clang of bell and roar of gun Send the tidings up and down. How the belfries rock and reel, How the great guns, peal on peal, Fling the joy from town to town!
Ring, O bells! Every stroke exulting tells Of the burial-hour of crime. Loud and long that all may hear, Ring for every listening ear Of Eternity and Time!
Let us kneel: God's own voice is in that peal, And this spot is holy ground. Lord forgive us! What are we, That our eyes this glory see, That our ears have heard the sound!
For the Lord On the whirlwind is abroad; In the earthquake He has spoken. He has smitten with His thunder The iron walls asunder, And the gates of brass are broken!
Loud and long, Lift the old exulting song; Sing with Miriam by the sea; He hath cast the mighty down; Horse and rider sink and drown; He hath triumphed gloriously!
Did we dare In our agony of prayer Ask for more than He has done? When was ever his right hand Over any time or land Stretched as now beneath the sun?
How they pale, Ancient myth and song, and tale, In this wonder of our days, When the cruel rod of war Blossoms white with righteous law, And the wrath of man is praise!
Blotted out! All within and all about Shall a fresher life begin; Freer breathe the universe As it rolls its heavy curse On the dead and buried sin!
It is done! In the circuit of the sun Shall the sound thereof go forth. It shall bid the sad rejoice, It shall give the dumb a voice, It shall belt with joy the earth!
Roar and ring, Bell and gun! on morning's wing Send the tidings all abroad; With a sound of broken chains Tell the nations that He reigns Who alone is Lord and God!
- Latin: "Praise be to God!"Unsigned in its National Anti-Slavery Standard printing, "Laus Deo!" was by famous American poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892). Whittier dedicated himself to abolitionist activities in the early 1830s. He was a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society (est. December 1833) and held the editorship of the Pennsylvania Freeman from March 1838 until February 1840. Convinced that the Constitution and the ballot could be used to attack slavery, he supported the Liberty Party and played an active part in its members' campaigns. Antislavery journalism continued to feature largely in his life; for thirteen years, he worked as corresponding editor for the National Era (1847–1860).Orthodox Quaker Whittier managed to reconcile his abhorrence of war with his support for conflict that furthered the antislavery cause; during the war he urged members of the Society of Friends to assist the war effort in noncombatant roles, as nurses in hospitals and as teachers among the freedpeople (Samuel T. Pickard, Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier [London: Sampson Low, 1895], 2:440–41; see also "In War-Time"). Poetry had long been integral to his abolitionist mission. His first (unauthorized) collection of poetry, Poems Written during the Progress of the Abolition Question in the United States, between 1830 and 1838, was published by antislavery colleagues in 1837 (Randall Cluff, "Whittier, John Greenleaf," in American National Biography Online). He continued to champion abolition in verse throughout the war. His poems often appeared in the Atlantic Monthly (which he supported from its inception) and in the New York Independent, and were widely reprinted in serials with antislavery sympathies."Laus Deo!" was first published in the New York Independent of February 9, 1865. When published in the Independent, the poem was preceded by the headline "The Triumph of Freedom" and a statement from the editor: "[W]e were meditating some fit words to celebrate in our present columns the illustrious act [the Thirteenth Amendment], when, among the letters to our table, came the ever-welcome handwriting of our friend John G. Whittier, enclosing a lyric whose poetic ring made so tame our plain, prosaic thoughts, that we here give his song in place of our speech." "Laus Deo!" was later collected in The Tent on the Beach and Other Poems (1867).
- The Thirteenth Amendment: "Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."The proposed amendment passed the Senate on April 8, 1864, but it failed to secure the necessary two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives on June 15. The House approved it on January 31, 1865, 119 yeas to 56 nays. The crowded galleries cheered with joy, and congressmen wept. At the silent meetinghouse in Amesbury, Massachusetts, Whittier listened to the bells and cannon "proclaiming the passage of the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery" (Samuel T. Pickard, Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier [Boston: Houghton, 1894], 2:488). To Lucy Larcom, Whittier wrote, "I am glad thee like my poem in the 'Independent.' It wrote itself, or rather sang itself, while the bells rang" (489).
- Whirlwinds are a recurrent biblical metaphor for divine power, anger, and action. Whittier describes the passage of the amendment as the world-changing work of God; images in the stanza gesture toward both divine deliverance and apocalyptic judgment (see, for example, Jeremiah 23:19, Isaiah 29:6, and Acts 16:26). See also Psalm 107:16: "he hath broken the gates of brass, and cut the bars of iron in sunder."
- According to Exodus 15, Moses and the Israelites sang to God after Egypt's armies were drowned in the Red Sea: "And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. / And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea" (15:20–21).
- The New York Independent, established as a Congregationalist weekly in December 1848. The title's "independent" antislavery stance prevented it from capitalizing on an affiliation with subscribers of any one political persuasion, and "its extreme position with regard to the Fugitive Slave Law almost wrecked it in its second year" (Frank L. Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1850–1865 [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938], 2:369). In spite of this beginning, the Independent succeeded impressively and had over 35,000 subscribers by the time war broke (Mott, 371). As the war progressed, editorials political and secular nudged matters of religion, Congregationalist or otherwise, to the margins.The celebrity of Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887) must have contributed to the Independent's success. "Star contributor" Beecher was named editor during 1861–65. Theodore Tilton, his assistant, directed editorial policy and took over the editorship in all but name when Beecher embarked for Europe in 1863; two years later, he was officially recognized as editor-in-chief. By the time war broke out, Tilton had established himself as one of the young stars of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He and William Lloyd Garrison became friends after National Anti-Slavery Standard editor Oliver Johnson introduced them in 1856; Garrison described Tilton as "a fine young man . . . . connected with the N. Y. Independent, who is beginning to take a vital interest in radical abolitionism" (The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison: From Disunionism to the Brink of War, 1850–1860, ed. Louis Ruchames [Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975], 4:415). Johnson, Tilton, and Garrison were united by a common profession as well as shared antislavery convictions. During the war each reprinted items from the other's newspapers.