My dear Friend, - I have received thy kind letter with the
accompanying circular, inviting me to attend the commemoration of the
thirtieth anniversary of the formation of the American Anti-slavery
Society at Philadelphia. It is with the deepest regret that I am
compelled by the feeble state of my health to give up all hope of
meeting thee and my other old and dear friends on an occasion of so much
interest. How much it costs me to acquiesce in the hard necessity thy
own feelings will tell thee better than any words of mine.
I look back over thirty years, and call to mind all the
circumstances of my journey to Philadelphia, in company with thyself and
the excellent Dr. Thurston, of Maine, even then as we thought an old
man, but still living, and true as ever to the good cause. I recall the
early gray morning when, with Samuel J. May, our colleague on the
committee to prepare a Declaration of Sentiments for the convention, I
climbed to the small "upper chamber" of a colored friend to hear thee
read the first draft of a paper which will live as long as our national
history I see the members of the convention, solemnized by the
responsibility, rise one by one, and solemnly affix their names to that
stern pledge of fidelity to freedom. Of the signers, many have passed
away from earth, a few have faltered and turned back; but I believe the
majority still live to rejoice over the great triumph of truth and
justice, and to devote what remains of time and strength to the cause to
which they consecrated their youth and manhood thirty years ago.
For, while we may well thank God and congratulate one another on
the prospect of the speedy emancipation of the slaves of the United
States, we must not for a moment forget that from this hour new and
mighty responsibilities devolve upon us to aid, direct, and educate
these millions left free, indeed, but bewildered, ignorant, naked, and
foodless in the wild chaos of civil war. We have to undo the accumulated
wrongs of two centuries, to remake the manhood which slavery has
well-nigh unmade, to see to it that the long-oppressed colored man has a
fair field for development and improvement, and to tread under our feet
the last vestige of that hateful prejudice which has been the strongest
external support of Southern slavery. We must lift ourselves at once to
the true Christian [attitude] where all distinctions of black and white
are overlooked in the heartfelt recognition of the brotherhood of man.
I must not close this letter without confessing that I cannot be
sufficiently thankful to the Divine Providence which, in a great measure
through thy instrumentality, turned me away so early from what Roger
Williams calls "the world's great trinity, pleasure, profit, and honor,"
to take side with the poor and oppressed. I am not insensible to
literary reputation. I love, perhaps too well, the praise and good-will
of my fellow-men; but I set a higher value on my name as appended to the
Antislavery Declaration of 1833 than on the title-page of any book.
Looking over a life marked by many errors and shortcomings, I rejoice
that I have been able to maintain the pledge of that signature, and
that, in the long intervening years,
"My voice, though not the loudest has been heard
Wherever Freedom raised her cry of pain."
Let me, through thee, extend a warm greeting to the friends,
whether of our own or the new generation, who may assemble on the
occasion of commemoration. There is work yet to be done which will task
the best efforts of us all. For thyself, I need not say that the love
and esteem of early boyhood have lost nothing by the test of time; and
I am, very cordially, thy friend,
JOHN G. WHITTIER.
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