From 1839 to 1858, a group of female abolitionists from Boston, Massachusetts, edited and published The Liberty Bell, a giftbook containing anti-slavery literature. Slavery was abolished in America in 1865.
The Liberty Bell was sold annually at the National Anti-Slavery Bazaar to promote and raise funds for America’s abolition campaign. Aimed at a female audience, Maria Chapman, the annual’s sponsor, described it as ‘the promotion of the cause through the promulgation of its principles in an attractive form’. At a time when women were largely excluded from politics, its ‘attractive form’ was important for placing liberal politics within an accessible and respectable frame for women. This principle is achieved, for instance, in the decorative front covers, which look similar to other women’s magazines from the period.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s transatlantic abolitionist poem ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’ was written for The Liberty Bell. It appeared in the edition dated 1848, but which went on sale in December 1847. This text differs from later published versions.
Initially, Barrett Browning had doubts over whether the poem would be published in a country where slavery was still legal and highly divisive. She must have been conscious, too, that the poem broke several taboos in its depiction of rape and infanticide. In February 1847 she wrote to her English author friend Mary Russell Mitford:
just finished my rough sketch of an antislavery ballad & sent it off to America, where nobody will print it, I am certain, because I could not help making it bitter. If they do print it, I shall think them more boldly in earnest, than I fancy now.
After this first successful publication, in 1857 Barrett Browning submitted a second poem to the same annual, titled ‘A Curse for a Nation’.