Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Brooklyn Freeman
Author:
Panish, Jon
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In 1848, a few months after Whitman returned to Brooklyn, New York, from his brief sojourn working for the New Orleans Crescent in Louisiana, he became the editor of a political newspaper called the Brooklyn Freeman. Although Whitman's association with the paper, a free-soil vehicle, lasted only a year, his editorship of the Freeman is notable because it includes some of his most passionate antislavery journalism and marks a transitional period in his life during which his cynicism about American politics began to direct his attention to other areas.

Whitman returned to Brooklyn in June of 1848 in the midst of a particularly turbulent political season. The recent selection of Senator Lewis Cass, a foe of the Wilmot Proviso, as the candidate of the Democratic party had angered those who, like Whitman, staunchly opposed the spread of slavery into the newly acquired territories. As a result, radical Democrats were forming a third party—the Free Soil party—as an alternative. Elected to represent Kings County, Whitman attended the Free Soil convention in Buffalo in early August.

After the convention, Whitman continued his political activities as a member of the Free Soil General Committee for Brooklyn and as the editor of the Brooklyn Freeman, the new Free Soil newspaper. Published initially with the financial backing of Whitman's friend, Judge Samuel V. Johnson, the Freeman commenced publication as a weekly newspaper on 9 September 1848. The first issue of the paper is the only one that has survived. Asking for the reader's tolerance of its superficial unattractiveness, this issue contains some of Whitman's most fiery and pointed rhetoric regarding slavery. Unlike the more moderate stand on the extension of slavery that he espoused when he was the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Whitman used the Freeman to exclaim: "[W]e shall oppose, under all circumstances, the addition to the Union, in the future, of a single inch of slave land, whether in the form of state or territory" (qtd. in Rubin 211).

However, Whitman and the Brooklyn Free-Soilers were dealt a blow the day after the first issue was published when a massive fire swept through the area of town housing the newspaper's office. After losing all of its equipment and supplies in the fire, the Freeman was not published again until almost two months later. On 1 November Whitman rushed the newspaper back into print to get in a final word on the upcoming election. Acknowledging the superior power of the more conservative faction of the Democratic party, Whitman positioned the Free-Soilers as the conscience of the party and the nation.

Despite the Free-Soilers' defeat in the 1848 presidential election and again in the spring elections of 1849, Whitman continued to publish the Freeman, even converting it to daily publication in May (again with the financial help of Judge Johnson). In June, looking ahead to the next presidential election, Whitman sought to boost the candidacy of a politician whose principles and integrity he admired: Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Whitman put Benton's name on the masthead of the newspaper and in his editorials lauded Benton's achievements and potential.

Whitman's optimism was short-lived, however. By early September, it had become clear that most members of the radical wing of the Democratic party were not as determined as he to hold fast to their principles. Unwilling to compromise his integrity, Whitman published his resignation from the editorship on 11 September 1849. Predictably, Whitman's departure from the Freeman was interpreted by his friends as confirmation of his strong character and by his enemies as further evidence of his weakness.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Brasher, Thomas L. Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1970.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

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


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