Bell, James Madison 1826–1902
James Madison Bell 1826–1902
Poet, orator, political activist
He was known as the “Poet of Hope” and the “Bard of the Maumee,” after the river that flowed near his Ohio home. James Madison Bell traveled the country, working as a master plasterer and reciting poetry in support of civil rights for blacks and the abolition of slavery. A friend of John Brown and a supporter of his daring raid on Harper’s Ferry, Bell’s conventional narrative poems served as a vehicle for his oratories. He was possibly the most important American black political poet of the nineteenth century.
Despite his limited education, Bell was a master of the poetic conventions of his day. At a time when most whites, including most abolitionists, believed that blacks were incapable of cultural attainments, Bell steeped himself in literary tradition. Like other mid-nineteenth-century authors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Cullen Bryant, and John Greenleaf Whittier, Bell’s poetry expressed human values as well as his own political beliefs. His themes were liberty, freedom, and hope, and his powerful and dramatic recitations inspired large audiences.
Nothing is known of Bell’s family or background, other than that he was born a free black in Gallipolis, Ohio, on April 3, 1826. His single surviving portrait, as well as a description by a contemporary, indicates that he was a handsome, light-skinned mulatto. In 1842, at the age of 16, Bell moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he lived with his brother-in-law, George Knight, who taught him the trade of plastering. At night and in the winters when work was slow, Bell attended the Cincinnati High School for Colored People, associated with Oberlin College, which had been established in 1844. Here he was introduced to the radical abolitionist movement.
On November 9, 1847, Bell married Louisiana Sanderline (or Sanderlin) in a civil ceremony. The couple went on to have seven children. Bell and Knight were successful plasterers, and in 1851 they were awarded the contract to plaster the Hamilton County public buildings.
In August of 1854 Bell moved his family to Chatham, Ontario, Canada, in what was then called Canada West. Chatham was a major destination for the Underground Railroad and a center of abolitionist activity. Most of the blacks in Canada lived within 50 miles of Chatham, and the town itself was almost one-third
At a Glance…
Born James Madison Bell on April 3, 1826, in Gallipolis, OH; died in 1902, in Toledo, OH; married Louisiana Sanderline, November 9, 1847; seven children. Education: Cincinnati High School for Colored People, Religion: African-Methodist Episcopal. Politics: Abolitionist: Republican.
Career: Plasterer, 1842-90; poet, 1862-1902; traveling lecturer, 1867-90; collected works published, 1901.
Memberships: A.M.E. Church, San Francisco, steward, lay member 1863 convention, finance, ministry, and Sabbath schools committees, Toledo, OH, Sunday school superintendent, 1870-73; Fourth California Colored Convention, 1865; other California state conventions; delegate, Ohio State Republican Convention, Ohio delegate-at-large, Republican National Conventions, 1868, 1872.
black. Bell practiced his trade, accumulated some money, and became active in the antislavery movement.
John Brown came to Bell’s house in Chatham with a letter of introduction from William Howard Day of Toronto. The letter asked Bell to help Brown in any way he could. Bell was familiar with Brown’s activities in Kansas, and the two men soon became close friends. During his Provisional Constitutional Convention, held in Chatham in the spring of 1858, Brown stayed at Bell’s home. Amidst much secrecy, the convention adopted the “Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States,” and Bell was one of the signers. He was one of five men charged with selecting candidates for offices and was a member of Brown’s counsel in Canada. Bell enlisted men and raised funds for the 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, in what is now West Virginia.
One of Bell’s best-known works, A Poem Entitled “The Day and the War,” Delivered January 1, 1864, at Platt’s Hall at the Celebration of the First Anniversary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, was dedicated to Brown’s memory: “Sacred to the Memory of the Immortal Captain John Brown,/the Hero, Saint, and Martyr of Harper’s Ferry,/The following poem is most respectfully inscribed, by one who loved him in life, and in death would honor his memory.”
In February of 1860, following Brown’s arrest and execution, Bell left his family in Ontario and moved to San Francisco. He remained there for the duration of the Civil War, supporting himself as a plasterer but devoting most of his energies to abolition and the movement for black educational and legal rights. He was active in both civic and church events sponsored by black organizations. Bell was a steward of the African-Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. He was a lay member of their 1863 convention, serving on the finance, ministry, and Sabbath schools committees. He participated in the Fourth California Colored Convention in 1865 and in other state conventions, in support of voting rights for blacks and against racially-discriminatory laws.
The bulk of Bell’s poetry was written during this period. His poems were published as pamphlets and performed at antislavery rallies and events. Between 1860 and 1869, Bell’s poetry appeared in the San Francisco Elevator and Pacific Appeal, along with advertisements for his readings at the San Francisco Literary Institute in 1860, the Bethel A.M.E. Church in 1863, and in 1867 at various functions in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana.
Bell viewed his poetry more as a political tool than as an artistic endeavor. Many of his poems were written for specific occasions and celebrations. The first to be published as a pamphlet was probably his 1862 poem commemorating the emancipation of the slaves in the District of Columbia: “Thank God, the Capital is free!/The slaver’s pen, the auction block,/The gory lash of cruelty,/No more this nation’s pride shall mock;/No more, within those ten miles square,/Shall men be bought and women sold;/Nor infants, sable-haired and fair,/Exchanged again for paltry gold.” A Poem: Delivered August 1st, 1862 … at the Grand Festival to Commemorate the Emancipation of the Slaves in the British West Indian Isles followed along similar lines.
