Even at the age of 17, Longfellow had a desire to do something for “the great cause of Negro Emancipation.”
In 1842 Longfellow met Ferdinand Freiligrath, a German revolutionary poet and translator of many of Longfellow’s works into German. Freiligrath was fiercely opposed to slavery and it was often expressed in his poetry. Longfellow also met Charles Dickens that year. Dickens had just finished his manuscript of American Notes. His chapter on slavery was an inspiration to Longfellow. Longfellow wrote to his friend, Senator Charles Sumner on October 16, 1842, "I have read Dickens' book. It is jovial and good natured, and at times very severe. You will read it with delight and for, the most part, approbation. He has a grand chapter on Slavery. Spitting and politics at Washington are the other topics of centure. Both you and I centure them with equal severity, to say the least."
With Sumner's urging, Longfellow wrote and published his anti-slavery poems. Published in December of 1842, Longfellow received an outpouring of reviews. Some were harsh and critical while others were supportive of his viewpoints. He was committed to his abolitionist beliefs. Fellow poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier thought Longfellow's poems would aid in the Liberty movement and asked Longfellow if his was interested in a Congressional nomination. Longfellow replied that while he still considered himself an anti-slavery man, he did not feel he was cut out for politics. He wrote, " Partisan warfare becomes too violent, too vindictive, for my taste; and I should be found a weak and unworthy champion in public debate." (Longfellow September 1843)
In 1862, during the Civil War and two decades after they had been published, The Evening Post recalled Longfellow's "Poems of Slavery." The poems were called "prophetic truth" and that Longfellow had pointed out that the institution of American slavery would cause decay in America. The poem "The Warning" was described as one of his most touching and emphatic poems.

Senator Sumner and Longfellow

Poems on Slavery 1842

Did You Know?
  • Even though Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a pacifist, in 1863 his oldest child Charles ran away to join the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War.