Verse > John Greenleaf Whittier > The Poetical Works in Four Volumes
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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892).  The Poetical Works in Four Volumes.  1892.
 
Anti-Slavery Poems
The Sentence of John L. Brown
 
          John L. Brown, a young white man of South Carolina, was in 1844 sentenced to death for aiding a young slave woman, whom he loved and had married, to escape from slavery. In pronouncing the sentence Judge O’Neale addressed to the prisoner these words of appalling blasphemy:
          You are to die! To die an ignominious death—the death on the gallows! This announcement is, to you, I know, most appalling. Little did you dream of it when you stepped into the bar with an air as if you thought it was a fine frolic. But the consequences of crime are just such as you are realizing. Punishment often comes when it is least expected. Let me entreat you to take the present opportunity to commence the work of reformation. Time will be furnished you to prepare for the great change just before you. Of your past life I know nothing, except what your trial furnished. That told me that the crime for which you are to suffer was the consequence of a want of attention on your part to the duties of life. The strange woman snared you. She flattered you with her words, and you became her victim. The consequence was, that, led on by a desire to serve her, you committed the offence of aiding a slave to run away and depart from her master’s service; and now, for it you are to die!
  You are a young man, and I fear you have been dissolute; and if so, these kindred vices have contributed a full measure to your ruin. Reflect on your past life, and make the only useful devotion of the remnant of your days in preparing for death.
  Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth is the language of inspired wisdom. This comes home appropriately to you in this trying moment.
  You are young; quite too young to be where you are. If you had remembered your Creator in your past days, you would not now be in a felon’s place, to receive a felon’s judgment. Still, it is not too late to remember your Creator. He calls early, and He calls late. He stretches out the arms of a Father’s love to you—to the vilest sinner—and says: “Come unto me and be saved.” You can perhaps read. If so, read the Scriptures; read them without note, and without comment; and pray to God for His assistance; and you will be able to say when you pass from prison to execution, as a poor slave said under similar circumstances: “I am glad my Friday has come.” If you cannot read the Scriptures, the ministers of our holy religion will be ready to aid you. They will read and explain to you until you will be able to understand; and understanding, to call upon the only One who can help you and save you—Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world. To Him I commend you. And through Him may you have that opening of the Day-Spring of mercy from on high, which shall bless you here, and crown you as a saint in an everlasting world, forever and ever.
  The sentence of the law is that you be taken hence to the place from whence you came last; thence to the jail of Fairfield District; and that there you be closely and securely confined until Friday, the 26th day of April next; on which day, between the hours of ten in the forenoon and two in the afternoon, you will be taken to the place of public execution, and there be hanged by the neck till your body be dead. And may God have mercy on your soul!
  No event in the history of the anti-slavery struggle so stirred the two hemispheres as did this dreadful sentence. A cry of horror was heard from Europe. In the British House of Lords Brougham and Denman spoke of it with mingled pathos and indignation. Thirteen hundred clergymen and church officers in Great Britain addressed a memorial to the churches of South Carolina against the atrocity. Indeed, so strong was the pressure of the sentiment of abhorrence and disgust that South Carolina yielded to it, and the sentence was commuted to scourging and banishment.

HO! thou who seekest late and long
  A License from the Holy Book
For brutal lust and fiendish wrong,
  Man of the Pulpit, look!
Lift up those cold and atheist eyes,        5
  This ripe fruit of thy teaching see;
And tell us how to heaven will rise
  The incense of this sacrifice—
This blossom of the gallows tree!
 
Search out for slavery’s hour of need        10
  Some fitting text of sacred writ;
Give heaven the credit of a deed
  Which shames the nether pit.
Kneel, smooth blasphemer, unto Him
  Whose truth is on thy lips a lie;        15
Ask that His bright winged cherubim
  May bend around that scaffold grim
To guard and bless and sanctify.
 
O champion of the people’s cause!
  Suspend thy loud and vain rebuke        20
Of foreign wrong and Old World’s laws,
  Man of the Senate, look!
Was this the promise of the free,
  The great hope of our early time,
That slavery’s poison vine should be        25
  Upborne by Freedom’s prayer-nursed tree
O’erclustered with such fruits of crime?
 
Send out the summons East and West,
  And South and North, let all be there
Where he who pitied the oppressed        30
  Swings out in sun and air.
Let not a Democratic hand
  The grisly hangman’s task refuse;
There let each loyal patriot stand,
  Awaiting slavery’s command,        35
To twist the rope and draw the noose!
 
But vain is irony—unmeet
  Its cold rebuke for deeds which start
In fiery and indignant beat
  The pulses of the heart.        40
Leave studied wit and guarded phrase
  For those who think but do not feel;
Let men speak out in words which raise
  Where’er they fall, an answering blaze
Like flints which strike the fire from steel.        45
 
Still let a mousing priesthood ply
  Their garbled text and gloss of sin,
And make the lettered scroll deny
  Its living soul within:
Still let the place-fed, titled knave        50
  Plead robbery’s right with purchased lips,
And tell us that our fathers gave
  For Freedom’s pedestal, a slave,
The frieze and moulding, chains and whips!
 
But ye who own that Higher Law        55
  Whose tablets in the heart are set,
Speak out in words of power and awe
  That God is living yet!
Breathe forth once more those tones sublime
  Which thrilled the burdened prophet’s lyre,        60
And in a dark and evil time
  Smote down on Israel’s fast of crime
And gift of blood, a rain of fire!
 
Oh, not for us the graceful lay
  To whose soft measures lightly move        65
The footsteps of the faun and fay,
  O’er-locked by mirth and love!
But such a stern and startling strain
  As Britain’s hunted bards flung down
From Snowden to the conquered plain,        70
  Where harshly clanked the Saxon chain,
On trampled field and smoking town.
 
By Liberty’s dishonored name,
  By man’s lost hope and failing trust,
By words and deeds which bow with shame        75
  Our foreheads to the dust,
By the exulting strangers’ sneer,
  Borne to us from the Old World’s thrones,
And by their victims’ grief who hear,
  In sunless mines and dungeons drear,        80
How Freedom’s land her faith disowns!
 
Speak out in acts. The time for words
  Has passed, and deeds suffice alone;
In vain against the clang of swords
  The wailing pipe is blown!        85
Act, act in God’s name, while ye may!
  Smite from the church her leprous limb!
Throw open to the light of day
  The bondman’s cell, and break away
The chains the state has bound on him!        90
 
Ho! every true and living soul,
  To Freedom’s perilled altar bear
The Freeman’s and the Christian’s whole
  Tongue, pen, and vote, and prayer!
One last, great battle for the right—        95
  One short, sharp struggle to be free!
To do is to succeed—our fight
  Is waged in Heaven’s approving sight;
The smile of God is Victory.

  1844.
 
 
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