Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Presidents, United States
Author:
Hatch, Frederick
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Throughout his life Whitman was a close observer of public affairs, and his ideas and opinions about them often appear in his writings. As with most Americans, Whitman looked to the president more than any other leader, both to deal with the great questions of the day and to embody the ideals and aspirations of Americans past, present, and future. In his political tract "The Eighteenth Presidency!" (written in 1856), Whitman had much to say about the sort of man he most wanted to see at the head of the government: "heroic, shrewd, fully-informed, healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced American blacksmith or boatman come down from the West . . . dressed in a clean suit of working attire, and with the tan all over his face, breast, and arms" (21). This description suggests Abraham Lincoln, but it was written before Lincoln became a national figure, probably before Whitman had ever heard of him.

The early presidents, especially Washington, Jefferson and Jackson, were the principal yardsticks against whom he measured later leaders. In his poem "The Sleepers" he called forth the image of Washington weeping as he watched his soldiers defeated in the battle of Brooklyn, and it is unmistakable Whitman is looking ahead to the Civil War, calling Washington's men "Southern braves" (section 5). At the end of his life Whitman's admiration for Washington remained as strong as ever, as in "Washington's Monument, February, 1885": "Courage, alertness, patience, faith, the same—e'en in defeat defeated not, the same."

Whitman's parents, in common with many Americans of their time, named three of their sons after George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson, showing their uncritical acceptance of these past heroes. Walt Whitman was further influenced by the writing of William Leggett of the New York Evening Post, who showed the Jeffersonian basis for the policies of Jackson. Whitman owned a nine-volume edition of the Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1854) and listed "the official lives of Washington, Jefferson, Madison" as examples for his countrymen to follow (Workshop 105). He referred to the Democratic party as "the party of the sainted Jefferson and Jackson" (Gathering 1:219). Whitman had been in the crowd which greeted President Jackson's visit to Brooklyn (1833) and later referred to Jackson as "true gold . . . unmined, unforged . . . the genuine ore in the rough" (qtd. in Winwar 58). Justin Kaplan points out in his Walt Whitman: A Life that Whitman was of the generation which saw the departure of the last of the legendary heroes of the founding of the republic. In his early years Whitman could and did talk with those who had seen and corresponded with these heroes.

Whitman enthusiastically supported Jackson's hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, in his first campaign (1836) and took an active part in Van Buren's unsuccessful reelection effort (1840), attending rallies and debating Whig partisans. Four years later the Democrats made a comeback, and Whitman, still loyal to his party, enthusiastically supported the new President, James K. Polk. He attended Polk's speech in Brooklyn (1847) and compared him to two of his greatest heroes, Jefferson and Jackson. When Polk led the nation into war with Mexico, Whitman supported the war, favoring the expansion of the nation to include Texas, Oregon, California, even Cuba and Canada. He disagreed with Polk over the slavery question, however, calling for Democrats to support the Wilmot Proviso, which would have outlawed slavery in the new territories. Whitman's feelings against slavery eventually became strong enough to drive him out of the Democratic party. Although he had cheered Zachary Taylor's victories in the war, Whitman didn't think that was enough to recommend the general to be president. Seeing Taylor in a New Orleans theater, Whitman described him as a "jovial, old, rather stout, plain man, with a wrinkled and dark-yellow face," and lacking "conventional ceremony or etiquette" (Prose Works 2:606). Rather than support either the Whig Taylor or the Democrat Lewis Cass, Whitman turned to the new Free Soil party, becoming a delegate to their convention (1848) and supporting their nomination of former President Van Buren.

The 1850s was a discouraging period for Whitman politically. The campaign of 1852 offered little for him, for neither the politically inept General Winfield Scott nor the largely unknown Franklin Pierce was willing to meet the slavery issue head on. By the next election Whitman was ready to express his bitter contempt for the three presidents whose terms spanned the decade. Referring to Millard Fillmore, who succeeded upon Taylor's death (1850), and Franklin Pierce, and later amending his text to include James Buchanan, the victor of 1856, Whitman said, "Never were publicly displayed more deformed, mediocre, snivelling, unreliable, false-hearted men!" Writing of Pierce's pro-southern policies, Whitman said, "The President eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it, and tries to force it on The States" (Eighteenth Presidency 24). He used similar language to describe Pierce, "the weakest—the very worst of the lot," and Buchanan, "perhaps the weakest of the President tribe—the very unablest" (With Walt Whitman 3:30). A paragraph of "The Eighteenth Presidency!" suggests he had some hope for John Frémont, the candidate of the new Republican party, but at the same time he did not consider Frémont to be the ideal leader he longed for, the "Redeemer President" (39).