Bell emulated popular English poets such as Alexander Pope, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He typically used iambic tetrameters, couplets, or simple, alternating rhymes, along with conventional imagery and phrasing. Many of his poems were more than 200 lines long and two poems were more than 1000 lines each.
In all, Bell wrote 32 poems, more than half of which were shorter poems dealing with similar political issues, including “Triumphs of the Free” and “Andrew Jackson Swinging Around in a Circle.” “The Dawn of Freedom” commemorated William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies. “Sons of Erin” urged Irish Americans not to oppress blacks in the way that the English oppressed the Irish. “Admonition” promoted brotherhood and humanitarianism. Bell composed a few poems with religious themes, including “Creation Light,” which expressed standard Protestant doctrine. Some were tributes to religious leaders with whom Bell was acquainted. He also wrote short pieces including acrostics and wedding verses. “Descriptive Voyage from New York to Aspinwall” was his only nature poem.
Bell moved to Toledo, Ohio, in 1865 and began working for the civil rights of freed slaves. The following year he briefly rejoined his family in Canada and then moved with them to Toledo. Bell had become active in the Republican Party in California. In Ohio he was elected a Lucas County delegate to the state Republican convention and delegate-at-large from Ohio to the 1868 and 1872 Republican National Conventions. In the summer and fall, Bell made his living as a plasterer. In the winters he traveled, visiting the major cities of the North and South, including St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, Louisville, Charleston, and Atlanta. He lectured to newly-freed slaves, gave poetry recitations, and drummed up support for Republican candidates, including Ulysses S. Grant.
Bell remained active in the A.M.E. church, and between 1870 and 1873 he was superintendent of the A.M.E. Sunday School under his friend, Bishop Benjamin W. Arnett. Bell’s wife and his eldest son both appear to have died in 1874. Bell continued traveling until about 1890, when he settled back down with his family in Toledo.
Bishop Arnett convinced Bell to collect 27 of his poems in a volume titled The Poetical Works of James Madison Bell, which was published in 1901. Arnett’s biographical introduction to the book is the primary source of information on Bell’s life. Bell died in Toledo in 1902. Early critics praised him as an idealistic and eloquent promoter of morality and black freedom, though later writers were more critical of his poetical conventionalities and clichés.
Bell was known as a great orator in the nineteenth-century tradition of Frederick Douglass and William Cullen Bryant. Bishop Arnett wrote of him: “I have known him to sit down, and in a conversation some of the most beautiful expressions would come from his lips, thoughts that were crystallized, clothed in silken language, and were marshaled like an army on the battle field. His logic was irresistible, like a legion of cavalry led by Sheridan; troop after troop he would hurl against the logical battery of his opponent, whether in debate or speech, and the conclusion was shouts of victory heard above the music of the heart and the songs of the soul.”
To critic Joan R. Sherman, Bell was “one of the nineteenth century’s most articulate witnesses to racial oppression and the black man’s struggle for equality.… Artistic merit aside, James Madison Bell was undoubtedly the verse propagandist for Afro-Americans in his century.”
A Poem: Delivered August 1st, 1862 … at the Grand Festival to Commemorate the Emancipation of the Slaves in the British West Indian Isles, B. F. Sterett, 1862.
A Poem Entitled “The Day and the War,” Delivered January 1, 1864, at Platt’s Hall at the Celebration of the First Anniversary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Agnew & Deffebach, 1864.
An Anniversary Poem Entitled “The Progress of Liberty,” Delivered January 1st, 1866 … at the Celebration of the Third Anniversary of President Lincoln’s Proclamation, Agnew & Deffebach. 1866.
A Poem, Entitled “The Triumph of Liberty,” Delivered April 7, 1870, at Detroit Opera House on the Occasion of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, Tunis Steam Printing, 1870.
The Poetical Works of James Madison Bell, Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1901; AMS Press, 1973.
“Song for the First of August,” in An Anthology of Verse by American Negroes, Moore Publishing Co., 1968.
“Modern Moses, or ‘My Policy’ Man,” in African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology, University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Arnett, Bishop B. W., “Biographical Sketch of J. Madison Bell: The Distinguished Poet and Reader,” in The Poetical Works of James Madison Bell, 2nd edition, Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1904, pp. 3-14.
Brawley, Benjamin, Early Negro American Writers: Selections with Biographical and Critical Introductions, University of North Carolina Press, 1935, pp. 279-289.
Byerman, Keith E., in Trudier Harris (ed.), Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 50: Afro-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance, Gale, 1986, pp. 3-6.
DiMauro, Laurie, ed., Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 43, Gale, 1992, pp. 87-93.
Locke, Mamie E., in John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (eds.), American National Biography, Vol. 2, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 507-508.
Milde, Robert L., in Emmanuel S. Nelson (ed.), African American Authors, 1745-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, Greenwood, 2000, pp. 13-17.
Redding, J. Saunders, To Make a Poet Black, 1939; Cornell University Press, 1988, pp. 19-48.
Redmond, Eugene B., Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, a Critical History, Anchor Books, 1976, pp. 85-138.
Sherman, Joan R., Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century, University of Illinois Press, 1974, pp. 80-87.
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