John Greenleaf Whittier

1807 –

An American poet and editor, John Greenleaf Whittier 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 abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s Newburyport Free Press in 1826. Whittier 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 anti-slavery 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 also active in his support of Republican candidates. He was a delegate in 1831 to the national Republican Convention in support of Henry Clay, and Whittier himself ran unsuccessfully for Congress the following year.

Whittier’s first book, Legends of New England in Prose and Verse, was published in 1831. From then until the Civil War, he wrote essays and articles as well as poems, almost all of which were concerned with abolition. In 1833 he wrote Justice and Expedience urging immediate abolition. In 1834 he was elected as a Whig for one term to the Massachusetts legislature. He moved in 1836 to Amesbury, Massachusetts, where he worked for the American Anti-Slavery Society. During his tenure as editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman, in May 1838, a mob sacked and burned the newspaper’s offices to the ground during the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall.

Whittier founded the anti-slavery Liberty Party in 1840 and ran for Congress in 1842. In the mid-1850s he began to work for the formation of the Republican Party; he supported the presidential candidacy of John C. Frémont in 1856. Whittier helped to found The Atlantic Monthly in 1857. 

Whittier’s verse gave unique expression to the ideas he valued. The Civil War inspired the famous poem, “Barbara Frietchie,” in which the subject of the poem, an older woman, confronts a Confederate general. From 1865 until his death in 1892, Whittier wrote about religion, nature, and rural life; he became the most popular of the Fireside poets.

In 1866, Whittier published his most popular work, Snow-Bound, which sold twenty thousand copies. He was close friends with Frederick Douglass, and with the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett, as well as with her companion Annie Fields. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and William Dean Howells were guests at his seventieth birthday in 1877.

John Greenleaf Whittier died in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, on September 7, 1892.