Seldom has a wiser epigram been other than that which tells us—“Let me make the songs of people and I care not who makes the laws.”
The songs are the expression of a nation's higher emotions, of its feeling, its dominant sentiment, while law, after all, is only the sentiment reduced to the form of statutes and constitutions.
It is because he was a singer of a great moral truth that John Greenleaf Whittier achieved fame and was a potent influence in his country's history. He sang the song of equality under the law, of the soul colored in common for all humanity, beneath the pallid face or the dusky, of the rights of those who wore the “livery of the burnished sun,” of the free hand and the broken chain.
While the ultra-abolitionists Of the north forty years ago raged and stormed, Whittier (more ultra than them all), yet pleaded in charitable rhythm for a peaceful solution of that vexed question of slavery, bequeathed to the Union by the greed and passions of our forefathers. He remembered what they ignored, that at the first, all the statesman of the south looked hopefully to the future for a deliverance from the incubus of chattel servitude. He knew, as they seemed not to know, how inherent in the heart of the race, and especially of that branch of the race which we call—not altogether properly—the Anglo-Saxon, was the strenuous respect for precedent, and protest against coercion. Whittier sang the song of peace and good will to men, of a vast charity and the largest philanthropy.
So he will be remembered when greater poets will have sunk into oblivion. In fact, he was not a great poet at all, except as the earnest heart and the true thought are always great.
Whittier was born in an old-fashioned, clap-boarded farm-house, not far from the banks of the winding Merrimack in Massachusetts, a locality immortalized in that charming pastoral, “Snow Bound.” Differing in nothing from the multitudes of New England farm-steads, surrounded by the usual revenue of barns and sheds and outbuildings, this home of the sedate and serious Quaker family, nurtured the man in all the arduous and homely ways which have done so much to rear men whose influence has been felt far and deep in all our political life.