September 20, 2010

Whittier, Child, Sumner, Beecher: Abolitionists after slavery

From his home in Amesbury, Massachusetts, John Greenleaf Whittier wrote to Lydia Maria Child on September 20, 1874. "I make many new friends," he began, "but my heart, as I grow older, turns longingly to the surviving friends of my early years, who had shared in the struggles and triumphs of a great cause." Whittier was referring to the anti-slavery cause, for which both he and Child were strong advocates.

By 1874, both were getting old (Whittier, though only 66, noted in the letter, "We are all growing old and nearing the unknown shore") and the movement against slavery was won. In fact, Child had sent Whittier an image of one of abolitionism's greatest champion, Senator Charles Sumner, who had died only recently. Without their cause, however, both writers continued writing. Whittier mentioned that his "little book," Hazel-Blossoms, would be published soon and promised to send a copy to Child. The two were dear friends after all: "We have so much in common," Whittier noted. "We so nearly agree on so many points."

But all was not well in the world. Whittier referenced a growing scandal in New York involving another anti-slavery man, one who used his voice more often than his pen: Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (whose own anti-slavery writing allegedly caused a whole war). "I have loved Beecher so much!" Whittier wrote, never actually mentioning the details of the sex scandal in Brooklyn. "I cannot believe him guilty as is charged, and yet it looks very dark." He called it "a most mournful tragedy."

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