TEXT

Our Countrymen in Chains

Per the Library of Congress: The large, bold woodcut image of a supplicant enslaved man in chains appears on the 1837 broadside publication of John Greenleaf Whittier’s antislavery poem, “Our Countrymen in Chains.”
Author
J.G. Whittier
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concept 8.

Am I not a man and a brother?

OUR COUNTRYMEN IN CHAINS! 

By J.G. WHITTIER. 

The despotism which our fathers could not bear in their native country is expiring, and the sword of justice in her reformed hands has applied its exterminating edge to slavery. Shall the United States—the Free United States, which could not bear the bonds of a king, cradle the bondage which a king is abolishing? Shall a Republic be less free than a Monarchy? Shall we, in the vigor and buoyancy of our manhood, be less energetic in righteousness, than a kingdom in its age?—Dr. Follen’s Address. 

Genius of America! Spirit of our free institutions!—where art thou? How art thou fallen, oh Lucifer! son of the morning—how art thou fallen from Heaven! Hell from beneath is moved for thee, to meet thee at thy coming!—The kings of the earth cry out to thee, Aha! Aha!—Art thou become like unto us?—Speech of Rev. S.J. May. 

OUR FELLOW COUNTRYMEN IN CHAINS! 

Slaves—in a land of light and law!— 

SLAVES—crouching on the very plains 

Where rolled the storm of Freedom’s war! 

A groan from Eutaw’s haunted wood— 

A wail where Camden’s martyrs fell— 

By every shrine of patriot blood, 

From Moultrie’s wall and Jasper’s well! 

 

By storied hill and hallowed grot, 

By mossy wood and marshy glen, 

Whence rang of old the rifle shot, 

And hurrying shout of Marion’s men!— 

The groan of breaking hearts is there— 

The falling lash—the fetter’s clank!— 

Slaves—SLAVES are breathing in that air 

Which old De Kalb and Sumter drank! 

 

What, ho!—our countrymen in chains!— 

The whip on WOMAN’S shrinking flesh! 

Our soil yet reddening with the stains, 

Caught from her scourging, warm and fresh! 

What! mothers from their children riven!— 

What! God’s own image bought and sold!— 

AMERICANS to market driven, 

And bartered as the brute for gold! 

 

Speak!—shall their agony of prayer 

Come thrilling to our hearts in vain! 

To us—whose fathers scorned to bear 

The paltry menace of a chain;— 

To us whose boast is loud and long 

Of holy liberty and light— 

Say, shall these writhing slaves of Wrong 

Plead vainly for their plundered Right? 

 

What!—shall we send, with lavish breath, 

Our sympathies across the wave, 

Where manhood on the field of death 

Strikes for his freedom, or a grave!— 

Shall prayers go up—and hymns be sung 

For Greece, the Moslem fetter spurning— 

And millions hail with pen and tongue 

Our light on all her altars burning? 

 

Shall Belgium feel, and gallant France, 

By Vendome’s pile and Schoenbrun’s wall, 

And Poland, gasping on her lance, 

The impulse of our cheering call? 

And shall the SLAVE, beneath our eye, 

Clank o’er our fields his hateful chain? 

And toss his fettered arm on high, 

And groan for freedom’s gift, in vain? 

 

Oh, say, shall Prussia’s banner be 

A refuge for the stricken slave?— 

And shall the Russian serf go free 

By Baikal’s lake and Neva’s wave?— 

And shall the wintry-bosomed Dane 

Relax the iron hand of pride, 

And bid his bondmen cast the chain 

From fettered soul and limb aside? 

 

Shall every flap of England’s flag 

Proclaim that all around are free, 

From ‘farthest Ind’ to each blue crag 

That beetles o’er the Western Sea? 

And shall we scoff at Europe’s kings, 

When Freedom’s fire is dim with us, 

And round our country’s altar clings 

The damning shade of Slavery’s curse? 

 

Go—let us ask of Constantine 

To loose his grasp on Poland’s throat— 

And beg the lord of Mahmoud’s line 

To spare the struggling Suliote. 

