Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Mexican War, The
Author:
Shively, Charley
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

War with Mexico intensified the division between defenders and opponents of slavery. Revolting against Spain, Mexico abolished slavery in 1813, but in 1821 they allowed immigrants to bring slaves into Texas. When Mexico reasserted abolition in 1829, North American slave owners in the United States and in Texas interpreted this as an act of war. In 1836, Texas declared independence; war between Texas and Mexico then began.

Santa Anna proclaimed combatant Texans to be outlaws subject to death on capture. Aware of this policy, every defender at the Alamo died fighting. A few days later, 27 March 1836, at Goliad, the Mexicans, after taking prisoners, shot 342 (Whitman counted 412). Section 34 of "Song of Myself" memorializes the "Goliad Massacre." The narrator passes over the better known site: "I tell not the fall of Alamo / Not one escaped to tell the fall of Alamo." The grim story of Goliad follows: "A youth not seventeen years old seiz'd his assassin till two more came to release him, / The three were all torn and cover'd with the boy's blood."

Whitman enthusiastically supported the wars against Mexico—fought by Texas, 1836–1845, and by the United States, 1845–1848. He believed in North America's manifest destiny to incorporate Texas, Arizona, Santa Fe, Nevada, California, Oregon, Cuba and perhaps the Yucatan; however, he opposed annexing all Mexico, Central America, Venezuela, and Ecuador. These "weak and imbecile powers" needed first "to respect us, and when they are so far civilized and educated . . . it will be time enough to think of annexation" (I Sit 162).

With his Quaker background, however, Whitman became uncomfortable with the Mexican War. Initially thrilled, he asked, "What has miserable, inefficient Mexico—with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many—what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the New World with a noble race?" (Gathering 1:247). Soon, however, Whitman supported the Wilmot Proviso that would exclude slavery from conquered territories and called for an end to the war. Those like Whitman who could not support the extension of slavery founded the Free Soil Party: "Free soil, free speech, free labor and free men." "Free men" included only the "white workingmen . . . mechanics, farmers and operatives"; slaves would not be emancipated; nor could dark-skinned Mexicans be incorporated into the union (Gathering 1:208).

Fired from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle because he supported free soil, Whitman worked in New Orleans from January to May 1848. The city was the gateway to Mexico; Whitman recalled "the crowds of soldiers, the gay young officers, going or coming, the receipt of important news, the many discussions, the returning wounded, and so on" (Prose Works 2:605). In the Crescent, he described General Zachary Taylor at the theater. From the returning soldiers, Whitman may have gathered the Spanish word camarada, which he masculinized and anglicized as camerado. The term comes from the Spanish cama; camarada means "someone who studies, eats or lives with another," but literally translates as "bedmate." La camarada formed the smallest Spanish military unit.

In later poems, journals, letters, and reminiscences, Whitman seldom mentioned the Mexican War and rejected his anti-Mexican rhetoric. In 1864, he confessed that Mexico was "the only one to whom we have ever really done wrong" (Prose Works 1:93). In 1883, celebrating the 333rd anniversary of Santa Fe, he wrote: "To that composite American identity of the future, Spanish character will supply some of the most needed parts." American identity must include Spanish as well as "our aboriginal or Indian population—the Aztec in the South, and many a tribe in the North and West" (Prose Works 2:553).

Bibliography

Davenport, Harbert. "Goliad Massacre." The Handbook of Texas. Ed. Walter Prescott Webb. Vol. 1. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1952–1976. 704–705.

González de la Garza, Mauricio. Walt Whitman: Racista, Imperialista, Antimexicano. Mexico City: Málaga, 1971.

Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of the Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1920.

____. I Sit and Look Out: Editorials from the Brooklyn Daily Times. Ed. Emory Holloway and Vernolian Schwarz. New York: Columbia UP, 1932.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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