Some of Whittier’s poems were responses to events. On October 21, 1842, a negro named George Latimer was seized in Boston without a warrant at the request of a man who claimed to be his owner and was taken to Leverett Street Jail. Whittier helped to get the Legislature to pass laws forbidding citizens or state or municipal officers to help restore slaves to their owners. He wrote “Massachusetts to Virginia” to be read to at a Business Committee of a Latimer Convention in Ipswich. Whittier later added the following introductory note:
Written on reading an account of the proceedings of the citizens of Norfolk, Va., in reference to George Latimer, the alleged fugitive slave, who was seized in Boston without warrant at the request of James B. Grey, of Norfolk, claiming to be his master. The case caused great excitement North and South, and led to the presentation of a petition to Congress, signed by more than fifty thousand citizens of Massachusetts, calling for such laws and proposed amendments to the Constitution as should relieve the Commonwealth from all further participation in the crime of oppression. George Latimer himself was finally given free papers for the sum of four hundred dollars.
Whittier stresses the peaceful intent of Massachusetts:
The blast from Freedom’s Northern hills, upon its southern way,
Bears greeting to Virginia from Massachusetts bay:
No work of haughty challenging, nor battle bugle’s peal,
Nor stead tread of marching files, nor clang of horsemen’s steel.
No trains of deep-mouthed cannon along our highways go;
Around our silent arsenals untrodden lies the snow;
And to the land-breeze of our ports, upon their errands far,
A thousand sails of commerce swell, but none are spread for war.
He tells Virginia that Massachusetts has heard Virginia’s threats, but that Massachusetts is so hearty from fighting nature that it doesn’t take them seriously. He then reproaches Virginia:
What means the Old Dominion? Hath she forgot the day
When o’er her conquered valleys swept the Briton’s steel array?
How side by side, with sons of hers, the Massachusetts men
Encountered Tarleton’s charge of fire, and stout Cornwallis, then?
Forgets she how the Bay State, in answer to the call
Of her old House of Burgesses, spoke out from Faneuil Hall?
When, echoing back her Henry’s cry, came pulsing on each breast
Of Northern winds the thrilling sounds of “Liberty or Death!”
Whittier continues that if Virginia can scoff at freedom, Massachusetts cannot, and will not hunt fugitive slaves. Whittier then goes over the Massachusetts counties, describing the resistance of each and summarizes the resistance in the last stanza:
But for us and for our children, the vow which we have given
For freedom and humanity is registered in heaven;
No slave-hunt in our borders, --no pirate on our strand!
No fetters in the Bay State,--no slave upon our land!