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Anti-Slavery Poems
The Sentence of John L. Brown

by John Greenleaf Whittier

Oh, from the fields of cane,
From the low rice-swamp, from the trader's cell;
From the black slave-ship's foul and loathsome hell,
And coffle's weary chain;
Hoarse, horrible, and strong,
Rises to Heaven that agonizing cry,
Filling the arches of the hollow sky,
How long, O God, how long?


John L. Brown, a young white man of South Carolina, was in 1844
sentenced to death for aiding a young slave woman, whom he loved and had
married, to escape from slavery. In pronouncing the sentence Judge
O'Neale addressed to the prisoner these words of appalling blasphemy:

You are to die! To die an ignominious death--the death on the gallows!
This announcement is, to you, I know, most appalling. Little did you
dream of it when you stepped into the bar with an air as if you thought
it was a fine frolic. But the consequences of crime are just such as you
are realizing. Punishment often comes when it is least expected. Let me
entreat you to take the present opportunity to commence the work of
reformation. Time will be furnished you to prepare for the great change
just before you. Of your past life I know nothing, except what your
trial furnished. That told me that the crime for which you are to suffer
was the consequence of a want of attention on your part to the duties of
life. The strange woman snared you. She flattered you with her word;
and you became her victim. The consequence was, that, led on by a desire
to serve her, you committed the offence of aid in a slave to run away
and depart from her master's service; and now, for it you are to die!
You are a young man, and I fear you have been dissolute; and if so,
these kindred vices have contributed a full measure to your ruin.
Reflect on your past life, and make the only useful devotion of the
remnant of your days in preparing for death. Remember now thy Creator in
the days of thy youth is the language of inspired wisdom. This comes
home appropriately to you in this trying moment. You are young; quite
too young to be where you are. If you had remembered your Creator in
your past days, you would not now be in a felon's place, to receive a
felon's judgment. Still, it is not too late to remember your Creator. He
calls early, and He calls late. He stretches out the arms of a Father's
love to you--to the vilest sinner--and says: "Come unto me and be
saved." You can perhaps read. If so, read the Scriptures; read them
without note, and without comment; and pray to God for His assistance;
and you will be able to say when you pass from prison to execution, as a
poor slave said under similar circumstances: "I am glad my Friday has
come." If you cannot read the Scriptures, the ministers of our holy
religion will be ready to aid you. They will read and explain to you
until you will be able to understand; and understanding, to call upon
the only One who can help you and save you--Jesus Christ, the Lamb of
God, who taketh away the sin of the world. To Him I commend you. And
through Him may you have that opening of the Day-Spring of mercy from
on high, which shall bless you here, and crown you as a saint in an
everlasting world, forever and ever. The sentence of the law is that you
be taken hence to the place from whence you came last; thence to the
jail of Fairfield District; and that there you be closely and securely
confined until Friday, the 26th day of April next; on which day, between
the hours of ten in the forenoon and two in the afternoon, you will be
taken to the place of public execution, and there be hanged by the neck
till your body be dead. And may God have mercy on your soul!

No event in the history of the anti-slavery struggle so stirred the two
hemispheres as did this dreadful sentence. A cry of horror was heard
from Europe. In the British House of Lords, Brougham and Denman spoke of
it with mingled pathos and indignation. Thirteen hundred clergymen and
church officers in Great Britain addressed a memorial to the churches of
South Carolina against the atrocity. Indeed, so strong was the pressure
of the sentiment of abhorrence and disgust that South Carolina yielded
to it, and the sentence was commuted to scourging and banishment.

Ho! thou who seekest late and long
A License from the Holy Book
For brutal lust and fiendish wrong,
Man of the Pulpit, look!
Lift up those cold and atheist eyes,
This ripe fruit of thy teaching see;
And tell us how to heaven will rise
The incense of this sacrifice--
This blossom of the gallows tree!

Search out for slavery's hour of need
Some fitting text of sacred writ;
Give heaven the credit of a deed
Which shames the nether pit.
Kneel, smooth blasphemer, unto Him
Whose truth is on thy lips a lie;
Ask that His bright winged cherubim
May bend around that scaffold grim
To guard and bless and sanctify.

O champion of the people's cause
Suspend thy loud and vain rebuke
Of foreign wrong and Old World's laws,
Man of the Senate, look!
Was this the promise of the free,
The great hope of our early time,
That slavery's poison vine should be
Upborne by Freedom's prayer-nursed tree
O'erclustered with such fruits of crime?

Send out the summons East and West,
And South and North, let all be there
Where he who pitied the oppressed
Swings out in sun and air.
Let not a Democratic hand
The grisly hangman's task refuse;
There let each loyal patriot stand,
Awaiting slavery's command,
To twist the rope and draw the noose!

But vain is irony--unmeet
Its cold rebuke for deeds which start
In fiery and indignant beat
The pulses of the heart.
Leave studied wit and guarded phrase
For those who think but do not feel;
Let men speak out in words which raise
Where'er they fall, an answering blaze
Like flints which strike the fire from steel.

Still let a mousing priesthood ply
Their garbled text and gloss of sin,
And make the lettered scroll deny
Its living soul within:
Still let the place-fed, titled knave
Plead robbery's right with purchased lips,
And tell us that our fathers gave
For Freedom's pedestal, a slave,
The frieze and moulding, chains and whips!

But ye who own that Higher Law
Whose tablets in the heart are set,
Speak out in words of power and awe
That God is living yet!
Breathe forth once more those tones sublime
Which thrilled the burdened prophet's lyre,
And in a dark and evil time
Smote down on Israel's fast of crime
And gift of blood, a rain of fire!

Oh, not for us the graceful lay
To whose soft measures lightly move
The footsteps of the faun and fay,
O'er-locked by mirth and love!
But such a stern and startling strain
As Britain's hunted bards flung down
From Snowden to the conquered plain,
Where harshly clanked the Saxon chain,
On trampled field and smoking town.

By Liberty's dishonored name,
By man's lost hope and failing trust,
By words and deeds which bow with shame
Our foreheads to the dust,
By the exulting strangers' sneer,
Borne to us from the Old World's thrones,
And by their victims' grief who hear,
In sunless mines and dungeons drear,
How Freedom's land her faith disowns!

Speak out in acts. The time for words
Has passed, and deeds suffice alone;
In vain against the clang of swords
The wailing pipe is blown!
Act, act in God's name, while ye may!
Smite from the church her leprous limb!
Throw open to the light of day
The bondman's cell, and break away
The chains the state has bound on him!

Ho! every true and living soul,
To Freedom's perilled altar bear
The Freeman's and the Christian's whole
Tongue, pen, and vote, and prayer!
One last, great battle for the right--
One short, sharp struggle to be free!
To do is to succeed--our fight
Is waged in Heaven's approving sight;
The smile of God is Victory.

1844.
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