John Brown’s 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and subsequent execution galvanized the nation; abolitionists celebrated him as a martyr to the anti-slavery cause while southern whites denounced him and his northern supporters and formed local militias to guard against slave uprisings of the kind Brown had hoped to foment. This poem by John Greenleaf Whittier was first published in the New York Independent three weeks after Brown’s execution. The poem valorizes both the abolitionist cause and Brown’s noble intentions and repeats a New York Herald Tribune account of Brown kissing a slave mother’s child on his way to the gallows. Whittier was not alone in valorizing Brown’s supposed last act: abolitionist Lydia Maria Child penned "The Hero’s Heart," a poem that referred to the apocryphal kiss, and Thomas S. Noble painted a version of the same scene in 1867, titled "John Brown’s Blessing" as did Thomas Hovenden in his 1884 "Last Moments of John Brown."
John Brown of Osawatomie spake on his dying day:
'I will not have to shrive my soul a priest in Slavery's pay;
But let some poor slave-mother whom I have striven to free,
With her children, from the gallows-stair put up a prayer for me!'
John Brown of Ossawatomie, they led him out to die;
And lo! a poor slave-mother with her little child pressed nigh:
Then the bold, blue eye grew tender, and the old harsh face grew mild,
As he stooped between the jeering ranks and kissed the negro's child!
The shadows of his stormy life that moment fell apart,
And they who blamed the bloody hand forgave the loving heart;
That kiss from all its guilty means redeemed the good intent,
And round the grisly fighter's hair the martyr's aureole bent!
Perish with him the folly that seeks through evil good!
Long live the generous purpose unstained with human blood!
Not the raid of midnight terror, but the thought which underlies;
Not the borderer's pride of daring, but the Christian's sacrifice.
Nevermore may yon Blue Ridges the Northern rifle hear,
Nor see the light of blazing homes flash on the negro's spear;
But let the free-winged angel Truth their guarded passes scale,
To teach that right is more than might, and justice more than mail!
So vainly shall Virginia set her battle in array;
In vain her trampling squadrons knead the winter snow with clay!
She may strike the pouncing eagle, but she dares not harm the dove;
And every gate she bars to Hate shall open wide to Love!
Source: New York Independent, December 22, 1859.