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1863 — Formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society by John G. Whittier

Amesbury, 24th 11th mo, 1863.

My dear Friend, – I have received thy kind letter with the accompanying circular, inviting me to attend the commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of the formation of the American Anti-slavery Society at Philadelphia. It is with the deepest regret that I am compelled by the feeble state of my health to give up all hope of meeting thee and my other old and dear friends on an occasion of so much interest. How much it costs me to acquiesce in the hard necessity thy own feelings will tell thee better than any words of mine.

I look back over thirty years, and call to mind all the circumstances of my journey to Philadelphia, in company with thyself and the excellent Dr. Thurston, of Maine, even then as we thought an old man, but still living, and true as ever to the good cause. I recall the early gray morning when, with Samuel J. May, our colleague on the committee to prepare a Declaration of Sentiments for the convention, I climbed to the small “upper chamber” of a colored friend to hear thee read the first draft of a paper which will live as long as our national history I see the members of the convention, solemnized by the responsibility, rise one by one, and solemnly affix their names to that stern pledge of fidelity to freedom. Of the signers, many have passed away from earth, a few have faltered and turned back; but I believe the majority still live to rejoice over the great triumph of truth and justice, and to devote what remains of time and strength to the cause to which they consecrated their youth and manhood thirty years ago.

For, while we may well thank God and congratulate one another on the prospect of the speedy emancipation of the slaves of the United States, we must not for a moment forget that from this hour new and mighty responsibilities devolve upon us to aid, direct, and educate these millions left free, indeed, but bewildered, ignorant, naked, and foodless in the wild chaos of civil war. We have to undo the accumulated wrongs of two centuries, to remake the manhood which slavery has well-nigh unmade, to see to it that the long-oppressed colored man has a fair field for development and improvement, and to tread under our feet the last vestige of that hateful prejudice which has been the strongest external support of Southern slavery. We must lift ourselves at once to the true Christian [attitude] where all distinctions of black and white are overlooked in the heartfelt recognition of the brotherhood of man.

I must not close this letter without confessing that I cannot be sufficiently thankful to the Divine Providence which, in a great measure through thy instrumentality, turned me away so early from what Roger Williams calls “the world’s great trinity, pleasure, profit, and honor,” to take side with the poor and oppressed. I am not insensible to literary reputation. I love, perhaps too well, the praise and good-will of my fellow-men; but I set a higher value on my name as appended to the Antislavery Declaration of 1833 than on the title-page of any book. Looking over a life marked by many errors and shortcomings, I rejoice that I have been able to maintain the pledge of that signature, and that, in the long intervening years,

“My voice, though not the loudest has been heard
Wherever Freedom raised her cry of pain.”

Let me, through thee, extend a warm greeting to the friends, whether of our own or the new generation, who may assemble on the occasion of commemoration. There is work yet to be done which will task the best efforts of us all. For thyself, I need not say that the love and esteem of early boyhood have lost nothing by the test of time; and

I am, very cordially, thy friend,
JOHN G. WHITTIER.

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