John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 - 1892)

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John Greenleaf Whittier
Born in Haverhill, Essex, Massachusetts, USAmap
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[sibling(s) unknown]
[spouse(s) unknown]
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Died in Hampton Falls, Rockingham, New Hampshire, USAmap
Profile last modified 6 Sep 2019 | Created 2 Apr 2014
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John Greenleaf Whittier is Notable.
John Greenleaf was a Friend (Quaker)




John Greenleaf Whittier was an influential American Quaker poet and ardent advocate of the abolition of slavery in the United States. He was born December 17, 1807, in Haverhill, Massachusetts. The son of two devout Quakers, he grew up on the family farm and had little formal schooling.

His first published poem, “The Exile’s Departure," was published in William Lloyd Garrison’s Newburyport Free Press in 1826. He then attended Haverhill Academy from 1827 to 1828, supporting himself as a shoemaker and schoolteacher. By the time he was twenty, he had published enough verse to bring him to the attention of editors and readers in the antislavery cause. A Quaker devoted to social causes and reform, Whittier worked passionately for a series of abolitionist newspapers and magazines. In Boston, he edited American Manufacturer and Essex Gazette before becoming editor of the important New England Weekly Review. Whittier was active in his support of National Republican candidates; he was a delegate in 1831 to the national Republican Convention in support of Henry Clay, and he himself ran unsuccessfully for Congress the following year. Whittier founded the antislavery Liberty party in 1840. In the mid-1850s he began to work for the formation of the Republican party; he supported presidential candidacy of John C. Frémont in 1856. He helped to found Atlantic Monthly in 1857.

He is usually listed as one of the Fireside Poets, which included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who were the first American poets whose popularity rivaled that of British poets, both at home and abroad.

While Whittier’s critics never considered him to be a great poet, they thought him a noble and kind man whose verse gave unique expression to ideas they valued. The Civil War inspired the famous poem, “Barbara Frietchie," but the important change in his work came after the war. From 1865 until his death in 1892, Whittier wrote of religion, nature, and rural life; he became the most popular of the Fireside poets.

Whittier's Autobiography, in Letter form

Amesbury, 5th Mo., 1882

Dear Friend :—I am asked in thy note of this morning to give some account of my life. There is very little to give. I can say with Canning’s knife-grinder: "Story, God bless you! I have none to tell you!"

I was born on the 17th of December, 1807, in the easterly part of Haverhill, Mass., in the house built by my first American ancestor, two hundred years ago. My father was a farmer, in moderate circumstances,—a man of good natural ability, and sound judgment. For a great many years he was one of the Selectmen of the town, and was often called upon to act as arbitrator H matters at issue between neighbors. My mother was Abigail Hussey, of Rollinsford, N. H. A bachelor uncle and a maiden aunt, both of whom I remember with much affection, lived in the family. The farm was not a very profitable one; it was burdened with debt and we had no spare money; but with strict economy we lived comfortably and respectably. Both my parents were members of the Society of Friends. I had a brother and two sisters. Our home was somewhat lonely, half hidden in oak woods, with no house in sight, and we had few companions of our age, and few occasions of recreation. Our school was only for twelve weeks in a year,— in the depth of winter, and half a mile distant. At an early age I was set at work on the farm, and doing errands for my mother, who, in addition to her ordinary house duties, was busy in spinning and weaving the linen and woolen cloth needed in the family. On First-days. father and mother, and sometimes one of the children, rode down to the Friends’ Meeting-house in Amesbury, eight miles distant. I think I rather enjoyed staying at home and wandering in the woods, or climbing Job’s hill, which rose abruptly from the brook which rippled down at the foot of our garden. From the top of the hill I could see the blue outline of the Deerfield mountains in New Hampshire, and the solitary peak of Agamenticus on the coast of Maine. A curving line of morning mist marked the course of the Merrimac, and Great Pond, or Kenoza, stretched away from the foot of the hill towards the village of Haverhill hidden from sight by intervening hills and woods, but which sent to us the sound of its two church bells. We had only about twenty volumes of books, most of them the journals of pioneer ministers in our society. Our only annual was an almanac. I was early fond of reading, and now and then heard of a book of biography or travel, and walked miles to borrow it.