Whitman's feelings about Abraham Lincoln are well known and are dealt with at greater length elsewhere in this volume, but it may be useful to point out that for all his passionate statements of principle, Whitman's support, even adoration, of Lincoln may have had little to do with the president's policies. Lincoln was not the passionate abolitionist that the antislavery people wanted. He moved slowly and cautiously toward a policy of limited emancipation. When Lincoln said that the purpose of the Civil War was to preserve the Union and not to abolish slavery, Whitman agreed. Had Pierce or Buchanan said such a thing only a few years before, Whitman would undoubtedly have heaped scorn on them. His observations on Taylor (1848), indicating that his main objection was that the general was too plain looking, gives a clue that with Whitman, what counted the most was something intangible and hard to define. Taylor was a plain man of the people—so far so good—but that was all he was. Lincoln was that and more, and it was the more that Whitman saw, before most others, that made all the difference. This may also help to explain why it was that, although Whitman saw Lincoln many times, he passed up every chance to meet his hero. Was it that he was shy, in spite of the brashness of his poems? Or perhaps he dared not look beyond the archetype lest he discover merely human flaws and weaknesses. Like most others, Whitman had occasional doubts about Lincoln and his policies, but by late 1863 he conceded, "I still think him a pretty big President" (Correspondence 1:174) and defended Lincoln before his doubting brother Jeff. Lincoln's assassination moved Whitman to compose his masterpiece, "When Lilacs Last in The Dooryard Bloom'd," in which he suggested the idea that Lincoln's death, like his life, stood as a symbol whose significance went far beyond the man himself. Although he labeled four of his poems "Memories of President Lincoln," nowhere in any of these poems does Lincoln's name appear, further suggesting that the poet used the president as a symbol, an embodiment of ideas and feelings not to be limited to one man.

Attending the Grand Review of the victorious armies in 1865, Whitman "saw the President [Andrew Johnson] several times," thought him "very plain and substantial," and marveled that such an "ordinary man . . . should be the master of all these myriads of soldiers." On the same occasion he saw General Ulysses S. Grant, who would be Johnson's successor in the White House, and thought him "the noblest Roman of them all" (Correspondence 1:261). His initial impression of Johnson, "I think he is a good man" (Correspondence 1:267), remained, and he did not favor the impeachment and trial (1868). His defense of the unpopular Johnson mystified his friends, but again, it probably arose from his idea of celebrating what the man stood for, at least in Whitman's mind, rather than from what he was. This same attitude of uncritical acceptance applied to Grant, who was the center of storm and scandal as president. Whitman was certainly aware of the scandals and disappointments of the Grant years, as his poem "Respondez!" shows, but the president himself retained Whitman's respect for his wartime service and again because he was "good, worthy, non-demonstrative, average-representing" (Correspondence 2:15). "What a man [Grant] is! . . . A mere plain man—no art—no poetry—only practical sense, ability to do, or try his best to do, what devolv'd upon him" (Prose Works 1:226–227). This same tendency to see good when he wanted to see it led him to speak well of Grant's successor, Rutherford B. Hayes. Judging the man only from his speeches, Whitman pronounced Hayes "genial, good-natured, sensible, helping things along" (With Walt Whitman 2:556).

James A. Garfield, narrowly elected president in 1880, was an admirer of Whitman, the two having met in Washington during the war, when Garfield was a congressman. Garfield's shooting (1881) "has depressed me much," Whitman wrote (Correspondence 3:232), and the president's death two months later moved Whitman to memorialize him in "The Sobbing of the Bells." Whitman met Grover Cleveland when the latter was governor of New York and another admirer of the poet. Whitman liked Cleveland, in spite of his being a Democrat, much more than he liked Benjamin Harrison, who first defeated (1888) and then was defeated by him (1892). "I lean rather to the Cleveland side," he wrote (Correspondence 4:221), calling Harrison "insignificant," "an unprecedentedly humdrum President" (Correspondence 4:328, 5:21), and "the smallest egg ever laid in Uncle Sam's basket" (qtd. in Thayer 303). In spite of Harrison's election (1888), however, he expressed his ultimate faith in America; this election was but "one tack . . . the ship will go on her voyage many a sea and many a year yet" (Correspondence 4:232).

Bibliography

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

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

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

Thayer, William Roscoe. "Personal Recollections of Walt Whitman." Whitman in His Own Time. Ed. Joel Myerson. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1991. 283–308.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908; Vol. 3. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

____. The Eighteenth Presidency! Ed. Edward F. Grier. 2nd ed. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1956.

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

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

____. Walt Whitman's Workshop: A Collection of Unpublished Manuscripts. Ed. Clifton J. Furness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1928.

Winwar, Frances. American Giant: Walt Whitman and His Times. New York: Harper, 1941.


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