The Liberty Bell

It is helpful when studying a piece of literature to understand the historical context in which it is written and published. Elizabeth Barret Browning’s “Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” was published in the Liberty Bell, an annual gift-book published between 1839 and 1857 for the 1848 edition. The Liberty Bell was originally sold at an annual Christmas bazaar; this bazaar was begun by Maria Weston Chapman, the wife of a merchant Henry Grafton Chapman, and a group of women in order to raise funds for the abolitionists’ efforts. Various items were sold; including food, home-furnishings and needlework; there were even contributions from those in Great Britain who sympathized with the abolitionists’ cause. Books like the Liberty Bell were also sold.

The bazaars and the publication of the Liberty Bell were largely due to the effort of Maria Weston Chapman and her sisters Anne Warren Weston and Caroline Weston; when they chose to focus their energy elsewhere in 1858, both the bazaar and literary annual collapsed without their support. The original idea for the Liberty Bell came from Anne Greene Chapman, Maria Weston Chapman’s sister-in-law; before her death in 1837, she collected literary contributions from friends on the abolitionist cause into an album. Many of the articles in the first Liberty Bell were taken from this collection. Maria Weston Chapman generally served as the editor, though no one was ever credited with this position on the title-pages. She was assisted at times by Anne Warren Weston. In addition to Elizabeth Barret Browning, other significant contributors included William Lloyd Garrison, Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry W. Longfellow, Harriet Martineau and Margaret Fuller. There were also several other foreign contributors, including some from French authors and printed in the original language; this would have been unusual for an American gift-book at the time. Having examined the history of the poem’s publication vehicle, it is now time to consider the issue that the Liberty Bell was attempting to bring attention to: the abolition movement.

 This engraving was printed on the first page of every every volume of The Liberty Bell and serves as an unofficial logo.

The Abolition Movement in Britain and the United States

            The abolition movement formed to first bring about an end to the slave trade and then emancipate slaves and abolish the institution entirely. In 1807 the British Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill, making it illegal for British ships to carry slaves. This success is attributed to prominent abolitionists including William Wilberforce, the Member of Parliament who introduced the bill. Slavery itself was not abolished until 1833, when all slaves in the British Empire were freed. This included British colonies in the Caribbean, then known as the British West Indies. It took even longer to abolish slavery in the United States and was a long, complex process.

The abolition movement in the United States saw two different approaches to the problem of slavery: gradualists, who believed in stopping the spread of slavery rather than trying to abolish the entire institution at once and immediatists, who argued for the immediate emancipation of all slaves. William Garrison, an immediatist, founded the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Other prominent abolitionists included former slaves Frederick Dougless and Harriet Tubman. Tubman, who escaped slavery in the South in 1849, assisted others to reach freedom in the North where slaver was outlawed. While the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the then Confederate states was signed by President Abraham Lincoln went into effect in 1863, it could not be enforced until after the end of the Civil War. Slavery was officially abolished in the United States with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865. The abolition movement began in response to the brutal and dehumanizing conditions that many slaves suffered in; these conditions are recorded in slave narratives, such as that related by Mary Prince.

Mary Prince describes her life in Bermuda, beginning with her relatively happy and untroubled childhood. She was later sold to an abusive and cruel couple, who even went so far to whip a pregnant slave. The violence she and the other slaves experienced was recorded and published in order to expose the horrors of the institution of slavery; it was hoped that readers would be moved to sympathy with the plight of those who are suffering. Elizabeth Barret Browning’s poem, though a work of fiction, also attempts to emotionally impact the reader.

A link to a recorded lecture entitled Voicing Slavery: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Prince, discussing slavery in the British Empire and places “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” in context with it.

Work Cited

“Abolitionism.” The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide. Abington: Helicon, 2013. Credo Reference. Web. Accessed 10 April 2014.

Prince, Mary. The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave: Related by Herself. Project Gutenberg. Web. Accessed 10 April 2014.

Thompson, Ralph. “The Liberty Bell and Other Anti-Slavery Gift-Books.” The New England Quarterly, 7 (1934). JSTOR. Web. Accessed 1 May 2014.

“Wilberforce, William.” The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide. Abington: Helicon, 2013. Credo Reference. Web.  Accessed 10 April 2014.