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Title: Old England

Creator: Walt Whitman

Date: April 21, 1842

Publication information: New York Aurora 21 April 1842: [2].

Source: Original issue held at the Paterson Free Public Library, Paterson, NJ. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue.

Whitman Archive ID: per.00379

Contributors to digital file: Andrew Pashea, Jason Stacy, and Kevin McMullen




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Old England.

"A force," says a late number of one of the leading British periodicals, (Fraser's Magazine,) referring to war with the United States—"A force of ten thousand men could be raised in Jamaica for the enfranchisement of their brethren in America. Such a force, supported by two battalions of Englishmen, and 20,000 muskets, would establish themselves in Carolina, never to be removed. In three weeks from their appearance, the entire south would be in one conflagration. The chains of a million of men would be broken, and by what power could they again be riveted? We say that this course is dictated alike by self preservation and by philanthropy."1

In the mighty tri kingdom of Britain2, there are some twenty-seven or twenty-eight millions of people. Twenty millions of them go to sleep every night, and, for God's love, cannot tell that they in all reason will have a comfortable subsistence for the forthcoming week. Six millions are accredited paupers; eight millions drag out of their lives in manufactories, where fifteen hours a day of hard toil is remunerated by from four-pence to a shilling sterling; and, taking the aggregate of all the families in England, Scotland, and Ireland, not one in three hundred enjoys what we in America call a comfortable living. Thousands annually sicken and die from need of sustenance and wholesome shelter. Food that our southern slaves would toss from them with scorn, would be received by many persons there, and tears of gratitude bedew the fingers of the giver. The utmost vigilance of a numerous and admirably disciplined standing army can hardly ward off open revolt—which indeed, in localities, does frequently occur.3

And one having authority in a land such as we have described, talks of lighting the brand of servile war here! We can hardly credit our senses.

Suppose, in case of a war, we should play our game after the same fashion. Suppose our emissaries were to do what could be done in Ireland; and suppose the down trodden mass in the body of England herself beheld a chance for a change—a certainty that their condition could not be altered for the worse. O, it would be a fearful day for Britain, when these millions of men, through long years crushed beneath the iron heel of oppression—when they should rise, maddened, and thirsty for the blood of their tyrants!4 Half a century ago, France was taught the terrible lesson; who may say that half a century hence, the fast anchored isle will not have to look back on a counterpart in her own boundaries?5

We do not imagine that any course like that proposed by Frazer's magazine would be entered into, even if matters come to the worst. We have written what we have written merely to show the absurdity of such advice, coming from such a quarter. Like the meditations of Macbeth, they

"but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor. This even handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips."


Notes:

1. Whitman is responding to an article in the British periodical Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country published in April of the previous year. Published in London from 1830 to 1882, Fraser's Magazine began with a strong leaning toward Tory politics. Notable contributors included Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill. The article makes a case for English action against American slavery wherein troops of African descent in Jamaica could be used remotely from Britain to cause a slave rebellion in America. It further decries America and its proslavery advocates. England's Slavery Abolition Act had been passed in 1833, legally ending slavery in the British Empire and leaving its political majority on the side of abolition in other parts of the world. See: "War with America a Blessing to Mankind," Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country 23, no. 136 (1841): 494-502. [back]

2. The tri kingdom refers to to England, Ireland, and Scotland. [back]

3. Whitman may be referencing the violence and guerilla action that took place in rural areas of Ireland in response to high rack-rents, evictions, and tithe collections. He might instead (or also) be referencing riots and protests over the Chartist movement in England, which had arisen from the working-class in response to economic depression and voting coercion from employers and landowners. For more information, see: M. R. Beames, "Rural Conflict in Pre-Famine Ireland: Peasant Assassinations in Tipperary, 1837-1847," Nationalism and Popular Protest in Ireland, ed. Charles H.E. Philpin (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987), 264-83; "Chartism, 1837-48," Revolutionary Brittannia?: Reflections on the Threat of Revolution in Britain, 1789-1848, ed. Edward Royle (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000), 92-138. [back]

4. This is an aggressive response to the Fraser Magazine article's claim that Ireland's poverty and working conditions are incomparable to the woes of slavery. A popular argument at the time, especially made by supporters of Irish pro-independence political leader and Member of Parliament Daniel O'Connell (1775–1847), was that American slavery was equivalent to Irish poverty. For further reading, see: Christine Kinealy, Daniel O'Connell and the Anti-Slavery Movement: 'The Saddest People the Sun Sees' (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011), 1-11. [back]

5. The bloodshed and political upheaval of the French Revolution should serve as a warning, Whitman suggests, of what could happen in Britain. [back]


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