Whittier wrote several poems about the persecution of Quakers, at least two of which showed that the ordinary citizen who resists the pressures of authority can make a difference. In “Cassandra Southwick,” written 1842-3, he may have been trying to prick the consciences of Quakers lukewarm on Abolition. In 1837 the New England Society of Friends voted in the Yearly Meeting not to allow anti-slavery lectures in the Meeting Houses.
The Southwicks were ordered by the court to be sold into slavery in Virginia or Barbados when they were unable to pay a fine for non-attendance at the Puritan church. The order was not carried out because no ship captain was willing to take them.
Whittier had read the story in William Sewel’s History of the People Called Quakers as a child. In his poem he omits the brother and uses the mother’s name for the daughter. The actual Quakers involved were Daniel and Provided Southwick, son and daughter of Lawrence and Cassandra. In Whittier’s version Cassandra describes her fate from prison
All night I sat unsleeping, for I knew that on the morrow
The ruler and the cruel priest would mock me in my sorrow,
Dragged to their place of market, and bargained for and sold,
Like a lamb before the shambles, like a heifer from the fold!
While she awaits her fate, the Tempter tries to persuade her to drop her Quaker faith:
“O weak, deluded maiden!—by crazy fancies led,
With wild and raving railers an evil path to tread:
To leave a wholesome worship, and teaching pure and sound,
And mate with maniac women, loose-haired and sackcloth bound,--
But Cassandra doesn’t give in to the Tempter, the captains refuse to take her to the Barbadoes or Virginia to be sold, and after Governor Endicott and the priest flee, the sheriff has no recourse but to release her. This is followed by thanks to God for delivering Cassandra and a curse upon “ye evil priests and mighty men of wrong.”
Full text of "Cassandra Southwick"