When I was fourteen years old my first school-master, Joshua Coffin, the able, eccentric historian of Newbury, brought with him to our house a volume of Burns’ poems, from which he read, greatly to my delight. I begged him to leave the book with me; and set myself at once to the task of mastering the glossary of the Scottish dialect at its close. This was about the first poetry I had ever read, (with the exception of that of the Bible, of which I had been a close student,) and it had a lasting influence upon me I began to make rhymes myself, and to imagine stories and adventures. In fact I lived a sort of dual life, and in a world of fancy, as well as in the world of plain matter-of-fact about me. My father always had a weekly newspaper, and when young Garrison started his "Free Press" at Newburyport, he took it in the place of the "Haverhill Gazette." My sister, who was two years older than myself, sent one of my poetical attempts to the editor. Some weeks afterwards the news-carrier came along on horse-back and threw the paper out from his saddle-bags. My uncle and I were mending fences. I took up the sheet, and was surprised and overjoyed to see my lines in the "Poet’s Corner." I stood gazing at them in wonder, and my uncle had to call me several times to my work before I could recover myself. Soon after, Garrison came to our farm-house, and I was called in from hoeing in the corn-field to see him. He encouraged me, and urged my father to send me to school. I longed for education, but the means to procure it were wanting. Luckily, the young man who worked for us on the farm in summer, eked out his small income by making ladies’ shoes and slippers in the winter; and I learned enough of him to earn a sum sufficient to carry me through a term of six months in the Haverhill Academy. The next winter I ventured upon another expedient for raising money, and kept a district school in. the adjoining town of Amesbury, thereby enabling me to have another academy term. The next winter I spent in Boston, writing for a paper. Returning in the spring, while at work on the farm, I was surprised by an invitation to take charge of the Hartford (Ct.) "Review," in the place of the famous George D. Prentice, who had removed to Kentucky. I had sent him some of my school "compositions," which he had received favorably. I was unwilling to lose the chance of doing something more in accordance with my taste, and, though I felt my unfitness for the place, I accepted it, and remained nearly two years, when I was called home by the illness of my father, who died soon after. I then took charge of the farm, and worked hard to "make both ends meet ;" and, aided by my mother’s and sister’s thrift and economy, in some measure succeeded.

As a member of the Society of Friends, I had been educated to regard Slavery as a great and dangerous evil, and my sympathies were strongly enlisted for the oppressed slaves by my intimate acquaintance with William Lloyd Garrison. When the latter started his paper in Vermont, in 1828, I wrote him a letter commending his views upon Slavery, Intemperance and War, and assuring him that he was destined to do great things. In 1833 1 was a delegate to the first National Anti-Slavery Convention, at Philadelphia. I was one of the Secretaries of the Convention and signed its Declaration. In 1833 I was in the Massachusetts Legislature. I was mobbed in Concord, N. H., in company with George Thompson, afterwards member of the British Parliament, and narrowly escaped from great danger. I kept Thompson, whose life was hunted for, concealed in our lonely farm-house for two weeks. I was in Boston during the great mob in Washington Street, soon after, and was threatened with personal violence. In 1837 I was in New York, in conjunction with Henry B. Stanton and Theodore D. Weld, in the office of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The next year I took charge of the "Pennsylvania Freeman," an organ of the Anti-Slavery Society. My office was sacked and burned by a mob soon after, but I continued my paper until my health failed, when I returned to Massachusetts. The farm in Haverhill had, in the meantime, been sold, and my mother, aunt and youngest sister, had moved to Amesbury, near the Friends’ Meeting-house, and I took up my residence with them. All this time I had been actively engaged in writing for the anti-slavery cause. In 1833 I printed at my own expense, an edition of my first pamphlet, "Justice and Expediency." With the exception of a few dollars from the "Democratic Review" and "Buckingham’s Magazine," I received nothing for my poems and literary articles. Indeed, my pronounced views on Slavery made my name too unpopular for a publisher’s uses. I edited in 1844 "The Middlesex Standard," and afterwards became associate editor of the "National Era," at Washington. I early saw the necessity of separate political action on the part of Abolitionists. And was one of the founders of the Liberty Party—the germ of the present Republican Party.

In 1837 an edition of my complete poems, up to that time, was published by Ticknor & Fields. "In War Time," followed in 1864;. and in 1863, "Snow Bound." In 1860 I was chosen a member of the Electoral College of Massachusetts, and also in 1864. I have been a member of the Board of Overseers of Harvard College, and a Trustee of Brown University. But while feeling, and willing to meet, all the responsibilities of citizenship, and deeply interested in questions which concern the welfare and honor of the country, I have, as a rule, declined overtures for acceptance of public stations. I have always taken an active part in elections, but have not been willing to add my own example to the greed of office.

I have been a member of the Society of Friends by birth-right, and by a settled conviction of the truth of its principles and the importance of its testimonies, while, at the same time, I have a kind feeling towards all who are seeking, in different ways from mine, to serve God and benefit their fellow-men.