Will not the scorching answer come 

From turbaned Turk, and scornful Russ— 

‘Go, loose your lettered slaves at home, 

Then turn and ask the like of us!’ 

 

Just God! and shall we calmly rest, 

The christian’s scorn—the heathen’s mirth— 

Content to live the lingering jest 

And by-word of a mocking earth? 

Shall our own glorious land retain 

That curse which Europe scorns to bear? 

Shall our own brethren drag the chain 

Which not even Russia’s menials wear? 

 

Up, then, in Freedom’s manly part, 

From graybeard eld to fiery youth, 

And on the nation’s naked heart 

Scatter the living coals of Truth, 

Up—while ye slumber, deeper yet 

The shadow of our fame is growing— 

Up—While ye pause, our sun may set 

In blood, around our altars flowing! 

 

Oh rouse ye—ere the storm comes forth— 

The gathered wrath of God and man— 

Like that which wasted Egypt’s earth, 

When hail and fire above it ran. 

Hear ye no warnings in the air? 

Feel ye no earthquake underneath? 

Up—up—why will ye slumber where 

The sleeper only wakes in death? 

 

Up now for Freedom!—not in strife 

Like that your sterner fathers saw 

The awful waste of human life— 

The glory and the guilt of war: 

But break the chain—the yoke remove 

And smite to earth Oppression’s rod, 

With those mild arms of Truth and Love, 

Made mighty through the living God! 

 

Prone let the shrine of Moloch sink, 

And leave no traces where it stood; 

Nor longer let its idol drink 

His daily cup of human blood; 

But rear another altar there, 

To truth and love and mercy given, 

And Freedom’s gift, and Freedom’s prayer 

Shall call an answer down from Heaven! 

 

[footer text] 

He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death. Exod. xxi. 16. 

* ENGLAND has 800,000 Slaves, and she has made them FREE. America has 2,250,000!—and she HOLDS THEM FAST!!! 

Source
This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2008661312/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Our_Countrymen_in_Chains.jpg.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    Dr. Follen states in his address: “Shall a Republic be less free than a Monarchy?” How is he comparing the United States and Great Britain?
    Answer
    He discusses how Britain was repressive, which led to the American Revolution. Despite its past “despotism,” Britain has abolished slavery. Though the U.S. left Britain over issues of freedom, the British abolishment of slavery implies that now Britain is more free than the American republic.
  2. Question
    The poem makes several references to Revolutionary War leaders (e.g., Marion, De Kalb, Moultrie) and battles (e.g., Camden, Eutaw). What relationship does this have with the poem’s argument concerning slavery?
    Answer
    There are enslaved people living in the country that fought a war in the name of freedom. Thus, the poem describes the hypocrisy in denying freedom to enslaved people on the very land where people died to secure that same right.
  3. Question
    The poem makes several references to European countries. What argument is Whittier making with these references?
    Answer
    He suggests that countries including Prussia, France and Russia may become better symbols of freedom than the United States, though they are monarchies. Additionally, he says it will be difficult to claim a moral high ground against foreign injustices with slavery in the U.S.
  4. Question
    How do the poem and image use American identity to promote connections between white and nonwhite groups?
    Answer
    In the poem, the human suffering caused by slavery is discussed, coupled with descriptions of enslaved people as being “our countrymen” and in “God’s own image,” emphasizing a common humanity. In the image, the title also emphasizes a common identity as a “man,” as well as the kinship of humanity and/or a fellow countryman as “brother.”
  5. Question
    How does Whittier put responsibility on readers to take action against the institution of slavery?
    Answer
    In the latter portion of the poem, Whittier calls on the reader to cast off the “curse” of slavery. He does this in several ways. Without action, the “shadow of our fame” (i.e., the negative influence of slavery) is growing. This is reducing international influence. He also makes reference to freeing the enslaved people of Egypt, describing God’s anger as increasing by slavery’s perpetuation. Whittier also sees the suffering of enslaved people as akin to the “awful waste of human life” that was seen in fighting for independence.
Reveal Answers
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