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"Ichabod!" – A Poem About the Fugitive Slave Law

Brittany Kussman has a BA in English and a Writing Certificate for Creative Writing.

John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier

"Ichabod!" in Context

John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Ichabod!" is a poem that reflects one's opinion about the Fugitive Slave Law. The editors' note reads, " 'Ichabod!' is an attack on Daniel Webster, whose championing of the Fugitive Slave Bill (the part of the Compromise of 1850 which provided that Northern states must return runaway slaves caught within their borders) made him anathema to the abolitionists" (1488).

In this poem, Whittier shows the reader what life was like during these times for slaves. It's almost as if Whittier is mocking Webster for his stance on the Fugitive Slave Law. But unlike other works, such as those by Frederick Douglass, this poem gives an outsider's or a non-slave's opinion on the subject. Whittier was also a strong believer in the abolition of slavery, and I believe this poem does an excellent job of portraying his strong opinions on the subject.

Whittier was a major advocate for abolishing slavery; he published many works that spoke out strongly against slavery, such as his anti-slavery pamphlet, Justice and Expediency, and even an essay on how a free black man was thrown in jail for aiding slaves in their escape. Whittier spoke out often against those who wanted to keep other men in chains and was a man who saw this as a cruel and vicious thing to do to another human being. Whittier had two collections of poems that spoke out against slavery: Poems Written During the Progress of the Abolition Question in the United States: Between 1830 and 1838 and Voices of Freedom, published in 1846. So his poem "Ichabod!" is one that was clearly written out of anger and disgust for these people who wanted to continue to keep other men, women, and children in chains.

Broadside publication of John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Our Countrymen in Chains." The design was originally adopted as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England in the 1780s and appeared on several medallions for the society.

Broadside publication of John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Our Countrymen in Chains." The design was originally adopted as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England in the 1780s and appeared on several medallions for the society.

"Ichabod!" is a clear attack on Daniel Webster, mocking him for his choice in this war against slavery. When I was looking for more information on this poem I came across something that Whittier himself wrote about it:

Ichabod means "inglorious" in Hebrew. Whittier wrote:

"This poem was the outcome of the surprise and grief and forecast of evil consequences which I felt on reading the seventh of March speech of Daniel Webster in support of the `compromise,' and the Fugitive Slave Law. No partisan or personal enmity dictated it. On the contrary my admiration of the splendid personality and intellectual power of the great Senator was never stronger than when I laid down his speech, and, in one of the saddest moments of my life, penned my protest. I saw, as I wrote, with painful clearness its sure results, – the Slave Power arrogant and defiant, strengthened and encouraged to carry out its scheme for the extension of its baleful system, or the dissolution of the Union, the guaranties of personal liberty in the free States broken down, and the whole country made the hunting-ground of slave-catchers. In the horror of such a vision, so soon fearfully fulfilled, if one spoke at all, he could only speak in tones of stern and sorrowful rebuke.

"But death softens all resentments, and the consciousness of a common inheritance of frailty and weakness modifies the severity of judgment. Years after, in The Lost Occasion, I gave utterance to an almost universal regret that the great statesman did not live to see the flag which he loved trampled under the feet of Slavery, and, in view of this desecration, make his last days glorious in defence of "Liberty and Union, one and inseparable." (Source: Assumption University)

This poem illustrates Whittier's contempt for the man who fought to send slaves back into the servitude they desperately tried to escape. and this quote helps to bring the poems meaning to life. Once I read this I better understood the tone of the poem and that helped me grasp a better understanding of the meaning as well. When I first studied this poem I thought Whittier was illustrating the actual life of a slave, when he was really bringing these people who fight to keep people enslaved to the forefront. He was putting Webster on display for all to see what kind of man he really was. He questioned every aspect of this man with "Ichabod!" and it was done in a tasteful way that would ridicule this man for many years to come. From what I gather Whittier once respected Webster up until he read the speech that inspired this incredible work. It's amazing how the people we look to and admire can quickly turn into monsters who fight for the wrong side and only wish to please a certain type of person, instead of standing up for all rights of man. I think it's possible that Whittier felt this way, and then out came this poem. There is a part in the poem that makes me believe that he once admired this man and respected him, because of the language Whittier uses to unleash his attack on Webster: "Let not the land once proud of him/ Insult him now,/ Nor brand with deeper shame his dim,/ Dishonored brow" (Whittier, 17-20).