Neither of my sisters are living. My dear mother, to whom I own much every way, died in 1858. My brother is still living, in the city of Boston. My niece, his daughter, who was with me for some years, is now the wife of S. T. Pickard, Esq., of Portland, Maine. Since she left me I have spent much of my time with esteemed relatives at Oak Knoll, Danvers, Mass., though I still keep my homestead at Amesbury, where I am a voter.

My health was never robust; I inherited from both my parents a sensitive, nervous temperament; and one of my earliest recollections is of pain in the head, from which I have suffered all my life. For many years I have not been able to read or write for more than half an hour at a time; often not so long. Of late, my hearing has been defective. But in many ways I have been blest far beyond my deserving; and, grateful to the Divine Providence, I tranquilly await the close of a life which has been longer, and on the whole happier, than I had reason to expect, although far different from that which I dreamed of in youth. My experience confirms the words of old time, that "it is not in man who walketh to direct his steps." Claiming no exemption from the sins and follies of our common humanity, I dare not complain of their inevitable penalties. I have had to learn renunciation and submission, and

"Knowing That kindly Providence its care is showing In the withdrawal as in the bestowing, Scarcely I dare for more or less to pray."

Thy friend,



Burial: Union Cemetery, Amesbury, MA


This poem was written about persecuted Quaker, Cassandra Southwick



Last night I saw the sunset melt through my prison bars,
Last night across my damp earth floor fell the pale gleam of stars:
In the coldness and the darkness all through the long night-time,
My grated casement whited with autumn's early rime....
All night I sat unsleeping, for I knew that on the morrow
The ruler and the cruel priest would mock me in my sorrow.
Dragged to their place of market, and bargained for and sold,
Like a lamb before the shambles, like a heifer from the fold!
Oh, the weakness of the flesh was there,- - the shrinking and the shame;
And the low voice of the Tempter like whispers to me came:

":Why sit'st thou thus forlornly," the wicked murmur said,

"Damp walls thy bower of beauty, cold earth thy maiden bed?
"...And what a fate awaits thee!--A sadly toiling slave,
Dragging the slowly lengthening chain of bondage to the grave."
...I wrestled down the evil thoughts, and strove in silent prayer,
To feel, O Helper of the weak! That thou indeed were there...
At length the heavy bolts fell back, my door was open cast,
And slowly at the sheriff's side, up the long street I passed.
I heard the murmur round me, and felt, but dared not see,
How, from every door and window, the people gazed on me.
...We paused at length, where at my feet the sunlit waters broke
On glaring reach of shining beach, and shining wall or rock;
The merchant ships lay idly there, in hard clear lines on high,
Tracing with rope and sender spar their network on the sky....
Then to the stout sea-captains, the sheriff, turning, said,
"Which of ye, worthy seamen, will take this Quaker maid?
In the isle of fair Barbados, or on Virginia's shore,
You may sell her at a higher price than Indian girl or Moor."
Grim and silent stood the captains; and when again he cried,
"Speak out, my worthy seamen!"--no voice, no sign replied;
But I felt a hard hand press my own, and kind words met my ear,--
"God bless thee, and preserve thee, my gentle girl and dear!"
A weight seemed lifted from my heart, a pitying friend was nigh,--
I felt it in his hard, rough hand, and saw i in his eye;
And when again the sheriff spoke, that voice so kind to me,
Growled back its stormy answer like the roaring of the sea,--
"Pile my ship with bars of silver, pack with coins of Spanish gold,
From keel-piece up to deck plank, the roomage of her hold,
By the living God who made me!--I would sooner in your bay
Sink ship and crew and cargo, than bear this child away!"
"Well answered, worthy captain, shame on their cruel laws!"
Ran through the crowd in murmurs loud the people's just applause.
"Like the herdsman of Tekoa, in Israel of old,
Shall we see the poor and righteous again for silver sold?"
I looked on Governor Endicott, with weapon half-way drawn,
Swept round the throng his lion glare of bitter hate and scorn;
Fiercely he drew his bridle rein, and turned in silence back,
And sneering priest and baffled clerk rode murmuring in his track.
Hard after them the sheriff looked, in bitterness of soul;
Thrice smote his staff upon the ground, and crushed his parchment roll.
"Good friends," he said, "since both have fled, the ruler and the priest,
Judge ye, if from their further work I be not well released."
Loud was the cheer which, full and clear, swept round the silent bay,
As with kind words and kinder looks he bade me go my way;
For God who turns the courses of the streamlet of the glen,
And the river of great waters, had turned the hearts of men.
Thanksgiving to the Lord of Life! To God all praises be,
Who from the hands of evil men hath set his handmaid free.
All praise to God before whose power the mighty are afraid,
Who takes the crafty in the snare which for the poor is laid!


