Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Boston Ballad (1854), A" (1855)
Author:
Klammer, Martin
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem, written in 1854 but first published in the 1855 Leaves of Grass, satirizes the indifference of Boston's citizens during the return by federal marshals of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns. The poem demonstrates that Walt Whitman opposed the Fugitive Slave Law because of his objection to federal interference in areas of state and local sovereignty, not because of sympathy for the fugitive slave.

In perhaps the most celebrated fugitive slave case in the antebellum period, Anthony Burns, an escaped slave from Virginia, was arrested in Boston on 24 May 1854 and placed in the federal courthouse. The Fugitive Slave Law, enacted as part of the 1850 Compromise, empowered federal marshals to compel citizens and communities to cooperate in the return of fugitive slaves. The law had been enforced generally without incident since its enactment, but passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, just two days prior to the arrest, had outraged many Northerners. (The Act essentially repealed the terms of the 1820 Missouri Compromise and allowed Kansas to be organized as a slave state.) While Burns was in custody, a biracial group attempted to rescue him in an attack on the courthouse. The attempt failed, one of the guards was killed, and federal troops were called in to secure order. A week-long trial found that Burns should be returned to his master in Virginia.

The delivery of Burns from the courthouse to the wharf was a spectacle unparalleled in the brief history of the Fugitive Slave Law. According to the New York Times, more than 10,000 troops, including the entire Boston police force and various companies of United States Marines, escorted Burns under arms. More than 20,000 persons lined the streets, jeering the police and cheering Burns. Nationally, crowds numbering into the thousands stood vigil to protect escaped slaves from arrest by federal marshals in Milwaukee, Chicago, and elsewhere. The Burns case, coupled with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, wholly altered Northern antislavery sentiment.

Whitman was so outraged by the Burns affair that he wrote "A Boston Ballad (1854)," his first poem in four years. The speaker of the poem is apparently one of the many Bostonians who have come to see "the show," with little interest in its causes. His excitement about the federal troops is suddenly interrupted when he sees at the back of the march "bandaged and bloodless" phantoms, Revolutionary War heroes who have returned from the dead to protest the violation of republican ideals for which they had died. When these phantoms level their crutches as they would muskets to show the course of action required, the speaker understands this merely as a senile gesture, and urges instead a proper respect for the federal show of power. Horrified at the indifference of the citizens, the revolutionaries retreat. The speaker then realizes the "one thing that belongs here," and he convinces the mayor to send a committee to England to exhume the corpse of King George III and bring it to be crowned in Boston.

Whitman's ironic depiction of complacent Bostonians contradicts what he probably knew about the public ferment in Boston, given exhaustive press coverage in the New York newspapers. But even more striking in the poem is the absence of Anthony Burns. By eliding the fugitive slave from the narrative, Whitman suggests that the Fugitive Slave Law should be resisted not to protect the freedom and rights of blacks, but to protect the freedom of Northern white communities from an invasive federal power whose tyranny is as heinous as the return of British monarchs.

Bibliography

Campbell, Stanley W. The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850–1860. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1970.

Malin, Stephen. "'A Boston Ballad' and the Boston Riot." Walt Whitman Review 9 (1963): 51–57.

Rubin, Joseph Jay. The Historic Whitman. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1973.


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