Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"To a President" (1860)
Author:
Hirschhorn, Bernard
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The president addressed and disparaged by Walt Whitman in this poem is James Buchanan, in the eighteenth term of the U.S. presidency (from 1857 to 1861). The poet called Buchanan and his two predecessors "deform'd, mediocre, snivelling, unreliable, false-hearted men" (Complete 996) and considered Buchanan to be "perhaps the weakest of the President tribe—the very unablest" (Traubel 30). Solely on the issue of corruption in government, the Buchanan administration was the worst ever, in his view. Whitman was disenchanted with the people's choice when they let such "scum floating atop of the waters" into the presidency ("To the States, To Identify the 16th, 17th, or 18th Presidentiad"), but he also was contemptuous of the 1856 Democratic convention for its machinations. A minority president who won 45 percent of the popular vote nationally, Buchanan scored a narrow victory (with 59 percent of the electoral vote. He was indebted to the South, carrying every slave state except Maryland (112 electoral votes of the 174 he had won).

Northern Democrats chose Buchanan thinking that he (a Northerner) would rein in Southern power and hold the Union together. During the campaign Buchanan endorsed the "popular sovereignty" plank of the Democratic platform, assuming that it would pacify the South. Yet, as Whitman noted, Buchanan was unaware of growing antislavery expansion sentiment.

Indeed, the irresolute and pliable Buchanan remained a "dough-face." Whitman charged that his proslavery compromises went beyond those of Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce; they antagonized the Northern wing of the party, causing it to split. Buchanan had influenced a Northern United States Supreme Court justice to join the Southern majority on the court in the Dred Scott case (decided 6 March 1857), holding that the Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the territories. In his inaugural address, Buchanan had assured all Kansas settlers the right to express freely and independently their views on the slavery question. Yet when a small minority of proslavery settlers drafted a constitution at Lecompton in September 1857, voters had to vote either for a constitution "with slavery" or "without the further introduction of slavery." (With the Free-Soilers refusing to participate in the referendum, the constitution was overwhelmingly adopted.) Buchanan accepted the Lecompton Constitution and recommended that the Congress admit Kansas as the sixteenth slave state.

Whitman rebuked Buchanan for failing to embrace the North and the South; instead, he said, the president "labored with might and main in the interests of slavery" (I Sit 94). In "To a President" Whitman, who associated democracy with nature, reprimands Buchanan for not having learned of the "politics of Nature." In his pre-Darwinian outlook, Whitman ascribes to nature such traits as fullness, righteousness, fairness, equality, and dignity. He accuses the president of not understanding that these qualities are necessary for the nation and that anything less than these attributes will be sloughed off.

Bibliography

Nicols, Roy Franklin. The Disruption of American Democracy. New York: Macmillan, 1948.

Pressly, Thomas J. Americans Interpret Their Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1962.

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

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 3. 1914. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

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


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