January 1, 2013—
Today isn’t an ordinary first day of a new year— it marks the 150th anniversary of the Proclamation of Emancipation issued by President Abraham Lincoln. The title of this blog is taken from the last line of a poem written in 1863 by John Greenleaf Whittier, titled “The Proclamation.”
For some weeks I had planned to see Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, “Lincoln” — January 1st seemed the most appropriate day. It’s such a powerful and moving drama that I won’t even try to write anything about the movie itself, but my husband and I left the theater knowing that we wanted to learn more about the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which freed the slaves forever.
My initial curiosity was satisfied with internet research. But I next turned to my copy of John Greenleaf Whittier: A Biography by Roland Woodwell. Whittier—Quaker and noted poet—spent the majority of his adult life working on behalf of the abolition of slavery. He also had been active in the formation of the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln.
Whittier was not an orator, like Wm. Lloyd Garrison or Frederick Douglass, but rather used the power of the pen as an editor and as a poet against slavery. African-Americans of the 19th century called him “The Poet Laureate of Freedom.” I was confident that Whittier must have marked such a momentous day in the nation’s history with a poem. I wasn’t disappointed—Whittier penned “The Proclamation” in January, 1863. Woodwell notes:
“Whittier’s poem, in the February Atlantic …counselled slaves to escape to freedom, heaping on their masters’ heads only the coals of prayer, and to heal the land with freedom which had been cursed by their slavery. As of course Whittier knew, this was visionary, but vision and idealism were needed, as he continued to be aware throughout the War.”
To read the poem and explanatory notes, go to “The American Literary Blog” here. To learn more about Whittier, go to the Resources and Links section of this website and scroll down to the end. Check our book, Celebrating Whittier, and small booklets about J.G. Whittier available in our bookstore.
Celebrate this historic event all year long by purchasing some of the new USA “Forever” stamps —and do make time to see the Spielberg’s movie, “Lincoln.”
FYI—PBS will be premiering a series called “The Abolitionists” beginning January 8, 2013. Let’s hope they mention JGW.