January 1, 2013

And heal with freedom what your slavery cursed

Abraham Lincoln, in his capacity of Commander-in-Chief, issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. In it, he ordered that all persons held enslaved would "henceforward... be free." Emancipation took effect on January 1, 1863. John Greenleaf Whittier, in his capacity as poet and editor, had spent the majority of his career up to that point fighting against slavery. He celebrated the victory in his poem "The Proclamation," dated January 1, 1863:

Saint Patrick, slave to Milcho of the herds
Of Ballymena, wakened with these words:
            "Arise and flee
Out from the land of bondage, and be free!"

According to legend, St. Patrick had once been enslaved by Milcho in Ballymena, Ireland. It was during this period that Patrick turned to prayer and believed his enslavement was punishment for his disbelief. His prayer reassured him that he would be a prophet and, years later, he returned to convert Milcho (who remained an unbeliever). Whittier, then, asks enslaved African Americans to wake up, be free, and become prophets in their own right. The poem continues:

Glad as a soul in pain, who hears from heaven
The angels singing of his sins forgiven,
            And, wondering, sees,
His prison opening to their golden keys.

He rose a man who laid him down a slave,
Shook from his locks the ashes of the grave,
            And outward trod
Into the glorious liberty of God.

He cast the symbols of his shame away;
And, passing where the sleeping Milcho lay,
            Though back and limb
Smarted with wrong, he prayed, "God pardon him!"

So he went forth; but in God’s time he came
To light on Uilline’s hills a holy flame;
            And, dying, gave
The land a saint that lost him as a slave.

O dark, sad millions, patiently and dumb
Waiting for God, your hour at last has come,
            And freedom's song
Breaks the long silence of your night of wrong!

Arise and flee! shake off the vile restraint
Of ages; but, like Ballymena’s saint,
            The oppressor spare,
Heap only on his head the coals of prayer.

Go forth, like him! like him return again,
To bless the land whereon in bitter pain
            Ye toiled at first,
And heal with freedom what your slavery cursed.

The same day, Ralph Waldo Emerson issued his own poetic song "The Boston Hymn" at a public ceremony in Boston.

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