Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Republican Party
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.

The Republican party originally drew its support from free laborers, farmers, and working people in general, the same sort of people whom Whitman had celebrated in his writings. The modern Republican party was formed through a coalition of interests, foremost among them being opposition to slavery. Even those who were willing to tolerate slavery's existence often opposed its spread into new territories. Whitman, the former Democrat, shared this point of view with Abraham Lincoln, the former Whig. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) allowed the spread of slavery into new territories, opponents of the administration joined forces with abolitionists and other interests in protest meetings. Out of these meetings was born the new party.

The success of the Republican party was surprising. By 1860 the Republicans had majorities in both houses of Congress and had elected a president. The Republicans won six successive presidential elections (1860–1880), the longest unbroken winning streak in the history of American presidential elections. The Civil War had a lot to do with the Republican success at the polls. Republican strategy was to link their opponents with the Southern cause, accusing them of disloyalty. Even though none of the Democrats nominated for president after 1860 was a Southerner until well into the twentieth century, the Republicans used the issue of "waving the bloody shirt" to remind voters of which party was associated with secession. Rebellion was not the only issue, however. From the beginning, Republicans championed ideas associated with America's growing industrialization and expansion, promoting the building of roads, railroads, and canal and river navigation, and encouraging westward settlement. Republican strength in the Western states, which persists down to the present, is partly due to the popularity of these expansionist ideas. Likewise, Republican anti-Southern strategy prevented the Republicans from building any major strength in the South until recently. Republican support of sound money and business expansion would eventually carry the party away from its origins as a defender of the workingman, but that tendency was much less obvious during Whitman's lifetime.

Disagreements over the slavery issue and over how to go about reconstruction of the defeated South brought about the rise of the Radical Republicans. This faction sought to make a harsh peace, with the South occupied and deprived of statehood. The Radicals considered President Andrew Johnson a traitor and eventually sought his removal from office through impeachment. Whitman did not favor the Radicals' ideas and generally supported President Johnson, though by this time (1868) he was employed in the Attorney General's office and feared changes at the top, which might well have cost him his livelihood.

Whitman's interest in national affairs lasted throughout his life, but in later years he was content to be a spectator. By 1888 he wrote of "our election trial" (Correspondence 4:221) and admitted he felt no great enthusiasm for the election. By the term of President Benjamin Harrison (1889–1893) he was clearly disappointed with the direction the leadership of the Republican party had taken. In a letter to Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke (1890) he wrote of Harrison's "damnable diseased" trade policies and cried out for "the once glorious live Lincoln party" (Correspondence 5:84).

Bibliography

Greene, Jack P., ed. Encyclopedia of American Political History. New York: Scribner's, 1984.

Holt, Michael F. Political Parties and American Political Development from the Age of Jackson to the Age of Lincoln. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992.

Mayer, George H. The Republican Party 1854–1966. New York: Oxford UP, 1967.

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

Smith, Page. The Nation Comes of Age. New York: Penguin, 1990.

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


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