Poem #3: On Liberty and Slavery by George Moses Horton

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

Title: On Liberty and Slavery

Author: George Moses Horton

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


Alas! and am I born for this, 
To wear this slavish chain?
Deprived of all created bliss, 
Through hardship, toil and pain! 

How long have I in bondage lain, 

And languished to be free! 
Alas! and must I still complain 
Deprived of liberty. 

Oh, Heaven! and is there no relief 

This side the silent grave— 
To soothe the pain—to quell the grief 
And anguish of a slave?  

Come Liberty, thou cheerful sound, 

Roll through my ravished ears! 
Come, let my grief in joys be drowned, 
And drive away my fears. 

Say unto foul oppression, Cease: 

Ye tyrants rage no more, 
And let the joyful trump of peace, 
Now bid the vassal soar. 

Soar on the pinions of that dove 

Which long has cooed for thee, 
And breathed her notes from Africa's grove, 
The sound of Liberty. 

Oh, Liberty! thou golden prize, 

So often sought by blood— 
We crave thy sacred sun to rise, 
The gift of nature’s God! 

Bid Slavery hide her haggard face, 

And barbarism fly: 
I scorn to see the sad disgrace 
In which enslaved I lie. 

Dear Liberty! upon thy breast, 

I languish to respire; 
And like the Swan unto her nest, 
I’d to thy smiles retire. 

Oh, blest asylum—heavenly balm! 

Unto thy boughs I flee— 
And in thy shades the storm shall calm, 
With songs of Liberty! 


This is the first time I've encountered Horton but appreciated how clear he critiques slavery, especially learning that this was published in 1829 in a Massachusetts newspaper (despite Moses residing in North Carolina).  I'm struck by this poem's invocation of liberty. Published shortly after the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution, there are such strong linguistic ties to the condemnations of the American Revolution.  The invocations of terms such as free, liberty, tyrant, oppression, and vassals all invoke the relational tension between the British colonies and England in the American Revolution.  Beyond that, Horton guides readers through a meditation of what it means to be born into slavery from the first and second stanza, emphasizing the dehumanization of it and the natural desire for freedom.  

He pivots to how Liberty is a "cheerful sound"--as if people are talking or speaking of Liberty and that the sound of it gives him reason and purpose. This makes me wonder if this is a reference to the abolition movement or to the banning of teaching literacy to enslaved people in the US.  

The seventh stanza is striking in what Horton seems to be reminding readers is that the need for freedom is such that blood will be shed in order for it to happen.  He follows that, insightfully, by regarding just how ugly slavery is. That is, saying, yes, one might need to shed blood for freedom (as the colonists did in the American Revolution), but slavery is an uglier thing to behold.  

As poems go, I find this generally accessible and compelling. It's clear in its topic and in its effect.  However, it also leaves some things open for further consideration if you know how to connect the dots.

Those are my thoughts.  How do you interpret the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections, therefore, do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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