It is indeed historical that Samuel Shattuck persuaded King Charles to stop the executions of Quakers in New England, and that Charles, showing a sense of irony or perhaps humor, made Shattuck his messenger. Governor Endicott was quite fed up with the Quakers, who, among other things, witnessed to the equality of all by refusing to honor others by removing their hats. When Shattuck arrived in Boston and was brought before the governor, one of his attendants knocked Shattuck's hat from his head. But when it was revealed that Shattuck was the king's messenger, the governor was obliged to remove his own hat, and to return Shattuck's to his head. This story was immortalized by John Greenleaf Whittier in his poem "The King's Missive."

THE KING'S MISSIVE John Greenleaf Whittier, 1661

Under the great hill sloping bare
To cove and meadow and Common lot,
In his council chamber and oaken chair,
Sat the worshipful Governor Endicott.
A grave, strong man, who knew no peer,
In the Pilgrim land, where he ruled in fear
Of God, not man, and for good or ill
Held his trust with an iron will.
He had shorn with his sword the cross from out
The flag and cloven the may-pole down,
Harried the heathen round about
And whipped the Quakers from town to town.
His brow was clouded, his eye was stern,
With a look of mingled sorrow and wrath;
"Woe's me," he murmured: "at every turn
The pestilent Quakers are in my path!
Some we have scourged, and banished some,
Some hanged, more doomed, and still they come,
Fast as the tide of yon bay sets in,
Sowing their heresy's seed of sin.
"Did we count on this? Did we leave behind
The graves of our kin, the comfort and ease
Of our English hearths and homes, to find
Troublers of Israel such as these?
Shall I spare? Shall I pity them? God forbid!
I will do as the prophet to Agag did:
They come to poison the wells of the Word,
I will hew them in pieces before the Lord!"
The door swung open, and Rawson the clerk
Entered, and whispered under breath,
"There waits below for the hangman's work
A fellow banished on pain of death--
Shattuck, of Salem, unhealed of the whip,
Brought over in Master Goldsmith's ship
At anchor here in a Christian port,
With freight of the devil and all his sort!"
Twice and thrice on the chamber floor
Striding fiercely from wall to wall,
"The Lord do so to me and more,"
The Governor cried, "if I hang not all!"
Bring hither the Quaker." Calm, sedate,
With the look of a man at ease with fate,
Into that presence, grim and dread, Came Samuel Shattuck, with hat on head.
"Off with the knave's hat!" An angry hand
Smote down the offence; but the wearer said,
With a quiet smile, "By the king's command
I bear his message and stand in his stead."
In the Governor's hand a missive he laid
With the royal arms on its seal displayed,
And the proud man spake as he gazed thereat,
Uncovering, "Give Mr. Shattuck his hat."
He turned to the Quaker, bowing low,--
"The king commandeth your friends' release;
Doubt not he shall be obeyed, although
To his subjects' sorrow and sin's increase.
What he here enjoineth, John Endicott,
His loyal servant, questioneth not.
You are free! God grant the spirit you own
May take you from us, to parts unknown."
So the door of the jail was open cast,
And like Daniel out of the lion's den
Tender youth and girlhood passed,
With age-bowed women and gray-locked men.
And the voice of one appointed to die
Was lifted in praise and thanks on high.
Broad in the sunshine stretched away
With its capes and islands, the turquoise bay...
But as they who see not, the Quakers saw
The world about them; they only thought
With deep thanksgiving and pious awe
On the great deliverance God had wrought.
Through lane and alley the gazing town
Noisily followed them up and down;
Some with scoffing and brutal jeer,
Some with pity and words of cheer.
So passed the Quakers through Boston town,
Whose painful ministers sighed to see
The walls of their sheep-fold falling down,
And wolves of heresy prowling free.
But the years went on and brought no wrong;
With milder counsel the State grew strong,
As outward Letter and inward Light
Kept the balance of truth aright.


photo of headstone...

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On 16 Jul 2015 at 07:34 GMT Isara (Chellis) Argent wrote:

AJ Jacobs and John Greenleaf Whittier have 21 degrees of separation

Unmerged matches › John G Whittier (abt.1807-)
Rejected matches › John Whitten (abt.1806-)

John Greenleaf is 20 degrees from Cari Starosta, 18 degrees from Marie-Antoinette d'Autriche and 14 degrees from Henry VIII of England on our single family tree. Login to find your connection.