At first, I didn't quite understand what he meant here. Initially, I felt he was talking about slavery, but after doing further research I realized he was talking about Daniel Webster here and how this once honored and respected Senator lost all of that with one speech that would help keep other men in chains. Whittier is saying here that with Webster's stance on slavery he should feel shame, he should feel guilty for wanting to side with a law that would continue to keep people enchained. Further down, Whittier addresses slaves as fallen angels. In those three stanzas, the reader can get a clear sense of the pain and anger Whittier is going through, because this one man who was said to be honorable is doing the most dishonorable act he could imagine.

Of all we loved and honored, naught

Save power remains;

A fallen angel’s pride of thought,

Still strong in chains.

All else is gone; from those great eyes

The soul has fled"

When faith is lost, when honor dies,

The man is dead!

Then, pay the reverence of old days

To his dead fame;

Walk backward, with averted gaze,

And hide the shame! (Whittier, 25-36)

The images in these stanzas are beautiful yet haunting because we can identify bad men and men who hold no honor, but when a man who is seen in this high regard changes and becomes this villain who fights on the side of evil, it can crush the public who once followed his words. The last stanza is one I find interesting because it's talking about reveling in what once made this Senator famous, but then we ignore his dishonor. It's as if people can just ignore the bad people do as long as they do good somewhere else. Whittier is showing how society will look back on an incident, such as slavery, and try to candy coat it somehow. In this last stanza, I can really see how this can relate to the modern world and how we do certain things in society to try to make up for all the wrong our ancestors did. It's almost as if America is still "walking backwards" to try and rewrite their wrongs from the past.

The stanza before that is another interesting one because it shows how once Webster made his deal with the devil he became a shell of a man to many. He was no longer this great man; this one wrong move caused him to die. And it all goes back to honor, Whittier is constantly discussing how important honor is and how it shapes a man. Now, to lose this honor is to die so in a sense Webster is dead to him because he had proven himself to be a dishonorable man.

These stanzas also say something about the public as a whole and how those people who just sit and watch this horrific act and don't try to put an end to it are just as guilty as the slaveholders and lawmakers helping to keep these people enslaved. I think he is saying that while we continue to just let these things happen and pretend that we don't see them, innocent people will continue to be chained and enslaved.

One image that I find describes this fallen honor is in the first stanza:

So fallen! so lost! the light withdrawn Which once he wore! The glory from his gray hairs gone Forevermore!

In those four lines, Whittier is describing a man who came from pride, honor, and hope and has turned into a depressing shell of himself. It's like a king falling from his throne, having his kingdom overthrown. It's shameful. Then in the next stanza, Whittier tells the readers not to pity the man because this man holds no honor and his demise will not end in anger, but tears of pity because this man has lost the one thing no man should ever lose his honor:

Revile him not, the Tempter hath A snare for all; And pitying tears, not scorn and wrath, Befit his fall!

Whittier is saying here that people should not criticize him for his choice, but instead have pity for him because he chose an immoral path that would eventually set the pace for his own demise.

Whittier's descriptions of one man's act on the Fugitive Slave Bill were so poetic and powerful that one cannot fathom how he felt when he first sat down to write this piece. In John Whittier's biography one thing that stands out is when he wrote: "Immediate abolition of slavery; an immediate acknowledgement of the great truth, the man cannot hold property in man; an immediate surrender of baneful prejudice to Christian love; an immediate practical obedience to the command of Jesus Christ: 'Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them.'"


Short biography on John Greenleaf Whittier


France on February 07, 2017:

Hey i'm a french studient and i worked on this poem, i don't have exactly the same perception of this poem but i think your analysis is very interesting thanks you very much.

Brittany Kussman (author) from St. Louis, MO on November 28, 2016:

Thanks for reading! I'm glad you enjoyed my work and yes we still have issues with various kinds of slavery. Maybe one day we will see the day when all kinds f slavery comes to and end.

Ausseye on September 07, 2015:

Love the insight and the rigorous thoughtful approach. Oh what better humans we could be if we only listened to solid, kind, ethical people around and amongst us. Love the results of your labour. Regretfully slavery of all kinds is still with us, we still haven't got it under control!!!!